Friday, May 25, 2018

He Didn't Stop!

Baseball fans know that everything ramps up in playoff season. Exciting, dramatic plays take on an extra dimension in the post-season, when the season is on the line, and it is do or die, lose and go home. Saturday's ALCS game between the Astros and Yankees was one such game. The final, spectacular play of that game left many of us stunned and questioning what our eyes saw.

It was game two, at Houston's Minute Maid Park. The ballpark was packed, and the crowd was loud, as usual. It's been twelve long years since the Astros made it this far in the post-season, and with the quality of players on this team, everyone knew the Astros would make it tough on the Yankees. Anticipation ran high that day, with every Astros fan ready to yell themselves hoarse. The game gave us plenty to shout about.

Newly acquired ace pitcher Justin Verlander was on the mound for Houston, with his girlfriend, well-known model/actress Kate Upton in attendance. Verlander was pitching a gem, and by the fourth inning had given up only two hits and no runs. In the 5th, he allowed consecutive doubles by Aaron Hicks and Todd Frazier, with Hicks scoring what was then the tying run.

The Astros weren't faring much better against Yankee pitching, getting only two hits off starter Luis Severino through his four innings of work. The lone Astros run so far came on an opposite field home run by Carlos Correa. We had no way of knowing that another Correa hit, late in the game, would erupt into one of the most exciting plays we've ever seen. Yankee reliever Tommy Kahnle threw two hitless innings, before giving way to David Robertson in the 7th. Houston managed only one hit on the third Yankee pitcher in the next two innings, and were preparing to face flame throwing closer Aroldis Chapman in the ninth.

Meanwhile, Verlander gave up a one out walk to Greg Bird in the 7th, but shut the Yankees down with no damage. I was sure Astros Manager A.J. Hinch would pull him, but the crowd cheered when Verlander walked to the mound in the 8th. Fans familiar with this guy know that he often gets stronger as a game progresses, and this day was no different. He faced only three Yankee batters in that inning, striking out the side to a thunderous ovation.

The Astros got nothing against Robertson in the 8th, and to my surprise, Verlander was still in the game for the top of the 9th. With Will Harris and Ken Giles warming in the Astros bullpen, there was no doubt that Hinch would make a change at the slightest hint of trouble, and when Didi Gregorius singled with one out, most of us thought that would be it for Verlander. The tension was palpable, but Hinch stayed in the dugout, and Verlander got the final two outs with a fly ball to Reddick in right field, and a weak grounder to Correa.

It is unlikely that any of the 43,193 noisy fans were still sitting by the time Reddick stepped into the box to face the formidable Chapman. He struck out, bringing the home town hero, three-time batting champion Jose Altuve to the plate. Without hesitation, Altuve sized up the first pitch, a 100 mph four-seam fastball, and lined it sharply into left field.

By now, neither Tiffany nor I were still sitting as Carlos Correa stood in the box and waved his bat at Chapman. The crowd roared disapproval when Chapman threw to first base, getting more of the same when he did it again after throwing ball one to Correa. A called strike, another ball, and a foul ball made the count 3-2 before Chapman fired to first for a third time.

And then it happened. One of those moments that a baseball fan lives for.

Chapman hurled another four-seam fastball, this one a mere 99 mph, and Correa stroked it into right field as the crowd erupted. Altuve hesitated for a moment to be sure the ball would not be caught, and then he lit out, full speed, rounding second base and heading toward third. There it was, I thought in the space of about two frantic seconds – it would be first and third with one out, and Marwin Gonzalez, the Astros team leader in RBI, at the plate.

And then we all had another of those unreal moments, when 43 thousand plus people in the ballpark, two people and two dogs in my living room, and countless others watching on television, suddenly realized that Altuve is NOT STOPPING AT THIRD! Without breaking stride, he touched the bag and sprinted for the plate.

He didn't stop!

I said in dismay, "He's gonna be out by a mile," as Gary Sanchez waited for the relay from Gregorius, with Altuve about 25 feet from home. Sanchez positioned himself for the throw and the tag, Altuve hit the ground and in a headfirst, helmetless slide, dragged his left hand over the plate.

He leaped into the air, and I watched in dumbfounded silence, holding my breath, waiting for the expected out call. Then, inexplicably, the plate umpire held his arms out in the universal, 'SAFE!' call.

The Minute Maid Park crowd EXPLODED, and I shouted, "HE'S SAFE! HE'S SAFE!" I could not believe what I was seeing, and could not fathom how Altuve could have beaten the throw. It wasn't until we saw the replay a few seconds later that showed Sanchez had dropped the ball and it skittered away in front of him.

I yelled so loudly that both of our dogs jumped in fear. I thought my eyes were playing a trick on me. I've been a baseball fan for nearly 60 years, and that was one of the most unbelievable, exciting plays I've ever seen. How? How was this even possible?

The Astros charged the field, pummeling each other in celebration. They won! The Astros had won in the most unlikely, the most astonishing of ways. Tiffany and I stood in our living room, still not quite believing what we had seen. Instantly, the famous Jack Buck phrase popped into my head: "I don't believe what I just saw!"

The videos below show that spectacular play from several angles. The first three were shot, presumably on cell phones, from various seats in the stands. Those three eyewitnesses captured the moment beautifully. You feel the raw emotion in the three fan videos, as we see Correa's hit, and then, like Tiffany and me, realize that Altuve was going to challenge Aaron Judge's arm and go for the walk-off win. The videos – with no network announcer's voice - display the sheer joy and exuberance that baseball fans feel and show (and certainly, fans of other sports) when they see something as spectacular as this.

Thanks to Josh, Bags, and Jason for allowing us to see their memorable videos of that spectacular moment.

Video by Jason, from just inside the right field foul pole, posted on YouTube.

Larry Manch is an author, teacher, guitar player, freelance writer, and columnist. His books include: 'Twisted Logic: 50 Edgy Flash Fiction Stories', 'The Toughest Hundred Dollars & Other Rock & Roll Stories', 'A Sports Junkie', 'The Avery Appointment', 'Between the Fuzzy Parts'. His books are available in paperback and e-book.

He also writes about sports for Season Tickets, food and travel on Miles & Meals, and music/guitars on The Backbeat.

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