HOUSTON — Jake Marisnick, a defensive replacement who rarely gets a chance to hit in the postseason, was standing on deck when Jose Altuve came to the plate in the bottom of the ninth inning for the Houston Astros on Saturday night.
Game 6 of the American League Championship Series was tied and the Astros had George Springer on first base with two outs. The Yankees had their closer, Aroldis Chapman, on the mound.
It was not a situation for an intentional walk, Yankees manager Aaron Boone would say later. But it was certainly incumbent on Chapman to be careful with one of the best players in the game and a clutch postseason hitter.
“Get down and out of the zone, see if you get a chase,” Boone said.
If Altuve walked, so what? The Astros would either let Marisnick hit or use rookie outfielder Kyle Tucker or backup catcher Robinson Chirinos in his place.
In the age of risk-averse analytics, players are coached to always play the percentages. Chapman, right on cue, threw two fastballs up and away that the 5-foot-6-inch Altuve took.
But then Chapman challenged Altuve with a crisp slider that he took for a strike. So he tried the same pitch again.
This slider was slower and looser, tantalizingly hanging out over the plate. Altuve crushed the pitch and the Yankees, his two-run homer giving the Astros a 6-4 victory.
It was 84 miles per hour coming in and 105 going out. Chapman actually smiled for a second after the ball cleared the wall in left center field, as though he was somehow bemused at what happened.
The only other home run Chapman had allowed in the postseason was in Game 7 of the 2016 World Series when Cleveland’s Rajai Davis connected off him to tie the game.
But Chapman and the Cubs came back to win that night. This time he sent his team into the offseason.
“I couldn’t believe it,” said Chapman, who can opt-out of his contract after the season and won’t dismay many Yankees fans if he does.
Altuve’s blast was the fifth walk-off home run to win a League Championship Series in history, the first since Travis Ishikawa sent the San Francisco Giants to the 2014 World Series.
The Astros will host the Washington Nationals in Game 1 on Tuesday with Gerrit Cole on the mound. The Nationals, who won the NLCS five days ago, haven’t named a starter but it’s expected to be Max Scherzer.
Justin Verlander is lined up for Game 2, likely against Stephen Strasburg.
Altuve, who was named Most Valuable Player of the series, rounded the bases with alacrity after his home run and sprinted away from his teammates before they could tear off his jersey.
“I was just thinking [about] something I can drive,” Altuve said. “I have my game plan; I wasn’t trying to hit a homer. I was just thinking to hit the ball hard, get on base and keep the momentum. Thank God the ball went out and we won the game.”
Altuve has 13 home runs and 28 RBIs in 43 playoff games for Houston, a centerpiece player for a team favored to win its second championship in three seasons.
“The playoff version of him is spectacular,” manager AJ Hinch said. “We talk about his Division Series homers and then his attention to detail in every facet of the game.
“He’s turned himself into a star in his career here, and yet he’s remained humble, he’s remained hungry. He’s driven. He’s engaging with his teammates. It’s the same old quote: Everything that’s right about the Astros is Jose Altuve. I’m so proud of him. I’m so fortunate to be his manager.”
Springer, who worked a walk after Chapman got two quick outs, expected Altuve to put the ball in play and was focused on getting a good jump off first base.
“He’s an unbelievable player and a better person,” Springer said. “The amount of hard work he puts into it, the time spent in the cage. That doesn’t get seen by a lot of people.
“He’s the only guy I’ve ever met who would be unhappy with a 5-for-6 day. He wants that next hit. To have him up in that situation is exactly what we wanted.”
The Yankees, down 4-2, temporarily saved their season in the top of the ninth inning when DJ LeMahieu hit a two-run homer to right field off Astros closer Roberto Osuna.
Then Chapman gave the game away and the Yankees returned to New York with yet another bitter October setback.
“It’s a failure,” Aaron Judge said.
The Yankees won 100 games in 2018 and 103 this season but are 7-7 in the postseason under Boone.
“We’ll continue to try and I guess close that gap or put ourselves in a position to get over the hump,” he said. “I know everyone in our room believes we will and we’ll have a lot of battle scars when we do finally get to the top of that mountain.”