Sunday, October 20, 2019

Jose Altuve Wins the Pennant

You can follow the first 8 1/2 innings of this game in my comments in the last entry.

By tying the game in the 9th inning, the Yankees had finally put Houston in a bit of a jam.  The Astros had already used seven pitchers in the game, including their closer.  They had also removed Brantley, their number-three hitter, for a defensive replacement.  If the game went even one more inning, there was a good chance that Houston would finally run out of pitching.  And if the Yankees could win this game -- especially in such dramatic fashion -- the Astros would be almost entirely reliant on Gerrit Cole to carry them in Game Seven.

But first the Yankees had to make it through the bottom of the ninth.  They sent out Aroldis Chapman.  Chapman is a spectacular pitcher who has recorded 273 saves since coming up to the majors in 2010.  This year, he went 3-2 with an ERA of 2.21 and 37 saves.  All he had to do is retire the Astros and give the Yankees a chance to win it in extra innings.  The Houston crowd was despondent.

Chapman started well, fanning Martin Maldonado and getting Josh Reddick to pop out.  But this brought up the top of the order, and the dangerous George Springer.  Chapman's control abandoned him, and he walked Springer.  Now the Astros fans started to cheer, because Jose Altuve -- the Joe Morgan of his time -- was coming to the plate.  Chapman's first two pitches missed badly, and I thought he had decided to pitch around Altuve.  I agreed with such a move, even though it would put Springer in scoring position.  After all, the next batter was the defensive replacement -- Jake Marisnick.  Here were Marisnick's batting statistics in 292 AB's this year:  batting average of .233, 10 homers, 34 RBI's.  Better to face him, I figured, even with a runner on second, than pitch to Altuve.  After all, if you retire him, the Yanks might blow it open against Houston's exhausted pitching staff in the 10th.  But if Altuve gets an extra-base hit, the game is over.

A few weeks ago, Clayton Kershaw was in a similar situation.  The Dodgers led the Nats 3-2 in the top of the 8th inning of Game Five of the Divisional Series.  Juan Soto was at the plate.  Once you got past Soto, you would be dealing with a bunch of guys who were slumping.  And Kershaw had just allowed a home run to Anthony Rendon.  So you would think that Kershaw would have been extremely careful with Soto -- or that the Dodgers would try a different pitcher.  Instead, Kershaw threw a strike, Soto blasted it into the right field seats, the game was tied, and two innings later the Dodgers' season was over.

Back in Houston, Chapman decided to ignore this lesson.  Chapman was plainly struggling -- he had thrown six balls in his last seven pitches -- but he didn't want to give up on Altuve.  He threw a slider for a strike.  And then he threw another ball over the plate.  As soon as Altuve hit it, everyone in the ballpark knew it was gone and that the Astros had won the pennant with a 6-4 victory.

It was Altuve's second hit and third run of the game.  At the age of 29, Altuve is a six-time All Star.  He was the 2017 AL MVP.  This year, injuries limited him to 124 games, but he still hit 31 homers.  He is one of the greatest players I have ever seen, he is probably going to the Hall of Fame, and he was the one guy for Houston who you absolutely could not allow to beat you.  Chapman gave him a chance, and he took it.  That's what Hall of Famers do.

One more thing:  The Yankees' defeat means that they did not win the American League pennant during the 2010's.  They made the ALCS in 2010, 2012, 2017, and 2019, but came up short every time.  The last time the Yankees went a calendar decade without a pennant was the 1910's.  Of course, they did pretty well in the 1920's.  But this second loss to the Astros in three years will be very painful, even for Yankees' fans.

Houston will now send out Gerrit Cole to face the Nats in Game One.  I think that this is probably the most lopsided World Series match-up since the Red Sox swept the Rockies in 2007.  The Rockies, like the Nats, got very hot at the end of the season and swept the NLCS.  They were not competitive against a loaded and veteran Boston team.  I expect a very easy win for Houston.   But of course, that's what I expected for the Dodgers when they played the Nats.

There is another analogy.  In 1975, the best baseball team I ever saw -- the Big Red Machine -- took on a Boston team that had caught fire with an odd mix of desperate veterans and talented youngsters.  That turned out to be one of the greatest World Series ever played.  If I were a neutral fan, that's what I would be hoping for.

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