Jose Altuve didn’t even crack a smile as the commotion erupted around him. He just looked up at his work, at the baseball he blasted against New York Yankees closer Aroldis Chapman to send the Houston Astros to the World Series, before beginning his trot around the bases.
The smallest player on every field he steps on, the engine churning at the heart of a 107-win American League juggernaut, Altuve coolly stepped up when the Astros needed one more push with a walk-off, two-run home run at Minute Maid Park on Saturday night.
With it, the Astros, after losing the lead in a stunning turn of events in the top of the inning, toppled the Yankees 6-4 in Game 6 of the AL Championship Series to advance to their second World Series in three years. They will play Game 1 against the Washington Nationals at home Tuesday.
Altuve was selected the most valuable player of the ALCS after hitting .348 with two home runs and six runs. He has the most home runs this postseason with five. Altuve, a six-time All-Star and the 2017 AL MVP, has cemented himself as an Astros legend on a path to the Hall of Fame.
“I’ve talked about how great this guy is, and he continues to exceed expectations,” manager A.J. Hinch said. “It’s not easy to deliver the way he does. The playoff version of him is spectacular.”
Two years after the Astros eliminated them in the ALCS in seven games, the Yankees, a 103-win team in the regular season, will complete a decade without a World Series appearance for the first time since the 1910s. They last won a World Series in 2009.
“I feel like we are on equal footing with them,” Yankees manager Aaron Boone said. “Unfortunately, sports can be a little bit cruel for the team that goes home and such can happen in the series.”
A rainout Wednesday in New York created unusual circumstances for October baseball, where days off are more common than during the season. The clubs arrived early Saturday after playing Game 5 at Yankee Stadium on Friday for their third game in three days. The schedule left the teams without a fully rested pitcher they trusted to shoulder a conventional starter’s load. So, in very 2019 fashion, a plodding bullpen affair was unleashed on prime time.
Houston first gave the ball to Brad Peacock about 20 hours after he logged an eight-pitch inning in Game 5 for his first outing in these playoffs. Chad Green got the call for the Yankees for his fourth appearance of the series. Peacock needed seven pitches, all strikes, to retire the side in the first inning. Green’s 21st pitch plunged the Yankees into a hole.
The Astros jumped in front in the first inning when Yuli Gurriel turned on a 96-mph fastball darting up and in and launched a line drive that landed just over the left-field wall in the Crawford Boxes for a two-out, three-run home run. The drive ignited a deafening orange-towel-waving frenzy. The first inning wasn’t over yet and the Astros, 50-0 at home this season when holding a lead of at least three runs, were in control.
A procession of relievers followed from both teams as the Astros offense went silent and the Yankees wasted opportunities.
The Yankees tallied their first run in the second inning against Peacock on Gary Sanchez’s single. Gio Urshela supplied the second with a home run against Jose Urquidy in the fourth. There were chances to generate more, and exceptional Astros defense helped squash them.
With two on and one out in the sixth inning, right fielder Josh Reddick might have saved the tying run from scoring when he made a diving catch on Brett Gardner’s line drive. DJ LaMahieu grounded out to seal the Astros’ escape.
In the top of the seventh inning, with the Astros ahead by two runs and Aaron Judge at first base, Aaron Hicks lifted a fly ball to shallow left field. The ball spelled trouble off the bat. Michael Brantley was playing deep in left and third baseman Alex Bregman was the only Astro on the left side of the infield.
Judge assumed the ball was landing and ran to second base only to watch Brantley sprint in for a diving catch. Judge reversed course, but was too late. Brantley fired a one-hopper to first to complete the inning-ending double play.
“Our defense was incredible,” Hinch said. “I’ve said all along that I think our defense is underrated.”
The Astros scored their fourth run, in the sixth inning, after recording one hit — a bunt single from catcher Martin Maldonado — over the previous four innings with head-scratching help from the Yankees.
With runners on the corners, the Yankees, instead of playing their infield in trailing by a run, positioned their infield at normal depth. As a result, Bregman’s groundball to shortstop Didi Gregorius pushed Altuve across the plate without a throw while Bregman beat out a double-play attempt.
But the Yankees countered when down to their final two outs. After Urshela led off the ninth inning with a single, LaMahieu faced closer Roberto Osuna with one out. A battle ensued. It ended on the 10th pitch, a 94-mph cutter over the plate that LaMahieu lofted the other way to right field. The ball floated and floated, sending George Springer to the wall. Springer jumped at the fence but could not snatch the baseball. It landed one row deep to stun the crowd.
When it was over, after 4 hours 9 minutes, 14 pitchers toed the rubber. The final two, closers trusted to secure the biggest outs, each surrendered a two-run home run. LaMahieu’s temporarily saved the Yankees before Springer worked a two-out walk against the hard-throwing Chapman to spark the Astros.
Three pitches later, Altuve sat back on a hanging slider, smashed it and calmly rounded the bases before a mob swallowed him at the plate.
“I’m thinking, ‘We’re going to the World Series,’” Altuve said. “And then I’m thinking, I don’t know, a lot of things.”