Carlos Correa did not stand at home plate pointing his bat at the Tony Gwynn statue beyond the center field at Petco Park late Thursday afternoon. But he called his shot – at least to his own team – and saved the Houston Astros’ season in Game 5 of the American League Championship Series.
“I want to finish it,” Correa said as he told second baseman Jose Altuve as they headed for the excavation toward the bottom of the ninth inning. A lesson in the game from a coach, Alex Cintron, had convinced Correa that he would hit a home run.
Correa tied Nick Anderson and ended a 4-3 win for the Astros’ hitters just as they had started it. George Springer had slammed John Curtiss’ first pitch for a towering homer down the left field line, and Correa’s last flourishing to center field made Houston the first team ever to hit leadoff and walk-off homers in the same post-season game.
The Astros also tied a post-season record by using five rookie pitchers in a game, a relay through the first six and two-thirds innings, before Josh James and Ryan Pressly took over. The Astros allowed three solo homers, but no hits with runners in scoring position.
“We have to do a little better work with it: take our walks and do races in many different ways, use our speed, athleticism,” said Ray center field Kevin Kevinmaier. “We need to get to the base and put pressure on them at a slightly better pace.” The Rays still lead the series, three games for two.
This was the rare October game in which the team with several homers lost; the difference was a two-run single by Michael Brantley in the second half between the two explosions. The striking conditions were unforgiving with shadows in the afternoon and waves of live weapons. No Rays hitter faced the same pitcher twice, nor any of the first five hitters for Houston.
Correa was especially frustrated. After tearing through Minnesota and Oakland in the first two rounds when he hit .500, Correa was 2 in 14 through the first four games of the ALCS. from Cintron, the striking coach.
“We have to fix you, you’re doing everything wrong,” Correa said, Cintron told him when the Astros came to bat in the middle lap. “You’re wrong on the plate, that’s why you do not see the ball, that’s why you do not run it.”
Correa went straight to work and dived into a tunnel for a quick session in a percussion cage with Cintron grabbing his shoulders and hands to adjust them. Cintron believed that Correa closed his front shoulder and sipped his power.
“If you look at the pitcher and you’re too closed and your hands are too far back, your first move is gone – and you’ll never be around the ball, you’ll be inside the ball,” Correa explained. “Being a little more open allowed my hands to fit and I could clear my hands to be able to run the ball.”
Cintron turned about 10 balls in the cage to Correa, who immediately felt the difference. He stood out in his third bat, but was encouraged that he had driven a good lowerer up the middle.
Correa took a few more flips from Cintron the next inning to maintain the feeling. Cintron told him he looked ready to go deep into his next bat, and Springer said he would.
“As a hitter, there’s something that clicks, there’s something that makes you go,” Correa said. “And I felt like it made me click right there.”
The pressure kept a 3-3 draw at the top of the ninth, standing a runner in second place with fly outs by the dangerous Randy Arozarena (who hit his sixth record season in the fifth inning) and Austin Meadows.
Anderson had retired Astros in order in the eighth, but Correa had a plan. Anderson is one of the majors’ best relievers with a fastball that seems to rise to the eye of the hitter. After Alex Bregman appeared, Correa decided to look for a fast ball and account for its action.
“I visualized the pitch I wanted; I visualized what I wanted to do with that pitch, ”he said. “When you face a guy like Anderson, this is a guy who throws a fastball with 20 plus hop hop. So I knew I had to get on top of it. My approach to the plate was to see it in the middle and if the ball is there, swing over it so you can run it and not miss it or foul it. ”
Anderson started Correa with two breaking balls; the first missed badly, but Correa swung aggressively to the second, far ahead of it to a strike. Then Anderson fired a fastball at 96 miles per hour, up and away, and he knew he had given Correa exactly what he wanted.
“After the course before, that curveball, it was a pretty good pitch,” Anderson said. “He sold out to the heater all the time, I guess.”
The ball sailed into a stairwell beyond the midfield wall, and Correa, who also won Game 2 of last year’s ALCS with a homer from the Yankees’ JA Happ, joined Bernie Williams and David Ortiz as the only hitters with two consecutive seasons in the game homers .
Ortiz’s second came at the ALCS in 2004, when the Boston Red Sox famously overcame a three-game deficit to none to beat the Yankees. They remain the only team to make such a comeback.
Astros has used this series for inspiration; Bregman shared a height film with teammates, including Correa, before Wednesday’s game. The Astros have only completed half of the job and must win again on Friday to force a final on Saturday. The starters from the opening – Blake Snell to Tampa Bay and Framber Valdez to Houston – are back in full rest for Game 6 when the Astros will try to build their touching survival action.
“Boy, it will go down as one of the greatest games in history,” said manager Dusty Baker, “and hopefully it will go down as one of the greatest comebacks in history after two more games.”