With no disrespect to the unhittable Nationals, the Astros-Yankees ALCS matchup already felt like the World Series—and then came Game 2, which only strengthened that perception. Throughout four hours and 49 minutes, 13 pitching changes, and 11 innings, these two AL superpowers played a game for the ages, Houston walking off with a 3-2 victory to tie the series at a game apiece.
Now, the teams travel to New York for Game 3 on Tuesday, as Gerrit Cole faces Luis Severino in a matchup of high-octane heaters. But before the series continues, it’s worth a look back at Game 2, and in honor of the contest’s 11 innings, we’re ranking the top 11 heroes of the Astros’ necessary win.
1. Carlos Correa
Such is the might of the Astros’ lineup—which in the regular season was the second best in MLB history, behind only the Murderer’s Row Yankees—that Correa, a star in his own right, hits seventh. Just 3-for-22 in the postseason entering Game 2, he opened the scoring with a second-inning double off James Paxton, then kept the Yankees from scoring a crucial run in the sixth with a heads-up defensive play.
With runners on first and second and two outs, a wicked Brett Gardner liner deflected off José Altuve’s glove, and DJ LeMahieu raced around third base. But Correa picked up the ball, pivoted, and threw home to catch LeMahieu and end the inning.
Oh, and Correa also hit the walk-off home run on the first pitch of the bottom of the 11th inning, hammering a fastball a dozen rows deep in right field. His celebratory jaunt around the bases will be the stuff of highlight reels for years to come.
2. Justin Verlander
The Astros’ co-ace has long been the bane of the Yankees. The last time he picked up a loss against New York came in 2015, so long ago that the then-Tiger allowed Alex Rodriguez’s 3,000th hit on a first-inning home run.
In the 2017 ALCS, Verlander beat the Yankees twice, allowing just one run and striking out 21 batters in 16 innings. Although he wasn’t quite as sharp on Sunday—striking out only seven in 6 2/3 and allowing a pair of runs—he did what he needed and helped Houston win the game. Of note: Verlander and Cole can pitch four times in a seven-game series, so for the Yankees to spring the upset, they need to defeat one of the duo at least once. They missed their first opportunity—and now must face Cole, the hottest pitcher on the planet, at home in Game 3.
3 and 4. Chad Green and Tommy Kahnle
Houston chased Paxton early, as the southpaw starter lasted just 2 1/3 innings while allowing four hits and as many hard-hit balls. Whether Paxton was tipping pitches or not, the Astros pounced with the early barrage of hits, forcing Yankees manager Aaron Boone to his bullpen early.
But the performance of the bullpen at large, and Green and Kahnle in particular, allowed New York to remain in the game thereafter. Against the most destructive offense in the majors, Green and Kahnle combined for 4 1/3 perfect innings while also stranding four inherited runners between them, and the Yankees pen as a whole combined for the following line: 7 2/3 innings, two runs, three hits, 11 strikeouts, four walks.
Had Verlander himself accumulated that line, he would be the game’s lead story, praised in every column off Game 2. New York’s relievers just happened to piece together this prolific performance as a group.
5. CC Sabathia, LOOGY Extraordinaire
Yes, this game grew so wild that it saw Sabathia, the future Hall of Fame starter pitching in his final postseason, make an appearance for one batter. He came in for the start of an inning, induced a Michael Brantley groundout, and left—a perfect relief outing for a pitcher who had never faced fewer than three batters in a game in his career.
6 and 7. Aaron Judge and George Springer
As usual against the Yankees, Verlander looked perfect through the first three innings. (He was perfect, too, facing nine hitters and retiring them all.) With his typical diet of high fastballs and low sliders, Verlander bamboozled the Yankees bats into four strikeouts the first time through the order, including one of Judge on three consecutive breaking balls. That first K continued a trend for the Yankees slugger, who had struggled against Verlander like against no other pitcher in his young career.
But to open the fourth inning, Verlander walked LeMahieu, then left a slider up in the zone, and Judge didn’t miss that one; instead, he crushed it 423 feet to center field, giving New York a 2-1 lead. For a moment, it looked like the Yankees would steal both games in Houston.
Until, that is, Springer had his turn to respond. In the fifth inning, Adam Ottavino entered in place of Green, and Springer blasted his first pitch toward the train tracks in Minute Maid Park’s left field. The Houston outfielder has a long history of clutch playoff homers, most notably the five he hit in seven games in the 2017 World Series—which included one in the same locomotive direction. This solo shot marked the 12th of his postseason career, a franchise record.
Both Judge and Springer went 1-for-4 with a walk in the game, but their lone hits were about as important as they come. Besides Correa, nobody else drove in a run on Sunday.
8. Houston’s Bullpen
New York’s relievers receive plenty of credit, but the Astros’ were just as strong after Verlander left the mound. Five Astros relievers combined for 4 1/3 scoreless innings to keep the pressure on New York’s pitchers (the Yankees’ win probability never rose above 50.2 percent after the sixth inning) and bury a lineup almost as fearsome as Houston’s own.
Joe Smith in particular deserves commendation, as the soft-tossing sidearmer mowed through most of New York’s lineup to record five quick outs in six batters. Throwing an 88 mph fastball next to a bunch of teammates throwing in the high 90s, Smith allowed just one ball—a lazy Gleyber Torres fly—to leave the infield, and now owns a career 1.04 ERA in 11 postseason games.
9. Gio Urshela
The Yankees’ third baseman might have gone 0-for-4 at the plate, but he made a leaping snare of a Yuli Gurriel liner to lead off the sixth, gaining some measure of revenge for Alex Bregman’s robbery of an Urshela screamer in Game 1.
Through two games in this series, the defense has been nearly flawless on both sides; Houston’s worst play on Sunday was Altuve’s bobble, but Correa immediately compensated with the throw to nab LeMahieu at the plate. Overall, a series pitting two dominant teams has looked just that way, with both displaying exactly why they belong one round shy of the World Series. Game 2 may not have been as dramatic as, say, either of the Nationals’ elimination games this month, but it may have been the best-played contest, top to bottom, in these playoffs thus far. It’s much easier to stomach nearly five hours of a single game when every pitch is tense and fraught with meaning.
10. Home Plate Umpire Cory Blaser
With two men on and two outs in the top of the 11th inning, Gary Sánchez swung and missed at strike three from Josh James. But Sánchez successfully argued, and Blaser agreed, that the pitch in the dirt had first deflected off Sánchez’s bat. It had done no such thing—it hadn’t even come close—but the play wasn’t reviewable, so Sánchez remained at bat.
Had he collected the game-winning hit, this showcase of premier baseball talent would have transformed into an all-encompassing replay debate—the worst part of any dramatic sporting event. And if umpires are supposed to represent justice and fairness and balance in the sports world, well, Blaser delivered right away with a textbook example of a makeup call.
On the very next pitch, James located a fastball well outside. Sánchez rightly took it. Blaser signaled the strikeout regardless.
11. Aaron Boone
The Yankees ended the game with a motley crew of relievers trying to navigate their way through Houston’s lineup. After Aroldis Chapman needed 25 pitches to throw a scoreless ninth inning—a welcome example, first, of using a closer in a tie game on the road—the Yankees used three lesser pitchers to complete the 10th inning, and then homer magnet J.A. Happ was allowed to lose the game to Correa in the 11th. Among 66 pitchers who threw at least 160 innings in the regular season, Happ ranked 65th in home run rate; he’s not the ideal pitcher to throw in a situation in which a single swing can end the game.
It’s not like Boone had much of a choice at that point, either; the pen’s only remaining arms were Happ (who, to his credit, escaped a jam in the 10th), Tyler Lyons, and Luis Cessa. It could seem natural to blame the manager.
But a year after routinely leaving scuffling starters in too long in playoff games, Boone continues to exhibit the proper bullpen aggression in this postseason. In Game 2, he pulled Paxton with two runners on and Bregman at the plate, when Houston could have broken the game open, and his pitching plan helped hold the Astros, again, to just two runs through nine innings. That’s all a manager can ask for, and Boone knows it. “The bottom line is we end up giving up a third run in the 11th inning,” he said after the game. “I’d say from a run prevention standpoint it went pretty well.”
Of course, Boone will face further pitching dilemmas with the series back in New York. There is no off day between any of the next three games, for one, which could strain the club’s best arms; Severino, who hasn’t thrown more than five innings once this season since returning from injury, is slated for Game 3, and a bullpen or “opener” game is on tap for Game 4; and Cole waits in the opposite dugout on Tuesday, so actually, allowing two runs might be enough to lose another game.
The Yankees lost the opportunity to take a 2-0 series lead, but it wasn’t Boone’s fault. It wasn’t anyone’s fault, really—baseball is a zero-sum game, and even in a thoroughly entertaining and impeccably played contest such as this, one team has to lose. On Sunday, that was the Yankees, with Correa walking off Game 2 of the ALCS yet again. One suspects this won’t be the last bit of late-game drama in the series.