HOUSTON — Are these Houston Astros the best sports villains ever?
They are making one heck of a case.
If it’s the American League Championship Series, it must be Carlos Correa and Jose Altuve delivering in huge, dramatic spots. On Friday night at their evil lair Minute Maid Park, Correa and Altuve teamed to power their club to a 5-4 victory over the Red Sox in Game 1 of the ALCS.
What a dynamic double-play duo, thriving in October for a fifth straight year (and sixth out of seven), making their many detractors eat their words once more. Correa, the impending free-agent shortstop, delivered the game-winning homer, a solo blast to left field off former Met Hansel Robles in the seventh inning, just one frame after Altuve tied up the proceedings with a two-run dinger off Tanner Houck that also landed in the Crawford Boxes. Altuve also drove in an insurance run with an eighth-inning sacrifice fly that proved handy when Kiké Hernandez’s second homer of the game, in the ninth, turned it back into a one-run contest.
Correa now has hit 18 postseason homers, while Altuve can boast of 20, which ties him with newly-minted Hall of Famer Derek Jeter for third place all-time. Yes, yes, the modern players top those lists because of the extra playoff rounds. Stop shaking your fist.
If Jeter drew a blend of contempt and respect from opposing fan bases, however, these Astros, embroiled in one of the biggest cheating scandals in sports history when they were caught illegally stealing opponents’ signs en route to their 2017 World Series title, receive far more of the former and scant of the latter.
Man oh man, though, do they get it done year after year, and with flair. When Correa launched his game-winner in the 7th inning to christen Houston’s fifth straight ALCS appearance, he tossed his bat to the ground and pointed at the imaginary watch on his left hand before cupping his ear, as is his custom, while rounding the bases. As per ESPN, his round-tripper gave him four go-ahead homers in the seventh inning or later of a playoff game, surpassing Jeter’s Yankees teammate Bernie Williams and the Angels’ Troy Glaus for the most in the sport’s history.
As a symbol of both modern-day baseball and the frayed state of both clubs’ pitching staffs, the Astros utilized eight pitchers to win and the Red Sox eight to lose in this Yankees nightmare matchup. Game 1 starters Chris Sale of the Bosox and Framber Valdez of the Astros each lasted 2 ²/₃ innings before getting the hook. Surely this was not what Eliot Asinof had in mind when he wrote the book “Eight Men Out.”
While the Astros struck first, jumping out to a 1-0 lead when Yordan Alvarez’s sacrifice fly plated Altuve, Sale danced smoothly with danger, allowing seven base runners during his brief stint and, with some third-inning assistance from former Yankee Adam Ottavino, just the one run. Houston’s Valdez gave up a three-spot in the third, with Hernandez crushing his first homer, Altuve letting a J.D. Martinez grounder sizzle through his legs to score Xander Bogaerts and Hunter Renfroe doubling home Rafael Devers, before Yimi Garcia struck out Christian Arroyo to avoid further trouble.
Then in the sixth, with Houck on the hill for the Red Sox, Chas McCormick stroked a one-out single to center field, off Arroyo’s glove at second base, and one out later, Altuve pulverized a Houck slider into the Crawford Boxes to knot the game at 3-3, putting the Astros back in control and setting up Correa for another moment for the ages.
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