HOUSTON -- Michael Brantley spent much of the 2019 season quietly putting together one of the best seasons of his career, doing so while flying under the radar, as is typical of the low-key veteran outfielder.
But Brantley’s defensive play that helped end the seventh inning, drawing the Astros within six outs of clinching the American League pennant, was bold and dramatic, and there was no way for him to hide from the attention from 43,357 frenzied fans that witnessed one of the best plays of the AL Championship Series by either team.
In other words, it was a good night for "Uncle Mike," as his teammates call him. In fact, it was a good night all around for the Astros’ defenders, who made several memorable plays that led to a 6-4 pennant-clinching win over the Yankees on Saturday night at Minute Maid Park.
First, Brantley’s. With Aaron Judge on first base and one out in the seventh, Aaron Hicks sent a looping fly ball to shallow left, which at first glance looked like it might bounce out of the reach of several fielders who were sprinting to what seemed to be no man's land.
Turns out, no man's land was an issue not for Brantley, but for Judge.
Brantley laid out with a perfectly timed dive, caught the ball and then scrambled to his feet and fired a strike to first baseman Yuli Gurriel to complete the double play. Judge, who was three-quarters of the way to second base, was thrown out by several steps. The play preserved Houston's 4-2 lead.
Per Statcast, Brantley ran 82 feet in 4.8 seconds for the ball, and he got a jump that was 2.2 feet above average. The throw to first clocked in at 86.9 mph.
“I wanted to make sure I completed the play,” Brantley said. “I knew I had a chance to double him up, I had to make a good throw. Yuli did a good job picking it for me. I didn't throw it in the air, I wanted to keep it down. We got out of that inning.”
Manager AJ Hinch said he wasn’t thinking about a possible throw as Brantley dived. He was too fixated on the fact that his left fielder laid out for the ball, something Brantley doesn’t often do.
“If that doesn't tell you what playoff baseball is all about ... and to bounce up and throw a bullet to first base, nice play by Yuli on the other end, that wasn't an easy play,” Hinch said.
An inning earlier, Josh Reddick made his case as a runner-up for the greatest defensive play of Game 6. The right fielder sacrificed a little skin on his chin when he lurched forward to make a diving catch on a Brett Gardner liner. The result was a key out, and half of a face-plant for the hard-nosed Reddick.
It wasn’t graceful, but it did the trick.
“I ate a little bit of dirt and grass on it,” Reddick said. “But that's fine. Whatever it takes to make the play and make the out, that's all that matters. It's not a typical out. It's a little bit wetter than it has been in the year. I kind of stuck and did a scorpion move. My back didn't hurt. I just ate a little dirt and made the out.”
The Astros completed their defensive trifecta in the eighth with a perfectly executed 4-6-3 double play on a Gary Sánchez ground ball. José Altuve fielded the ball and made a high toss to Carlos Correa, who then fired a 94.5 mph missile to Gurriel for the inning-ending double play.
“It wasn't a perfect throw by me -- it was a little up and soft,” Altuve said. “But [Correa] gives you the opportunity to do that. It was a big double play in the inning by us. I just caught the ball and gave it to him. He did a tremendous job by a quick release and a strong throw.”
Correa's throw was the hardest Statcast has tracked from a shortstop on a throw to first that resulted in an out since it began tracking this data in 2015.
“I had momentum going toward the base, going to first base,” Correa said. “As soon as I grabbed it, I threw with everything I had. I practice every single day -- hit the [first baseman’s] chest.”
When a 107-win regular season leads to a pennant clincher, credit is going to be dispersed evenly through every segment of the roster. But Houston's defense in particular is a shining example of what went right in 2019, including throughout the postseason.
“We always preach in the clubhouse that pitching and defense is going to win championships,” Correa said. “We have to go out there and do our best and play our best up to our abilities to pitch and catch the ball. That's what we did tonight. We made some great plays. Some great plays decided the game.”