The momentum shift began when George Springer hit a two-run homer in the fifth inning of Game 4 to break a tie and give the Astros some hope. It picked up serious steam when Carlos Correa hit a walk-off homer in the ninth inning to win Game 5, sparking a home-plate celebration that had 71-year-old manager Dusty Baker dancing.
Any doubts the Astros had about their ability to win the American League Championship Series were wiped away Friday night at Petco Park, where lefty Framber Valdez held the Rays to one run in six innings and Springer’s two-run single sparked a four-run outburst in the fifth that led the Astros to a 7-4 win in Game 6 to even the series at three games apiece.
“We’re relentless,” Correa said. “When we said we didn’t want to go home, we really meant that. We want to keep playing baseball and we don’t want this to be the end of our season. We took care of these three games and now we’ve got to take care of one more. If we don’t win that game, it all means nothing. We have to go out there tomorrow and get that win. It would be great.”
The Astros are the 39th team in postseason history to fall behind 3-0 in a best-of-seven series but only the second to then force a Game 7. The other was the 2004 Red Sox, who came all the way back to beat the Yankees in the ALCS. The Astros will send Lance McCullers Jr. to the mound in Game 7 on Saturday against Tampa Bay’s Charlie Morton, who won Game 7 of the ALCS and Game 7 of the World Series for Houston in 2017.
“We have the right guy,” catcher Martín Maldonado said. “He’s been there before, pitching Game 7 of the World Series. I just feel we’re going to take this game like we have been taking every game, one pitch at a time. As long as we keep executing pitches, keep playing defense like we are, we’re going to be in good shape.”
Baker, plucked away from retirement in California to take over the turbulent Astros waters, is one win away from reaching the World Series for the first time in 18 years.
“We're not through writing history, and I'm hoping that we can have a happy ending to this historic season and historic year,” he said. “It's not just this season. This is a heck of a year. This team has battled back, big time. You gotta love this team. Or some people hate this team; but I mean, you at least gotta respect this team. The way that they've worked. People have given me a lot of credit. I don't deserve any of it. They deserve it.”
After needing seven pitchers, including a record five rookies, to outlast the Rays in Game 5, the Astros rode their horse in Game 6. Valdez was terrific, throwing 52 curveballs among his 101 pitches and getting 24 swings on the pitch, including 15 whiffs. The 15 swings and misses on his curve are the most by a pitcher in a playoff game in the pitch-tracking era (2008).
“I don’t think it was a different quality, necessarily, of the curveball, but what’s bigger for me is the consistency of it, to be able to throw it the same way I want to every time and not get crazy with my throwing motion,” Valdez said.
Houston’s offense, which had relied largely on home runs in the first five games, had its biggest outburst of the series in the fifth, including a sacrifice bunt by Maldonado that set up Springer’s two-run single to right field past a drawn-in infield off reliever Diego Castillo to put the Astros ahead. Jose Altuve added an RBI double and Correa laced an RBI single for a 4-1 lead.
“It’s always great to see everybody have a part of that inning,” said Correa, who went 3-for-5. “It was a very solid inning.”
The Astros poured it on from there -- Kyle Tucker blasted a solo homer in the sixth for his first extra-base hit of the playoffs and added a sacrifice fly in the seventh. Houston led, 7-1, and was off and running.
“Their lineup is fully capable of having crooked-number innings, and that’s what took place,” Rays manager Kevin Cash said. “It’s not an ideal feeling. It certainly doesn’t feel good when it was taking place. Shocking is not the right word. I think it’s more that it was uncomfortable as everything unfolded there in the fifth inning, and then they continued to add.”
Valdez’s make-or-break moment came in the sixth, when Yandy Díaz inexplicably yelled at him after taking ball four. Maldonado played peacekeeper while Correa came to the mound and challenged Valdez to get the next hitter. He got Brandon Lowe to hit into an inning-ending double play, getting a fist pump from a fired-up Correa.
“What I said is, ‘Your job is not to go out there and be the bigger man, your job is to help us win the ballgame,’” Correa said. “‘You’re not going to help us win a ballgame if you’re distracted about what happened. Just focus and give me a ground ball and let’s get out of this inning.’ He did. We got the double play and got out of the inning. It was a great moment.”
And now the Astros -- a team which made the postseason with a losing record and carried the label of villain in the wake of the sign-stealing scandal -- have brushed all that aside and grabbed the momentum in the ALCS. They’re one win from a monumental comeback and another trip to the World Series.
“We have a great team,” Tucker said. “Even if we finished 29-31 on the season, we knew we were better than that and we knew we could come into the playoffs and win a series. We tried to take it one game at a time and we’ve gotten this far, so might as well keep going.”