Powerful Astros tack on in G3 with small ball
NEW YORK -- This season marked the year of the home run across the Major Leagues, with 15 teams matching or setting their franchise records for roundtrippers. The Astros can certainly hit the ball over the fence with the best of them, but in the playoffs, the little things matter, too.
The Astros initially grabbed the lead on the strength of two early solo blasts in their 4-1 win over the Yankees in Game 3 of the American League Championship Series, but Houston perfectly executed a series of small-ball plays -- a hit-and-run, a rundown and a sacrifice fly -- that netted it two important insurance runs in the seventh inning on Tuesday at Yankee Stadium.
"That's the playoffs," said Martín Maldonado. "You've got to be prepared for everything. You've got to execute, you've got to make pitches and you've got to do whatever you've got to do to score runs. One run in the playoffs is huge."
One run is huge. The Astros got two -- and here’s how they got that done in a relatively unfamiliar manner.
George Springer led off the seventh against Yanks right-hander Adam Ottavino and fell behind in the count, 1-2, but he drew a six-pitch walk to set the inning in motion.
Manager AJ Hinch and Houston aggressively called for Springer to take off on the next pitch, and José Altuve followed with a ground ball with an expected batting average of .420, according to Statcast. With the runner moving, the contact resulted in a perfect hit-and-run through the vacated right side of the infield, with Springer ending up at third base.
As it turned out, that hadn’t even been the intent of the play.
"It wasn't like a hit-and-run, it was just a steal," Altuve said. "And then just because I put the ball in play, we could create a good situation and good momentum for us."
"I think 'tuve just wanted the hit more than anything or than George getting the stolen base,” Josh Reddick said. “Still a great swing. Great at-bats."
The decision to swing came as no surprise to Altuve’s teammates -- he does lead Astros regulars with a 40.7 percent swing rate on first pitches, after all -- but that doesn’t stop them from marveling at his ability.
"Altuve is just so good at that," Gerrit Cole said. "He can decide halfway to the plate where he's going to place the ball. I've never seen that kind of talent before in my life, and I don't know if I'll ever see it again."
As seamless as Altuve’s execution was on the “hit-and-run,” several Astros agreed that the key play in the inning came one batter later.
With ground-ball specialist Zack Britton in the game, Michael Brantley hit a sharp grounder to first baseman DJ LeMahieu that could have been a double play. But with the infield playing only halfway in, Springer instead danced off third base and hung between third and home, forcing LeMahieu to run at him and engage in a rundown.
"I think the biggest moment in that inning was George staying in that rundown so we get two guys to wrap around and really make a difference," Reddick said. "All around, that felt like the first time the Astros have really come out to their whole as a lineup."
Springer stopped halfway home and furiously waved Altuve and Brantley along the basepaths, only giving himself up when Altuve was safely approaching third base, with Brantley pulling up at second base not far behind him.
"It’s, 'Prevent the double play,'" Springer said. "Stay in it as long as I can. Great baserunning by Mike and Jose to get into scoring position, and once I saw they were there, just let them tag me."
There’s a universe in which the Yankees sacrifice the run and instead turn a double play to leave the bases empty with two outs. Instead, the Astros had two men in scoring position with only one out, forcing the Yanks to intentionally walk Alex Bregman and load the bases.
"Maybe a double-play ground ball, and it ended up being third and second for us just because what [Springer] did," Altuve said. "He ran to the middle between home plate and third base -- he stopped there -- he was just waving everybody. It's just easy for me to keep running. I think the hardest thing is what he did."
The wild pitch
And good things immediately came once the Astros’ alert baserunning forced the Yankees into that compromised position.
With a 1-1 count on Yuli Gurriel, Britton spiked a sinker into the dirt, which popped straight up and behind catcher Gary Sánchez for a wild pitch, bringing home the first run of the inning and moving the runners to second and third.
"I felt like I was in a good position," Britton said. "I got ahead of Gurriel. I was trying to get a sinker below the zone and kind of just spiked it and it got away. That was frustrating because I felt like I was in a really good spot to get out of it with no runs allowed."
"We could have had two of them, but [home-plate umpire] Kerwin Danley put a good stop on one of them,” Reddick joked.
The sacrifice fly
A nice piece of hitting from Gurriel completed the rally, as he got a somewhat surprising 3-2 slider from the sinker-heavy Britton and lifted it into left field for a sacrifice fly. That was a particularly tough task against Britton, who led all relievers with a 77.2 percent ground-ball rate this season.
"With the intentional walk, you have a great feeling that the guy behind him is going to do the job," Reddick said. "We did a great job on a guy ... 3-2, who doesn't throw a lot of sliders anyway. Who's expecting a 3-2 slider from Britton on any given day? It wouldn't have been me. Great swing by Yuli right there, as well."