Rangers–’Stros, July 17, top of the ninth: We’re up by one, but the boys from DFW have a man on base and a .339 hitter—Prince Fielder—at the plate, which is to say they are about to take the lead and maybe the game as well. Luke Gregerson throws a decent pitch, but Fielder gets a good look at it, connects, and suddenly an 89 mph slider is screaming toward the shortstop at 110. Nobody, but nobody, can be ready for that, not even star rookie Carlos Correa. But he’s ready enough. He knocks it down. He gets a hand on it. He fires it to Jon Singleton at first base. Game over.
Having witnessed all of this up close, second baseman Jose Altuve is ecstatic, and for a moment you worry he might jump into Carlos’s arms. But the pair just high-five and hop up and down to a chorus of thunderous cheers from a Minute Maid crowd still pinching themselves over the Astros this season. Carlos is wearing the biggest smile of his life, one of those you-can-see-every-tooth smiles, the same one his folks used to see on countless peewee diamonds in those Santa Isabel days long ago.
Which, let’s be honest, weren’t that long ago. Carlos wasn’t even on this earth until 1994—the Colorado Rockies are older—and won’t turn 21 until later this month. But if you think he’s planning something bacchanalian, you don’t know Carlos. For one thing, the Astros are playing a key game that same night against the Los Angeles Angels, with whom they’ve been battling for first place in their division most of the season. For another, his family will be in town.
“I will go do something with them,” he says, his voice so deep and soulful, for a moment you want to spend your own birthday with the Correas next year. “It will be with the family.”
He tells you this in the dugout at Minute Maid Park, a few hours before a game against the Red Sox. The seats are empty, the groundskeepers silently raking the infield clay. Carlos, in shorts and flip-flops, is perched on the back of a bench gazing upward, watching the stadium’s massive roof close slowly overhead. As a shadow moves across his face, you see a look of both serenity and awe, a surprised/not-surprised look, a look that says knowing I’d get here hasn’t made the getting any less sweet.
“The first at-bat, you know, people tell you that you’re going to have those butterflies, those kinds of things,” Carlos says, reminiscing about his first big league game way back in June of 2015. “But I didn’t feel anything like that. I just felt like it was the same game I’ve always played.”
Indeed, the only nerves were in the offices of Astros management, where there was general agreement that Carlos was ready, but uncertainty about whether he was ready enough. Such questions began to seem academic by midseason, however, by which point it had become clear that the team needed serious help at shortstop. For his part, Carlos, who was playing Triple-A ball with the Fresno Grizzlies, was confident he’d have a future with the Astros, but even he didn’t expect the future to arrive on June 7, just minutes after he’d a hit a sacrifice fly that lifted the Grizzlies to victory over the Reno Aces, 15-14. Afterwards, the coach called a team meeting straight out of Field of Dreams, according to the Fresno Bee.
“Guys, there comes a time when a kid gets a chance to go to the big leagues,” the coach told his players, before dramatically turning his attention to the six-foot-four Puerto Rican kid. “Carlos, this is your day.”
One night he’s hitting pitches so hard the homers fly all the way out of Chukchansi ballpark, banging into an old bridal shop across the street. The next—yes, the very next night—he’s in Chicago, dreading White Sox ace Chris Sale’s blistering pitches at US Cellular Field. Just before game time, Carlos sought the advice of the guy in the next locker, Altuve, who would go on to become a mentor and his best buddy on the team.
“He just said, ‘don’t try to do too much. Just be yourself, just play the game like you’ve always played it, just go out there and have fun.’ And that’s what I’ve been doing.”
During his first month of just going out there and having fun, Carlos hit five home runs, nine doubles, stole four bases, had 15 RBIs and posted an astounding .543 slugging percentage. And just in case anyone still doubted he was ready for the big leagues, on July 2 he was named American League rookie of the month.
That Carlos was destined for the MLB became even clearer just days later, off the field, when he returned home to Puerto Rico to announce his involvement with the Gogui Foundation, which helps young people with serious illnesses. Here in Houston, he says, he is committed to “working with the Salvation Army, with the homeless people, trying to feed them”—a move inspired by the many homeless he has observed near Minute Maid Park.
There are other, more positive things about this city that get Carlos’s attention, namely Houstonians, who “are the best fans in baseball now”—words that come out of the mouths of lots of players in lots of cities, of course, but when Carlos gives them the quiet, soulful treatment, there’s no question: we are the best. And while he admits that the sight of 25,000-plus fans gives him “goosebumps every night,” he insists he’s never nervous. (Prove it, we said. “The other day Prince Fielder hit a line drive right at me at 110 mph and I was able to get the out.” QED.)
In fact, the only thing on Carlos’s mind during the season’s remaining weeks is helping the Astros win, that and proving to fans he can continue giving the dazzling performances they’ve come to expect, even as his strengths and weaknesses are increasingly identified and exploited by other teams. The speed with which enemy quantitative analysts are scrutinizing Carlos’s batting, fielding and base-running styles is both surprising and not. To rivals, he is unquestionably a threat now, and they’ve got to be ready for him.
But will they be ready enough?