WASHINGTON -- The ball sailed out of the hand of Nationals starter Joe Ross at 88.3 mph, spinning toward the outer edge of a strike zone that home-plate umpire Lance Barksdale seemed to extend all Sunday night. The slider, which came on an 0-2 count with two outs and one on in the fourth inning, looked like a perfect pitch, right up until it landed in Yan Gomes’ mitt, about one full ball off the plate.
“That's what you call a perfect pitch right there, a pitcher's pitch,” said Astros shortstop Carlos Correa, the batter at the time. "And I was able to lay off it. I thought it was a little off. ... After that pitch, I could see on his face that he really wanted that pitch."
Gomes thought it was a strike, and it would’ve been an important one in Game 5 of the World Series, which the Astros went on to win, 7-1. But Barksdale disagreed, and instead of escaping the fourth inning down two runs, Ross had to regain his composure. Correa fouled off another slider down, then a fastball up and then spat on a curve well wide and low to push the count to 2-2.
“After that, he made a mistake,” Correa said. “And I took advantage.”
Ross went back to the slider, but he hung it. Correa pounced, pulling it 396 feet to left field for a 4-0 lead that helped put Houston one win away from its second World Series championship in three seasons. In the context of Sunday's win at Nationals Park, Correa's homer was a dagger.
Finally, George Springer joined the fun, adding a two-run homer off Daniel Hudson in the ninth, his first long ball of the Fall Classic, to cap Houston's scoring.
Correa and Springer homered in the same playoff game for the seventh time. That’s more than Manny Ramirez and David Ortiz, more than Carlos Beltrán and Lance Berkman, more than any pair of MLB teammates in history. Not surprisingly, the Astros have won all seven of those contests.
And Sunday's showing was further proof of an elite offensive unit that seems to be emerging piece by piece at exactly the right time.
“Today was a good example of what our team has been,” manager AJ Hinch said. “I don't know which guys you want to interview, but you could pick six of them or seven of them or eight of them, and contributors on the pitching side or on the position-player side.”
That Houston had gotten this far with minimal contributions from that quartet of Correa, Springer, Bregman and Alvarez speaks to the extraordinary depth of its lineup, and how in the postseason, it is rare for too much time to pass before Correa or Springer get involved.
“On the way here from the plane [before Game 3], I was talking to José [Altuve] and was like, ‘We need to get our swagger back.’” Correa said. “‘This is the World Series. This is the last series of the season. We need to play like it. We need to give everything we've got. Then, after the series is over, we're going to be exhausted, but we've got three months to rest and then show up to Spring Training. Let's get our swagger back.’”
For both Correa and Springer, that had been a struggle. Correa entered Sunday 9-for-56 (.161) with two homers -- including a walk-off shot in Game 2 of the American League Championship Series -- this postseason. In the World series, he was 2-for-16 with one extra-base hit.
Springer entered Sunday 11-for-62 (.177) this postseason, though he’d filled up the stat sheet (two homers, four walks, two stolen bases) in the Fall Classic’s first four games. His long ball Sunday was the 2017 World Series MVP's seventh career Fall Classic homer, a record for a player from the leadoff spot. It was Springer's 11th extra-base hit, also the most by a leadoff hitter in World Series history.
“I first saw [Springer] when I got drafted [and he was] playing Double-A. … I was like, ‘This guy is the greatest player ever,’” Correa said. “He's unbelievable. When it matters the most in the playoffs, in the World Series, that's when he comes through for the team.”
That’s often been true about Correa, too. His home run Sunday was his 11th career postseason homer, breaking a tie with Albert Pujols for the most by a player before turning 26. Correa turned 25 last month, and Sunday marked his 48th career postseason game. The only player with more before turning 26 was Andruw Jones (seven homers in first 61 postseason games).
Correa’s 11 postseason homers are the second most by a shortstop, behind only Derek Jeter’s 20. He also joined Hall of Famers Pee Wee Reese and Honus Wagner as the only shortstops to compile three career multi-RBI World Series games.
“He’s always one swing away,” Springer said. “I don’t care what anyone says or does. He’s such a big factor in our lineup and to our team.”