It is December at Minute Maid Park, and manager AJ Hinch is not in the Astros' dugout. Instead, he's often in the training room with Jose Altuve, on the treadmill as the second baseman rehabs his injured right knee. Both of them think about the baseball season to come and
It is December at Minute Maid Park, and manager AJ Hinch is not in the Astros' dugout. Instead, he's often in the training room with Jose Altuve, on the treadmill as the second baseman rehabs his injured right knee. Both of them think about the baseball season to come and the chance for them to get back to the World Series. Houston was so confident in October, even going up against a Red Sox team that had won 108 regular-season games, that it was going to become the first team since the 1999-2000 Yankees to win two Fall Classics in a row.
Then everything changed with two outs in the bottom of the ninth inning of Game 4 of the American League Championship Series against the Red Sox. Boston was ahead, 8-6, and Houston had the bases loaded. Closer Craig Kimbrel once again had Sox fans in full-blown panic mode. Alex Bregman, as tough an out as the Astros had last season, was at the plate. Moments like this are all about the beauty of baseball.
It has been over a month, and Hinch has watched the play on repeat. Bregman hit one on the nose to the right of Red Sox left fielder Andrew Benintendi, who laid out, stretching out the glove on his right hand as far as he could.
If Benintendi catches the ball, the Red Sox go ahead, 3-1, in the series. If it gets by him -- especially with Tony Kemp, a streak of light, on first -- the bases are cleared, the series is even and the Astros are victorious in an epic postseason tilt like Game 5 of the 2017 World Series against the Dodgers, which they also won.
On the phone recently, Hinch said, "What Benintendi's play really showed you is how small the distance [is] -- in just one play -- between hope and despair in sports.
"Everything changes for our team if he doesn't catch the ball. If it gets by him and everybody scores, the series gets flipped on its head in that moment. What you've then got is 48,000 Astros fans going crazy at Minute Maid, because we've just walked off with the winning runs. And the energy really would have been the same as it was after we won Game 5 against the Dodgers, when I really felt we took complete control of that Series."
Hinch paused, then continued to describe a memory not nearly as happy for him or his team or their fans as the one that saw Bregman knocking in the winning run in that remarkable 13-12 marathon victory over the Dodgers in World Series Game 5 last year.
"I manage a minimum 81 games in our ballpark. Where I sit in our dugout, I have a direct line to the left-field scoreboard. So I can always see where the left fielder is playing," said Hinch. "And over the past four years, I've watched the left fielders migrate to the right of the scoreboard, as a way of pinching the gap. I always notice that, how they all do it. Alex [Cora, once Hinch's bench coach and now manager of the Red Sox] and I used to talk about that all the time and how there's a uniqueness to left field at Minute Maid the way there is at Fenway, and how that uniqueness really manipulates where the left fielder plays.
"When Alex [Bregman] hit the ball, my instinct was that it was guaranteed to drop. Because nobody, and I mean nobody, plays dead left in our ballpark. Had [Benintendi] been playing where a majority of teams play, especially against Bregman, the ball has to be a hit."
Hinch paused again.
"Then I heard after the game that Benintendi had literally moved just a few feet to his right, right before Alex came to the plate. And to me, and as much as that play changed everything, it was all about the beauty of what you see in baseball and what you know. And Benintendi had seen the way Alex had been swinging. He had to be thinking Alex was going to pull the ball. And he did. And those few feet made all the difference."
One catch didn't determine the whole series, of course. It never does. So much happened, even in what was ultimately a five-game series. The Astros won Game 1, and they easily could have won Game 2 before the Red Sox's bullpen saved the team -- and not for the last time in the 2018 postseason. There was the home run that Altuve seemed to have hit in the first inning of Game 4, which was then taken away when umpire Joe West called fan interference. And there was the way that David Price -- a huge question mark for the Sox coming into October -- outpitched Justin Verlander in Game 5.
Plus, as Hinch says, the Astros "didn't control the balance of their roster," referring to players on the other team like Jackie Bradley Jr. and Steve Pearce.
"The Red Sox just kept coming," said Hinch.
But the moment of the ALCS that mattered the most in the end, and did the most to determine the outcome, was Benintendi's catch.
"In sports, there's always a story behind the story," Hinch said. "The story behind the story of them winning and us losing was Benintendi's catch. Gary [Pettis, the Astros' third-base coach] and Joe [Espada, Hinch's bench coach] have looked at the video 50 times. And we always ask the same question: 'What's he doing inside the corner of the scoreboard?' It was just instinct. It was him having seen Bregman pulling the ball. So [Benintendi] moved a few feet to his right. And those few feet changed everything."
Mike Lupica is a columnist for MLB.com.