HOUSTON – The Houston Astros were running out of chances, energy, warm bodies and life late Saturday night, in their third game in three days, in their second city and second time zone in 24 hours, near the end of the third week of the postseason and deep into their seventh consecutive month of playing baseball together.
And somewhere deep down, they understood they were nearing last chances. Win or lose, there would be a tomorrow. But tomorrow's tomorrow was no given.
But what they had, even at their most dire moment, was Jose Altuve. And what Altuve had was a bat. And what that bat had was one more mighty swing.
In the bottom of the ninth inning Saturday night, in Game 6 of the American League Championship Series, it propelled a slider from Aroldis Chapman, the New York Yankees' flamethrowing closer, over the wall in left-center field — a two-run homer that ended the ALCS with a dramatic 6-4 Houston victory.
"The only thing I remember, I was just thanking God for the opportunity to go to another World Series," Altuve said as he accepted the ALCS MVP award. "Thanks everybody in the ballpark, because you guys are the bigger reason why we're here."
The Astros are headed to the World Series for the second time in three years, and in the process ending the Yankees' season for the third time in five years.
Houston, which won the 2017 World Series in seven games over the Los Angeles Dodgers, plays host to Washington in Game 1 of this year's Fall Classic on Tuesday night. The matchup figures to be Astros ace Gerrit Cole against three-time Cy Young Award winner Max Scherzer of the Nationals.
The Astros are loaded with high-end talent and blessed with ample creativity and resolve — but after the high-wire act they pulled off with their pitching in Game 6, they were also in desperate need of a day off.
The Astros were two outs away from victory, and the Yankees two outs from oblivion, when New York first baseman DJ LeMahieu smashed a two-run, opposite-field homer off Houston closer Roberto Osuna to tie the score in the top of the ninth inning. The homer came at the end of a 10-pitch at-bat in which LeMahieu fouled off four consecutive two-strike pitches from Osuna.
Having led the entire game — Yuli Gurriel hit a three-run homer in the first inning off Yankees starter Chad Green — the Astros were suddenly in both an emotional hole and a personnel one. They had blown through all the best arms in their bullpen, while the Yankees still had their closer, Chapman, ready in theirs.
But Chapman, after retiring the first two batters in the ninth inning, walked Houston leadoff batter George Springer on five pitches, then left 2-1 a slider up to Altuve.
"He just hung a pitch and got beat," New York manager Aaron Boone said.
In lieu of fourth starters, both teams opted for the once-dreaded, now-trendy bullpen game Saturday, started by Green and Houston's Brad Peacock.
It was still a jarring sight given the stakes. It was also, if we're being honest, kind of fun.
The Yankees finished with 103 wins and swept the Twins in the Division Series. But just as it was in 2017, they could not get past an Astros team with designs on a championship, and for the first time since the 1920s, they will go a decade without playing in a World Series.
"The ending's cruel," Boone said. "Really cruel. But I'm so proud to compete with these guys at the highest level."