Sports

Houston’s Shortstop Was Right on Time With Go-Ahead Homer

HOUSTON — There are bat flips and home runs celebrations. And then there is what Houston Astros star shortstop Carlos Correa did on Friday night.

Even those who despise the Astros can perhaps appreciate the blend of swagger, showmanship and uninhibited emotion that Correa displayed after he provided the pivotal swing in a 5-4 win over the Boston Red Sox in Game 1 of the best-of-seven American League Championship Series.

After blasting a ball toward the left-field seats to break a tie game, Correa stood at home plate to watch his handiwork. He tossed his bat aside like an unneeded prop. Then as Red Sox pitcher Hansel Robles watched the flight of the ball and catcher Christian Vazquez hung his head, Correa pointed to his left wrist as he looked toward the Astros dugout.

“When the playoffs start, they always tell me, ‘It’s your time now to go out there, hit homers, this and that.’ They told me to hit the watch,” Correa said of his teammates. He added, “Today they told me if you hit a homer, hit them with the ‘it’s your time.’ It just happened naturally there.”

The man who turns into a hitting machine when the calendar flips to October had struck again. Aided by his longtime teammate and fellow postseason hero, Jose Altuve, and buoyed by reliever Cristian Javier’s key assist, Correa and the Astros outlasted the Red Sox, even as Boston’s Kiké Hernandez’s continued his October tear.

“Everybody expected this game or this series to be a slugfest, and this game actually there was a lot more pitching involved than hitting,” said Hernandez, whose 4 for 5 night, which included two home runs, raised his average this postseason to .500 (14 for 28). “This is going to be a heck of a series, and it was a heck of a Game 1.”

In the opening act of matchup of two of the best offenses in baseball, the victors were the team that cobbled together enough pitching to withstand the other’s hitting onslaught. After both team’s starting pitchers were knocked out in the third inning, it was Houston’s lineup and bullpen that held the strongest.

“A good baseball game,” Red Sox Manager Alex Cora said of the four-hour game that featured 16 pitchers, three lead changes and late-game rallies. “Two swings changed the course of the game.”

One of those swings belonged, of course, to Correa. The other, though, was delivered by Altuve in the sixth inning when the Astros were trailing after their starting pitcher, Framber Valdez, stumbled.

Fans at Minute Maid Park held up a sign for Jose Altuve. The Astros’ second baseman homered early in the  game and provided a key insurance run with a sacrifice fly in the bottom of the eighth inning.Credit…Tony Gutierrez/Associated Press

His counterpart, Chris Sale, also sputtered, which set the stage for a battle of bullpens. Sale, a seven-time All-Star, continued his inconsistent pitching since returning from Tommy John surgery. He showed enough guile to allow just one run over two and two-thirds innings when it seemed like the situation would unravel on him. And he was rescued by a diving catch by Hernandez with the bases loaded in the second inning that saved two runs.

At the plate, Hernandez provided another boost. He tied the game at 1 with a solo blast off Valdez in the third inning. Then the Red Sox capitalized on more Astros’ mistakes.

Shortstop Xander Bogaerts walked and third baseman Rafael Devers singled off Valdez. When designated hitter J.D. Martinez scorched a ball up the middle, Altuve couldn’t field it. Instead of an inning-ending double play, Bogaerts scored and everyone was safe. Right fielder Hunter Renfroe then pushed Boston’s lead to 3-1 with a double that plated Devers.

After Valdez exited, the Astros bullpen kept the Red Sox in check long enough to mount a comeback. And with the Astros offense, the highest scoring baseball during the regular season, it was only a matter of time.

Javier tossed two scoreless innings and struck out four of the seven batters he faced. And in the sixth inning, Altuve atoned for his error. With a runner on, he clobbered a two-run blast off reliever Tanner Houck, who had been a godsend for the Red Sox bullpen of late.

Altuve’s home run not only tied the score at 3 but it re-energized the 40,534 people who had stuffed Minute Maid Park. It also marked a milestone for Altuve: He became the fourth person in major-league history with 20 career postseason home runs. The others in that group are Manny Ramirez (29), Bernie Williams (22) and Derek Jeter (20).

Kiké Hernandez made a terrific catch in the second inning that saved at least two runs for Boston. He also hit two home runs. But that wasn’t enough against Houston.Credit…David J. Phillip/Associated Press

“Derek Jeter is one of the greatest baseball players ever play the game, and just to hit as many homers as him, it means a lot to me,” Altuve said.

Altuve, 31, didn’t flip his bat after his home run. He, of course, has been here before — he has been the Astros’ star second baseman during this five-year run of dominance and won a World Series title during their now tainted 2017 season. And he has a much different personality than Correa, 27.

In the next inning, it showed. Robles pumped 99 m.p.h. fastballs to get the first two outs of the seventh. As he watched, Correa said he visualized the pitches coming at him and how he would swing at them. He aimed his stroke up the middle and over the fence. And just in case Robles threw a changeup, Correa figured could still connect with that approach.

So when Robles did throw a 2-2 changeup high over the plate, Correa unleashed a swing that sent the crowd — and himself — into a frenzy. It also moved him ahead of his favorite player growing up, Albert Pujols, as the active leader in postseason runs batted in (55).

Flying around the bases, Correa waved for the crowd to make more noise. As he rounded third bases, he held his hand to his ear. When he crossed home plate, he looked to the sky.

A sacrifice fly by Altuve that scored first baseman Yuli Gurriel in the eighth inning gave the Astros a cushion to withstand another blast by Hernandez in the ninth.

“When you’ve got the two best teams in the American League going out there, you’re going to get great games,” Correa said, adding later, “I feel like this series is going to be fun to watch just all-around, however many games we play. It’s going to be special, and I feel like baseball fans are in for a treat.”

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