HOUSTON — It was like watching the most important spring training game ever, the way the Astros and Yankees made pitching changes in Game 6 of the American League Championship Series on Saturday night.
Yankees manager Aaron Boone didn’t have a starter he trusted for the game and Astros manager AJ Hinch was determined to save Gerrit Cole for a potential Game 7 on Sunday instead of starting him on short rest.
It made for a lengthy game that was equal parts exasperating and exhilarating as the managers jabbed at each other with bullpen decisions largely scripted out by their respective analytics departments beforehand.
The Astros lined it up just the way they wanted, handing a two-run lead to closer Roberto Osuna in the ninth inning.
But the Yankees stayed alive, D.J. LeMahieu hitting a two-run homer that landed just over the wall in right field.
It didn’t last. When the Yankees went to their closer, Aroldis Chapman, he walked George Springer with two outs and Jose Altuve belted a no-doubt home run to left field as Houston won the pennant for the second time in three years with a 6-4 victory.
The World Series starts Tuesday night at Minute Maid Park with Cole facing the National League champion Washington Nationals, who are expected to start Max Scherzer.
After winning the first game of the series, 7-0, the Yankees scored 14 runs in the five games that followed. They have now gone 10 years without making the World Series.
The Yankees won 100 games in 2018 and were eliminated in the Division Series by the 108-win Red Sox. They won 103 games this season but were taken down by the 107-win Astros. The American League is the land of the giants.
The Astros started Brad Peacock then followed with a conga line of Josh James, Ryan Pressly, Jose Urquidy, Will Harris, Joe Smith, and Osuna.
The Yankees started righthanded reliever Chad Green. They were 11-4 when he was the opener during the regular season and Green had a 3.72 earned run average in that role.
But he allowed three runs in the first inning. Altuve doubled and Alex Bregman walked before Yuli Gurriel homered to left field with two outs.
Gary Sanchez had an RBI single in the second inning and Gio Urshela a solo home run in the fourth.
With two on and two outs in the sixth inning, Brett Gardner sent a sinking line drive to right field that Josh Reddick made a sprawling catch on.
There was an even bigger play in the seventh inning.
With Aaron Judge on first base and one out, Aaron Hicks floated a shallow popup to left field that looked sure to drop in.
But Michael Brantley raced in and made a diving catch then hopped up and fired to first base to double off Judge and end the inning.
Brantley’s catch had a similar degree of difficulty to the grab Red Sox left fielder Andrew Benintendi made in Game 5 of the ALCS last season.
But it was not nearly as impactful. Benintendi’s diving catch off Bregman came with two outs in the bottom of the ninth inning with the bases loaded and the Sox holding a two-run lead.
The Yankees also made a strategic mistake in the sixth inning that led to the Astros scoring a run.
Altuve drew a leadoff walk against Tommy Kahnle then went to third when Brantley singled to right field.
The Yankees played the infield back in a 3-2 game and Altuve scored when Alex Bregman grounded to shortstop too slowly for the Yankees to turn a double play.
The Astros left the bases loaded in the eighth inning. That led to anxiety in the sellout crowd of 43,357 when Urshela led off the ninth with a single off Osuna.
That proved well-founded when LeMahieu fouled off four consecutive pitches, took a high fastball to run the count full then drove a cutter out for his third homer of this postseason.