Astros’ Carlos Correa, struggling recently, comes up big with walk-off HR vs. Yankees

HOUSTON — The 2019 season has been a trying one for the Astros’ Carlos Correa. Injuries have limited his availability and production, and even when he returned to the active list for the postseason, he struggled to find the timing at the plate that had made him one of the game’s brightest young stars. That timing returned Sunday, and it was just in time for Houston.

Correa homered to the opposite field off Yankees lefty J.A. Happ on the first pitch of the bottom of the 11th inning, giving the Astros a desperately needed 3-2 win over New York on Sunday. As the series shifts to Yankee Stadium for Game 3 on Tuesday, both teams head east with one win on the board.

“Going into that last inning, I thought, ‘I got this,'” Correa said. “I felt like I got this. And I had the right approach against [Happ]. I’ve been successful against him going the other way. And that’s what I tried to do. I saw a good pitch down the middle, and I drove the other way.”

The Astros might not have been in position for Correa’s heroics if not for a great defensive play he made to prevent a run in the bottom of the sixth.

With two outs and runners on first and second, Brett Gardner struck a hard-hit liner at Houston second baseman Jose Altuve, and the ball took an in-between hop. Recognizing the difficulty of the play, Correa ranged over from his position at shortstop and corralled the errant ball. DJ LeMahieu raced around third toward the plate with what would have been the lead run. But the strong-armed Correa gunned him down at the plate.

“The second I saw him come over and make a clean catch of the ball and come up and ready to throw, honestly, I thought he was out,” said Astros starter Justin Verlander, whose solid 6 2/3 innings got lost in the glare of Correa’s night. “It went from ‘Crap!’ to ‘We got this guy. We got an extra out!’ It was just incredible.”

According to Statcast, Correa covered 58 feet to retrieve the ball on the play and then unleashed an 87 mph throw to catcher Robinson Chirinos to get LeMahieu.

“As an infielder, I know how tough it is to catch a ball that’s a line drive right at you in between,” Correa said. “So as soon as I knew that it was going to crash in between, I was creeping over. When it hit him, and I saw the ball go my way, I just went after it. And I grabbed it, and when I looked up and I saw he was sending the runner, I thought, ‘Oh, I got this guy.’ So I threw him out. I don’t know why he sent him, but thank you.”

As the innings advanced, a Houston lineup that has struggled to score consistently in the face of elite pitching this October grew increasingly frustrated. Before Correa’s winner, the Astros hit 19 balls with an exit velocity of at least 95 mph in the first two games of the series, but they had just five hits to show for them. The Yankees, on the other hand, had 14 hits on their 23 hard-hit balls.

At one point in the eighth, Astros slugger Yordan Alvarez, the favorite to win this season’s AL Rookie of the Year award, struck out against lefty Zack Britton and snapped his bat by pounding it into the ground near home plate. When Correa’s homer left the ballpark, it wasn’t quite a catharsis because the ever-confident Astros felt it was due to happen anyway.

“We’re just going to keep getting to the next at-bat, keep letting the next hitter do his job [against] the pitching that comes in,” Astros manager AJ Hinch said. “It’s all about winning today’s game. And our guys are responding perfectly to the difficulty in beating those guys.”

Correa hit .279 with 21 homers during the season but played in only 75 games, suffering fractured ribs in May and injuring his back in August. He wasn’t cleared to rejoin the club for the playoffs until shortly before Houston started its ALDS series against the Rays. Correa played in only three big league games in September.

Although his defense has been sharp throughout October, the rust was apparent when he was at the plate. Entering Sunday, Correa was hitting .136 with a .318 OPS and one RBI in six postseason games. However, he felt so good in batting practice before Game 2 that his teammates in the dugout were telling him he would be the hero.

“Going into that last inning, I thought, ‘I got this,'” Carlos Correa said after his walk-off home run Sunday. “I felt like I got this.” Mike Ehrmann/Getty Images

They were right, and, it turns out, Correa believed them.

“I mean, he knew he was gonna end it when the pitching change came in,” Astros third baseman Alex Bregman said. “He told us. Then he did it.”

Correa doubled in the second and in the sixth drove Yankees center fielder Brett Gardner to the fence with a deep drive to left-center. But the final proof that his swing might — at last — be coming around didn’t manifest until the 11th, when he jumped on a Happ fastball and sent 43,359 orange-clad fans home happy. But no one was happier than Correa.

“It’s huge. It’s huge,” he said. “We came to the ballpark knowing we had to win this game, no matter how we had to win this game. JV on the mound, and I knew our lineup was going to do what we do throughout the whole year, and that’s put great at-bats together as a team. And we were able to do that today, and we got the win.”

As young as the 24-year-old Correa still is, he has already joined a select group of hitters with multiple game-ending hits in postseason play. Correa has two of them now, with the other coming against the Yankees in Game 2 of the 2017 ALCS. Only David Ortiz (three) had more. Alfonso Soriano, Edgar Renteria, Bernie Williams, Paul Blair and Goose Goslin also had two.

“Moments like this, like tonight make everything worth it,” Correa said. “Nights of hard work, doing my rehab, not missing anything, it’s all worth it when you look at moments like this.”

Any win in October is big, but this one not only saved the Astros from falling into an 0-2 hole with three games looming in the Bronx but also set up Houston to grab the edge in the showdown with red-hot ace Gerrit Cole taking the mound Tuesday. That is a very different perspective than the one the Astros might have had on their flight to New York had Correa not come through on both sides of the ball.

But he did, and suddenly the Astros have their superstar shortstop back in fully functional form.

“We’ve always said he’s a big part of our offense, big part of our defense, big part of our team,” Hinch said. “He’s usually hitting third, fourth or fifth, but on this team, we’ve pushed him down a little bit, coming back from injury.

“You can see the impact that we love so much about him. And you look at his RBI totals in the postseason, you look at his walk-offs, you look at the big moments. He’s a pretty special man.”

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