HOUSTON — The ball had not yet cleared the scoreboard down the left field line at Minute Maid Park, nor had it settled in fair territory, but Carlos Correa knew.
As his drive off Boston Red Sox reliever Hansel Robles soared toward the Crawford Boxes on Friday night, Correa dropped his bat, turned toward his dugout and pointed at his wrist, the gesture that may yet define this Astros team.
More specifically, their time: Two years after the revelation of a sign-stealing scandal cast aspersions on the 2017 World Series title and a half-decade of dominance, Correa and middle infield running mate Jose Altuve remain unstoppable. In this Game 1 of the American League Championship Series, Altuve and Correa both moved up the postseason record books while salvaging a 5-4 victory before an oft-delirious crowd at Minute Maid Park.
The 4 hour, 7 minute game set the tone for this series: A slog and, at times, a slugfest. Starting pitchers Chris Sale and Framber Valdez failed to complete three innings, and a combined 14 relievers kept the game close, if not aesthetically pleasing.
Leave it to the Astros sluggers for that.
Altuve went first, atoning for a crucial third-inning error to provide a familiar sight: A line drive disappearing into a bobbing throng of orange in left field. His two-out, two-run shot off Tanner Houck – who’d given up just three hits in seven innings of postseason work – tied the score 3-3 in the sixth and ended a four-inning stretch in which the Astros stranded seven runners.
Correa provided the decisive two-out dagger an inning later, with a towering fly down the left field line that prompted him to drop his bat on contact and bathe in the adoration of 40,534 fans that filled the place like a historic scandal followed by a pandemic never happened.
Nope, they love Altuve and Correa here like they love their rugged individualism, and if they’re cheats, well, they’re definitely Houston’s cheats.
Yet with every passing game, the pre- and post-scandal Astros are practically imperceptible.
Correa had three hits off three Red Sox pitchers, and eight in 17 at-bats this postseason. His go-ahead home run was the 18th of his career, tying him with Mickey Mantle, Reggie Jackson and Nelson Cruz for seventh all time.
Altuve walked and scored, homered and tacked on a sacrifice fly that proved to be the decisive run; his 20 career postseason home runs tie him with Derek Jeter for third all time.
Both players have slugged seven home runs in the 2020 and ’21 postseasons, the mental strain of playing with their secrets long revealed – and their sign-stealing security blanket presumably expunged – apparently no hurdle.
Astros manager Dusty Baker likened Altuve and Correa to “Brady and Gronkowski,” the Hall of Fame-bound quarterback and tight end. Yet not even that duo can threaten to score a touchdown on every play.
It feels different when Altuve is in the box, right around the time of year Houston’s unforgiving humidity finally yields to autumn.
“Honestly, every time Jose is hitting in the playoffs, I feel like he is going to hit a home run,” says Correa. “He is just so dangerous. His track record in the playoffs is insane, and he just inspires me. He inspires me without saying much. Every single award you can imagine, he has won it, and then he shows up to Spring Training wanting to work on different things to get even better.
“If that doesn’t inspire you, I mean, I don’t know what will.”
Their Game 1 heroics overshadowed a command performance from Boston center fielder Kiké Hernández, whose leadoff homer in the third kick-started a three-run inning that put his club up 3-1, and whose ninth-inning homer brought Boston within a run.
An inning before his first homer, Hernández made a spectacular diving catch of a sinking fly ball off Michael Brantley’s bat, corralling the ball inches above the grass to save at least two runs.
Hernández is now 14 for 28 with four homers this postseason, and his 30 total bases are more than halfway to the all-time record of 50, set by St. Louis’ David Freese in 2011.
The way this series is going, Hernández should have plenty of chances to pile onto that total.
Boston’s Sale again struggled, allowing six baserunners while retiring just eight batters, and he left the Boston bullpen in a compromised position.
Meanwhile, Astros lefty Valdez battled his command over 2⅔ innings, walking three and forcing a seven-man bullpen relay that held Boston at bay until Hernández’s ninth-inning shot off closer Ryan Pressly. Cristian Javier was particularly pivotal, striking out four in two scoreless innings.
Houston’s bullpen and Hernández’s last-gasp homer were emblematic of two stubborn, talented teams, and this ALCS should reflect that.
“This is going to be a heck of a series,” says Hernandez, “and it was a heck of a Game 1. We expect nothing less tomorrow.
“It’s going to be intense, and it’s going to take everything we’ve got to be able to get past these guys.”
Particularly a pair of middle infielders whose time, it seems, always comes in October.
This article originally appeared on USA TODAY: Astros beat Red Sox in ALCS Game 1 as Carlos Correa, Jose Altuve homer
Source: Yahoo Sports