The chorus of naysayers reached its peak at around 4 p.m. on Sunday afternoon, after two Astros were left on base at the end of the seventh inning, and two strikeouts ended the eighth. Television sets clicked off around town, and a small but growing stream of fans began to course out of Minute Maid Park. People cursed themselves for having wasted yet another Sunday on these guys.
And then it happened.
In a season jam-packed with breathtaking achievements and heart-stopping moments, yesterday’s dramatic ninth-inning rally by the Astros over the Blue Jays might well be the most breathtaking, heart-stopping and momentous so far. It was miraculous, magical, and, yes, moving. Not so long ago, when everything was going right and everyone was healthy and the pitching staff was solid, winning seemed like an easy thing for the Astros. Now, with the team struggling under the weight of increased expectations, stumbling its way through injuries, limping its way to October, the wins come harder. Winning now takes more than a few dazzling bats, dominant pitching and lucky breaks. There is no win now unless every single member of the Astros lineup plays his heart out, with finesse and cleverness, creativity and daring, courage and grit.
Consider last night’s line-drive single, the last one, the one that skipped just over the glove of Jays first-baseman Justin Smoak and bounced into right field, allowing the Astros to win in a walk-off, 7-6. And consider too the predicament that the team had been in just minutes earlier. When the bottom of the ninth began, not only were the Astros losing 6-3, not only had they not scored a single run since the fifth inning, but they were also facing the mighty arm of Jays all-star reliever Roberto Osuna. Winning was impossible, in other words, and making the impossible possible would require the combined efforts of no fewer than 7 of the 9 players in the Astros lineup. If any one of the seven had done something differently, the impossible would have stayed that way.
Fortuitously, the first of the seven batters Osuna faced was the mightiest of them all, Jose Altuve, who’d already notched two hits in the game. But his third would be something different, “a lead-off laser right back up the middle,” as Alex Bregman put it after the game, adding that “when Altuve gets on, it gives the rest of the team confidence.”
Even as Altuve provided the confidence, Josh Reddick gave them fight. With the count 2-2, Osuna delivered a pitch that either landed (so said umpire Rob Drake) or didn’t land (Reddick) on the outside corner of the plate. Called out on strikes, Reddick lingered in the batter’s box a moment, one hand on his hip, before heading back to the dugout furious. “Reddick doesn’t like the call,” said one of the commentators, a charitable way of describing the profanity-laced tirade that viewers heard on live television.
Drake promptly ejected Reddick, who then bounded back out of the dugout toward the umpire, A.J. Hinch barely holding on to his player’s jersey. “A lot of frustration built up inside of me and inside of this team,” said Reddick later, claiming there had been “two different strike zones” for the two clubs. “I felt like it was the right time for to him know about it.” Reddick would spend the rest of the game in the clubhouse, but by then he’d already rekindled the Astros' fire, a crucial contribution to the climactic scene that was unfolding. From that point on, “we just played pass-the-torch,” as Bregman put it.
And what a torch it was. The next batter, first-baseman Yuli Gurriel, ripped a single to left field, and the batter after him, Marwin Gonzalez, did the same thing to right.
Then, 40-year-old Carlos Beltran stepped into the batter’s box, his 40-ness hanging heavily over him, or so we thought. But even as he bounced what appeared to be a game-ending double-play ball to Smoak, Beltran hurtled his body down the line toward first. He wasn’t fast, but he was fast enough, and the Jays had to settle for a force-out at second. Meanwhile, Altuve crossed the plate, making the score 6-4, bringing the impossible within reach.
Sometimes it feels like baseball is built for heroic moments, and Bregman’s came on Osuna’s first pitch, with Gurriel at third, Beltran on first, and the Astros down to their final out. No one who was in Minute Maid Park yesterday will soon forget the crack of Bregman’s bat, or the nanosecond it took for the crowd to react. Thousands of pairs of eyes darted skyward, searching for Bregman’s shot as it lofted further and further into the outfield. For a moment, no one—not the Jays outfielders, not anyone—seemed to know where the ball really was or where it would land. And when it finally did, finding the gap in left-center and rolling lazily toward the wall, no one doubted that Gurriel would score.
But if that’s all the Astros had gotten out of Bregman’s blast, they would have still come up short. To tie the game, they’d need another run, which meant that Beltran’s 40-year-old legs would have to run from first to second to third to home, and all during the brief time it would take former Astro Nori Aoki to pick up the ball and relay it to an infielder, who'd turn and threw it to the catcher. No one had a better view of Beltran’s stride than the man running right behind him, Bregman, who noted that “he looked like he did 20 years ago running around the bases—flying. It was a fun moment.”
And there was one more fun moment yet to come. With Bregman at third, the batter would be a name some Astros fans had never heard before that day, Juan Centeno, which was fitting as the catcher had only been added to the team a day prior, after Evan Gattis was diagnosed with a concussion. Luckily for Centeno, though, the one thing baseball likes more than heroics is unlikely heroics, and so it was that a 27-year-old journeyman—a veteran of the Mets, Brewers and Twins—delivered the final blow. It was he who hit the line-drive single that flew just out of reach of Justin Smoak’s glove. Bregman’s jaw dropped, his tongue flew out of his mouth, and he tore home to the pandemonium of a team pile-on and the sounds of a ballpark erupting at maximum force. Every arm in the stadium was either raised overhead or covering a mouth still in shock. And every Houstonian lucky enough to have seen the game on TV or heard it on the radio was amazed and euphoric. Everywhere there were silent vows not to underestimate the team ever again.
Let the baseball press, certain that it has seen all this before, keep writing an Icarus narrative for the team. Let them paint the great Astros as once-great, as formerly thrilling, as a team nosediving into the sea. Let them write their premature eulogies. Let them say it’s impossible.
As we've learned time and again this season, the Astros are at their best when facing the impossible.