HOUSTON -- Before the first inning of Game 6 of the American League Championship Series on Saturday night, Yuli Gurriel had fallen in line with most of the rest of the Astros’ lineup, in that he was one of several hitters who had not done a lot offensively throughout the postseason.
The Cuban first baseman changed that narrative with one mighty swing in the first inning, a three-run homer off Yankees opener Chad Green, giving the Astros their first inkling that they may not need to play a Game 7.
Though it was early, the homer proved crucial. Houston blew a lead in the top of the ninth but then won it in the bottom of the inning on José Altuve’s two-run homer, a position it would not have been in had Gurriel not gotten the party started four hours earlier, shortly after the first pitch was thrown.
“Obviously I’m very happy,” Gurriel said through an interpreter. “Especially to start the game and put our team ahead like that. It's very important to me. It's great.”
The homer was Gurriel’s third three-run shot in the postseason, a new Astros record. More importantly, it allowed his team to relax a little as they tried to nail down their second AL pennant in three seasons.
It also gave manager AJ Hinch some comfort as he pieced together nine innings that featured nothing but relievers, adding an extra layer of uncertainty for the skipper that he didn’t have to deal with a lot during his team’s 107-win regular season.
“It's nice when you take the lead, especially in an elimination game on the other side,” Hinch said. “It puts an immense amount of pressure on [the Yankees]. It wouldn't surprise me that Yuli was in the middle of it, because he's been mere feet away from being in the middle of virtually every good thing that's happened to us offensively in this series.”
This one was the most memorable, though. With one out in that opening frame, Altuve doubled, before Alex Bregman followed with a two-out walk. Gurriel -- 1-for-20 in the ALCS entering Game 6 -- connected with a first-pitch 98.6 mph fastball from Green and sent it to the left-field stands, putting Houston ahead, 3-0. The ball was projected to travel 356 feet, per Statcast.
After Saturday’s win, the Astros are 89-2 this year when leading by three or more runs, the best mark in the Majors (regular season and postseason). That includes a 51-0 mark at Minute Maid Park.
Gurriel’s homer provided padding for Houston and redemption for the first baseman, who'd been stung by bad luck, rather than bad hitting, this postseason. Despite his meek offensive showing, his power potential continued to be a threat.
In fact, Gurriel entered Game 6 with 15 hard-hit balls -- defined as registering at least 95 mph -- which is tied for the second most of any player this postseason. His nine hard-hit outs were second most behind teammate Michael Brantley (10).
“I had all the bad luck,” Gurriel said. “And I hope I get the good luck in the World Series.”
Added Hinch: “Yuli has been the unluckiest guy on our team when it comes to results, but his resolve has been great. His at-bats were always really good. Even the pitch he hit was incredible that he could get to it and hit the ball out of the ballpark. He hits a lot of home runs in this park. And he hung with it.”
Prior to Game 6, few Astros were hitting the ball especially well, particularly with runners on base. Entering Saturday, Houston's hitters were just 4-for-40 (.100) with runners in scoring position this postseason.
Gurriel acknowledged he was a little discouraged when nothing was falling in for hits, well aware that he was making good contact even with poor results.
“I felt a little bit bad,” he said. “I was hitting the ball hard. I was trying to help the team and I couldn't help the team. It was tough. Obviously, hitting that home run, it felt great for me. To be able to put the team ahead, it was such a great feeling.”