'Don't know why he sent him, but thank you'
Shortstop pounces on deflection off Altuve, keeps game tied in 6th
HOUSTON -- When a game is knotted 2-2 for six innings and 15 pitchers are needed between the two teams to get through all 11 innings, identifying one defining moment can be a bit challenging.
Pushing aside the gutty pitching performances from each side and one dramatic walk-off home run, it’s fair to say that a key defensive play in the sixth inning loomed large in the Astros’ 3-2 win in 11 innings Sunday night at Minute Maid Park in Game 2 of the American League Championship Series.
Carlos Correa's homer in the 11th won the game, but his heads-up defensive wizardry five innings earlier probably saved it. Had he not made a pinpoint throw to nail DJ LeMahieu at the plate to end the Yankees' sixth, it's possible the game would have ended after nine innings, with New York prevailing by one run and heading back to Yankee Stadium with a 2-0 advantage in the best-of-seven series.
"[Correa] talked to me before the game," José Altuve said. "And he was like, ‘Josey, I think I’m going to do something big tonight.’ He really did. When he made the play, I was like, ‘OK, that was the one he was talking about.’ Then he goes and hits a homer. I love it."
Until the sixth, New York hadn't had a lot of success against Houston right-hander Justin Verlander, but the Yanks showed a little life in that inning with two base hits -- a leadoff single by LeMahieu and a one-out hit by Gleyber Torres -- that threatened to break the 2-2 tie. With LeMahieu on second, Brett Gardner sent a soft liner toward Altuve, who crouched down and nearly snared it. Instead, the ball clanked off his glove and dribbled away, toward Correa, who was positioned behind second base.
LeMahieu, sprinting on contact, made a mad dash home after getting waved around by third-base coach Phil Nevin, but Correa fired a perfect strike that beat LeMahieu to the plate by a couple of steps.
"As an infielder, I know how tough it is to catch a ball that's a line drive right at you in between," Correa said. "So as soon as I knew that it was going to crash in between, I was creeping over. When it hit [Altuve] and I saw the ball go my way, I just went after it. And I grabbed it and when I looked up and I saw [third-base coach Phil Nevin] was sending the runner, I thought, 'Oh, I got this guy.' So I threw him out. I don't know why [Nevin] sent him, but thank you."
From the dugout, Yankees manager Aaron Boone thought the ball skipped further off Altuve's glove than it actually did. He supported Nevin's decision to wave LeMahieu around to try to score.
"It was an absolute send from where I was standing. I'm right behind third base there," Boone said. "Great heads-up play by Correa, to be in that position, to catch it clean, and then obviously with his arm to throw a strike home. So I had no issue with the play at all."
Said LeMahieu: “I didn’t see it. I was running. I had my back turned, and I peeked to see where the ball was. I saw Correa had it already. I think it's the right call. He made a great play on it.”
Verlander was one of the biggest beneficiaries of the play, given it ended the inning and allowed for him to go back out for the seventh.
The pitcher’s initial reaction when the ball bounced off Altuve? Precisely, in his words: "Crap."
"And then I saw Carlos coming over," Verlander added. "I know how tremendous his arm is."
Verlander knew what the outcome would be as soon as he saw Correa make the smooth transition between scooping the ball cleanly with his bare hand and planting to make the throw.
"It went from 'Crap' to, 'We got this guy, and we got an extra out,'" Verlander said. "It was just incredible."
According to Statcast, the time on the exchange was 0.8 seconds, and Correa threw the ball 132 feet to home. His throw clocked in at 87 mph, just short of his "max effort" of 88.8 mph he reached on his top 10 percent of his throws in 2019. For reference, 88.8 mph was the second-highest average max effort by a Major League infielder this season.
"When [the ball] hit José’s glove and went to his right, I knew Carlos was right there," catcher Robinson Chirinos said. "Thank God he was aware of what was going on, that the runner was going to home plate. He was calm. He threw a strike to me, and we were able to get the out. Carlos made that play easy, but it was no easy play."