Fifty feet from home plate, Jose Altuve’s bat hit ground. The baseball touched down 314 feet farther, in the third row of right-field seats. He had swung hard, and he had not let go. The smallest man on the field carried his weapon until he was certain that his home run was a home run, that his Houston Astros had a two-run lead in the fifth inning, that their season was a step closer to lasting at least another week.
Then, he flipped it. He flipped it with so much joy, and a bit of vengeance.
"I didn't know what to do," Altuve said. “I was just running. But that bat flip was for my team. I love my team.”
Buoyed by their star and two standout pitching performances, the Astros shut out the New York Yankees, 4-0, on Saturday night at Minute Maid Park, surviving a hardscrabble American League Championship Series and securing their spot in the 2017 World Series.
Several Astros said Altuve's celebration was meant as a response to Yankee reliever Tommy Kahnle's fist pumps as he walked off the mound earlier in this series.
“He got beat, and he showed him up a little bit,” said right fielder Josh Reddick, a trade-deadline acquisition by the Dodgers last season. “There’s nothing wrong with that. We felt like he was showing us up over there at Yankee Stadium.”
The real revenge rested in the outcome, the Astros winning back-to-back elimination games to cut short this Yankees season. Housotn’s one World Series visit came when they resided in the National League, in 2005, and it ended in a sweep at the hands of the Chicago White Sox. This year, a date with the Dodgers awaits, beginning Tuesday at Dodger Stadium. Dallas Keuchel will face Clayton Kershaw in Game 1.
No road team won in this series. The Astros have lost only twice at Minute Maid Park since Hurricane Harvey made landfall on Aug. 25.
Much of the sold-out crowd here stood through the first inning, the enthusiasm building as Astros starter Charlie Morton sliced through the Yankees. He did not falter over five sharp innings, and the crowd egged him on. He could not recall ever hearing his name chanted as he did Saturday night.
Hours earlier, Morton had sat down with Houston’s ace, Justin Verlander, to devise a plan to attack New York, whom Verlander held to one run over 16 innings in this series. Morton did not hold back his stuff the way a typical starting pitcher might. He went as hard as he could, for as long as he could.
In the raucous postgame celebration, Morton drank Champagne from a glass flute, casting a stark contrast to his teammates, who chugged aluminum cans of beer. It had been handed to him by an Astros executive, whom Morton said was responsible for the two-year contract that brought him to Houston last winter. Vaulting his velocity to another level and benefitting from an analytical approach to pitching, the 33-year-old journeyman produced the best season of his career in 2017.
He, first baseman Yuli Gurriel and catcher Brian McCann represented the successful supplementary acquisitions that allowed the Astros to arrive here. Gurriel hit well all series. When he sliced a drive to right to begin Saturday's second inning, Aaron Judge quickly turned and chased it 15 steps to the right-field wall. He left his feet as he neared the wall and reached his glove out in time to prevent a home run. Yankees starter CC Sabathia raised his arms in amazement and held them there for 10 seconds.
In the fourth inning, Evan Gattis banged a Sabathia curve off the facade beyond left-center field, too far to defend. New York manager Joe Girardi stuck with Sabathia three batters longer, summoning a reliever only when Reddick, he of the 0-for-22 start to this series, singled. Kahnle entered and induced a double-play ball with his first pitch, holding the Astros lead at 1-0.
Morton’s first pitch of the fifth elicited action, too: Greg Bird whacked it into right for a double. Morton struck out Castro, then fired four consecutive balls to Aaron Hicks. The last escaped McCann, allowing Bird third. Bird went home when Todd Frazier chopped a ball to the left side, but Astros third baseman Alex Bregman fielded it quickly and threw low and accurately to Brian McCann. Somehow, McCann caught it inches from the dirt, applied the tag, and held on.
The Astros rallied in the fifth inning, firming their fate. Altuve bashed the one-out blast before Carlos Correa and Gurriel notched back-to-back singles. McCann saw five consecutive changeups from Kahnle and lashed the fifth down the right-field line. Correa scored easily, and Astros third-base coach Gary Pettis liberally sent Gurriel, trusting that Gary Sanchez would fumble the throw home as he had done all series. Pettis was correct.
After Morton’s exit, manager A.J. Hinch used starter Lance McCullers for four innings of relief, bypassing his roster’s underbelly, its struggling group of relievers. McCullers has always been capable of dominance and on Saturday he pitched at his best, spinning his vicious curveball into and out of the strike zone as desired, striking out six Yankees, holding them to two baserunners. His last 24 pitches were all curveballs.
“That’s my best pitch," McCullers said. “I’m coming at you with it.”
McCullers missed much of this season with arm injuries. As he returned in September, he resolved to recoup his lost positioning in the organizational hierarchy. He saw Saturday as his opportunity.
“I wanted to prove that I’m always gonna be the pitcher that people know I can be when I’m able to be,” McCullers said. “I told myself, ‘It’s time to put some respect back on your name.’”
When he finished the eighth inning by striking out Judge on three pitches, he let out a primal yell. When a pop-up soared off Bird’s bat for the final out, McCullers and McCann soared into each other’s arms and the stadium crescendoed into a frenzy. Five minutes after the final pitch, fans broke out into the first of what will be many chants.
“BEAT L.A.! BEAT L.A.”
The fun-loving Astros fly to Los Angeles on Sunday afternoon. They will work out at Dodger Stadium on Monday, when Reddick said they must cement an offensive approach. The aggression displayed in New York, when they mustered only five runs in three losses, will not work against the skilled Dodgers.
“We’ve just gotta learn to stay within ourselves, slow the game down, and not try to do too much,” Reddick said.
No Astro was a greater offender than Reddick, who served as an automatic out all series and slammed various pieces of equipment with increasing frustration. Yet, late Saturday, he said he wanted this matchup all along. He languished in Los Angeles after his trade-deadline acquisition a year ago, and he took offense to the fan response at Dodger Stadium. This, he thinks, is his opportunity to make them regretful.
“Personally, I wouldn’t rather do it against any other team,” Reddick said. “I wasn’t really a fan favorite there. I got booed a lot as a home player. I didn’t really fit in, it seemed like they thought. I tried to put that behind me. But I think it’s gonna be fun to go back, especially to beat them.”
Follow Pedro Moura on Twitter @pedromoura