HOUSTON — The 10.2 seconds between the crack of Carlos Correa's bat and the slap of Jose Altuve's hand on home plate in the bottom of the ninth inning Saturday evening at Minute Maid Park seemed to go by in slow motion, for all but the three desperate New York Yankees trying to stop Altuve from scoring from first base with what would be the winning run in Game 2 of the American League Championship Series.
For right fielder Aaron Judge, shortstop Didi Gregorius and catcher Gary Sanchez, those seconds went by in a heartbeat — in a blurry, twitchy, terror-filled blink of the eye.
The play that produced the walk-off run in the Houston Astros' unforgettable 2-1 victory seemed to bend time in both directions.
It went by slowly enough to etch into memory each distinct segment — the 99-mph fastball from Yankees closer Aroldis Chapman that Correa smashed into the gap in right-center, Judge’s quick reaction to cut the ball off in front of the wall, the throw toward second base, Gregorius’s obstructed relay home over Correa’s right shoulder, the short-hopped throw that Sanchez failed to gather, Altuve’s curling slide with the winning run.
But it went by so fast, all the mind could absorb at the end was the mass of white-jerseyed Astros gathering in a teeming scrum near home plate to celebrate a win that will be remembered for as long as there is baseball played in Southeast Texas — a win that gave the Astros a 2-0 lead in the best-of-seven series, which shifts to Yankee Stadium for Game 3 on Monday night.
It went by so fast, you could, in that moment, forget about Justin Verlander.
But let's not allow that to happen — because without Verlander, the 34-year-old ace who arrived in Houston six weeks ago looking to bring himself and this city a long-awaited championship, none of it was possible. It was Verlander who climbed the mound nine times Saturday and refused to let anyone else in white have a hand in a game he saw as belonging to him alone. His was a legendary performance: nine innings, 124 pitches, one run, 13 strikeouts.
“Big moments,” Astros Manager A.J. Hinch said, “are meant for big-time performers.”
No other starter this postseason had so much as pitched into the eighth inning. But taking Verlander out was never a serious consideration. You would not have wanted to even try.
“He asked after the seventh inning,” Verlander said of the dugout conversation with Hinch, with the score tied at 1. “And I probably wasn’t the nicest guy to him — just like, ‘Yeah, I’m good.’ And then there was no conversation after the eighth. It was mine to win or lose.”
And there was more to this game than just Verlander’s start and the dramatic finish.
Minute Maid Park isn’t old enough or storied enough to have its own ghosts, the way old parks do, but strange things were occurring all over its expanses Saturday, things that sometimes defied explanation and conspired to keep the score at 1-1 until deep into the proceedings.
In the fifth inning, a ball off the bat of Yankees third baseman Todd Frazier got lodged in a seam of the outfield fence in left-center, possibly costing him an extra base.
When Correa reached out and poked a 99-mph fastball from Yankees starter Luis Severino toward the wall in right in the fourth inning, a small boy, looking like nothing less than the ghost of Jeffrey Maier but now wearing a retro Astros jersey, reached out with his glove above the wall and redirected the ball. But a replay review confirmed the kid did not interfere, and the Yankees this time — 21 years after Maier's moment of infamy at Yankee Stadium — got no fortuitous break. It was a home run for Correa, who had broken his bat while fouling off the previous pitch.
In the third, Yankees leadoff man Brett Gardner tried to stretch a double into a triple, but the ball suddenly materialized — either by dark magic or two perfect throws from the right field corner — at the third base bag to tag him out. It was the second straight game in which the Astros needed to make a perfect play to nail a Yankee on the base paths at a critical moment, and did.
The perfection of that 9-6-5 putout by the Astros would stand in stark contrast to the would-be 9-6-2 play the Yankees botched, with everything on the line, six innings later.
About that play: The Yankees would have had Altuve pegged — perhaps easily — with anything resembling a competent relay, the sort that teams begin practicing in Arizona and Florida in late February just so they can pull it off seamlessly and machine-like in September and October.
When Astros third base coach Gary Pettis greenlighted Altuve, who had lined a 100-mph fastball for a single off Chapman one batter earlier, it looked like a suicide mission that might end with Altuve out by 10 feet.
“Where [Judge] throws the ball is really going to dictate what Gary’s going to do,” Hinch said. When that throw went closer to second base, Pettis decided to send Altuve. “There was a lot going on on that play, and it all happened pretty fast,” Hinch said. “But all’s well that ends well.”
Despite Altuve’s speed, and despite Correa’s presence forcing Gregorius to alter his throwing lane, the play still is likely to have resulted in an easy out at the plate — which would have deflated the crowd, energized the Yankees and possibly sent the game to extra innings, where New York, with its stronger bullpen, would have held a distinct advantage — had Sanchez managed to gather in the short-hopped throw.
“The bottom line is, if I catch that ball, he’s going to be out,” Sanchez said. “I dropped the ball.”
There were, however, extenuating circumstances. Gregorius, the cutoff man the Yankees wanted in the center of the play because of his strong arm, gathered in Judge’s throw near second base and turned to throw home just as Correa was popping up from his slide into the bag. Correa and Gregorius made slight contact, though not so much that anyone on the Yankees could try to claim it was interference.
“I didn’t see any interference,” Yankees Manager Joe Girardi said. “It was a pop-up slide. That’s legal. [But] you’re kind of hoping.”
Hope, in fact, is just about all the Yankees have left — well, that plus the memory of having come back from a 2-0 deficit, with a smaller margin of error, to vanquish the Cleveland Indians just last week in the AL Division Series.
But the Yankees hit just .159 over the two games in Houston, games in which they were shut down by the Astros’ twin aces of lefty Dallas Keuchel and Verlander. The Yankees have yet to deliver a lead to their bullpen, their most potent weapon.
For the entire postseason, they have yet to get a single, measly hit out of the designated hitter spot. Judge, who bashed more homers this season than any rookie in history, is 4 for 31 with 18 strikeouts. Sanchez, the cleanup hitter, is 6 for 34 with 15 K’s.
And for as long as they play the game, the Yankees are likely to have a dark place in their memories reserved for the sequence of events that began with a ball in the gap and ended, 10.2 seconds later — both an eternity and a snap of the fingers — with the most bitter of losses.