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Astros reach World Series, shut out Yankees in ALCS Game 7

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Astros reach World Series, shut out Yankees in ALCS Game 7

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HOUSTON -- Jose Altuve embraced Justin Verlander as confetti rained down. An improbable thought just a few years ago, the Houston Astros are headed to the World Series.

Charlie Morton and Lance McCullers combined on a three-hitter, Altuve and Evan Gattis homered and the Astros reached the World Series for only the second time by blanking the New York Yankees 4-0 Saturday night in Game 7 of the AL Championship Series.

Next up for the Astros: Game 1 against the Los Angeles Dodgers on Tuesday night. Los Angeles opened as a narrow favorite, but Verlander, the ALCS MVP, and fellow Houston ace Dallas Keuchel will have plenty of rest before the World Series begins at sweltering Dodger Stadium.

"I love our personality," Astros manager A.J. Hinch said. "We have the right amount of fun, the right amount of seriousness, the right amount of perspective when we need it. This is a very, very unique group. To win 100 games and still be hungry is pretty remarkable."

The Astros will try for their first World Series title, thanks in large part to Altuve, the diminutive second baseman who swings a potent bat, and Verlander, who switched teams for the first time in his career to chase a ring.

Four years removed from their third straight 100-loss season in 2013, the Astros shut down the Yankees on consecutive nights after dropping three in a row in the Bronx.

The only previous time the Astros made it this far, they were a National League team when they were swept by the Chicago White Sox in 2005.

Hinch's club has a chance to win that elusive first crown, while trying to boost a region still recovering from Hurricane Harvey.

"This city, they deserve this," McCullers said.

Clutch defensive plays by third baseman Alex Bregman and center fielder George Springer helped Houston improve to 6-0 at Minute Maid Park in these playoffs and become the fifth team in major league history to capture a seven-game postseason series by winning all four of its home games.

Morton bounced back from a loss in Game 3 to allow two hits over five scoreless innings. Starter-turned-postseason reliever McCullers limited the Yankees to just one hit while fanning six over the next four. A noted curveballer, McCullers finished up with 24 straight breaking pitches to earn his first major league save.

Combined, they throttled the wild-card Yankees one last time in Houston. Aaron Judge, Gary Sanchez and their New York teammates totaled just three runs in the four road games.

"I know people are going to talk about how we didn't win many games on the road. There were some other teams that haven't won many games on the road, either. We just happened to run into a very good team that just beat us," Yankees manager Joe Girardi said.

The Astros also eliminated New York in the 2015 postseason, with Keuchel winning the AL wild-card game at Yankee Stadium.

CC Sabathia entered 10-0 with a 1.69 ERA in 13 starts this season after a Yankees loss. But he struggled with command and was gone with one out in the fourth inning.

Houston was up 2-0 in fifth when former Yankees star Brian McCann came through for the second straight game by hitting a two-run double. He snapped an 0-for-20 skid with an ground-rule RBI double to give Houston its first run on Friday night in a 7-1 win.

The Yankees, trying to reach the World Series for the first time since 2009, lost an elimination game for the first time this season after winning their first four in these playoffs. New York went 1-6 on the road this postseason.

After going 0 for 5 with runners in scoring position through the first three innings, the Astros got on the board with no outs in the fourth with the 405-foot shot by Gattis.

Altuve launched a ball off Tommy Kahnle into the seats in right field with one out in the fifth for his fifth homer this postseason. It took a while for him to see that it was going to get out, and held onto his bat until he was halfway to first base before flipping it and trotting around the bases as chants of "MVP" rained down on him.

Altuve finished 8 for 25 with two homers and four RBIs in the ALCS after hitting .533 with three homers and four RBIs in the ALDS against Boston.

Carlos Correa and Yuli Gurriel hit consecutive singles before Kahnle struck out Gattis. McCann's two-strike double, which rolled into the corner of right field, cleared the bases to push the lead to 4-0. Gurriel slid to avoid the tag and remained on his belly in a swimming pose at the plate for a few seconds after he was called safe.

It was just the second Game 7 in franchise history for the Astros, who lost to the Cardinals in the 2004 NLCS exactly 13 years earlier.

Sabathia allowed five hits and one run while walking three in 3 1/3 innings. He wasn't nearly as sharp as he was in a Game 3 win and just 36 of the 65 pitches he threw were strikes.

Morton got into trouble in the fifth, and the Yankees had runners at the corners with one out. Bregman fielded a grounder hit by Todd Frazier and made a perfect throw home to allow McCann to tag Greg Bird and preserve Houston's lead. McCann held onto the ball despite Bird's cleat banging into his forearm. Chase Headley grounded out after that to end the inning.

A night after Springer kept Frazier from extra-bases with a leaping catch, Judge returned the favor on a ball hit by Yuli Gurriel. Judge sprinted, jumped and reached into the stands to grab his long fly ball before crashing into the wall and falling to the ground for the first out of the second inning.

Springer had another nifty catch in this one, jumping in front of Marwin Gonzalez at the wall in left-center to grab a ball hit by Bird for the first out of the seventh.

With McCullers in charge, the Astros soon closed it out.

"It's not easy to get here. And I don't take any of this for granted. And this is what we play for," Verlander said. "These are the experiences that you remember at the end of your career when you look back, winning these games, just playing the World Series. Hopefully winning the World Series."

Phillies pitcher Nick Pivetta goes to school on Justin Verlander

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Phillies pitcher Nick Pivetta goes to school on Justin Verlander

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DUNEDIN, Fla. — For a gazillion years, pitchers have been told to keep the ball down. That is still valuable advice, but with more and more hitters looking to launch the ball with an upward swing path these days, power pitchers are striking back with a high fastball above the bat head.

Nick Pivetta has a power fastball and he’s working on this technique. He consciously threw some fastballs above the belt in his two-inning spring debut Friday against the Toronto Blue Jays.

“We're telling all of our pitchers, we're asking them to do some new things,” manager Gabe Kapler said. “And there's going to be some times in spring training games when you get hit a little bit.”

That’s OK. The new-school Phillies want their players to be open to new ideas. Pivetta, who struck out 9.5 batters per nine innings in 26 starts last season, is open learning to ride a high fastball by a hitter looking to launch. He watched on television as Justin Verlander did that for Houston in the postseason last year and he’s watched more video of Verlander and interacted with Phillies coaches about the strategy this spring.

“A key point that they brought to me was how Verlander pitched in the playoffs,” Pivetta said. “I think that’s something I can learn from a lot of the time, how he did it when he came over to Houston.

“It’s part of pitching. You’ve got to be able to command the zone, both the top and bottom. It’s not to say we’re going to only throw up. It’s just something else to work on.”

Pivetta pitched two innings and struck out three in the 2-1 loss to the Blue Jays. He allowed three hits, a walk and two runs in the first inning. One of the hits was a solo homer by Curtis Granderson on a hanging breaking ball.

Kapler was pleased with Pivetta’s performace and his reponse to trying new things.

“He executed his game plan today,” Kapler said. “He executed some pretty nasty sliders at the bottom of the zone. He executed some fastballs at the top of the zone. He missed some bats, which is really encouraging.

“One of the things we’re working on with him is elevating a little bit. He has velocity and strong pitch characteristics to pitch up in the zone. But he also has the ability to pitch down in the zone with his slider and his curveball.

“He kicked ass today. He did everything we asked him to do.”

The Phillies host the Orioles on Saturday. Zach Eflin will be the starting pitcher.

Lost and found — K-Rod enjoys solid debut with Phillies

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Lost and found — K-Rod enjoys solid debut with Phillies

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DUNEDIN, Fla. — Francisco Rodriguez navigated the narrow streets of this friendly, little, old-school spring training burg looking for a place to park his Mercedes late Friday morning.

Finally, after asking several people for directions, he found a spot near the grounds crew shed at Dunedin Stadium.

The episode was a bit of a metaphor for Rodriguez’s workday with the Phillies. Back on the mound in a game situation for the first time since last summer, Rodriguez allowed a walk to the first batter he faced and later a single, but stayed composed and left two runners on base in notching a scoreless inning in his first action of the spring in a 2-1 loss to the Toronto Blue Jays.

“I felt kind of lost the first couple of batters,” Rodriguez said. “But once I got a ground ball, I started locating. It had been a while since I was on the mound in a game.”

Rodriguez, 36, is the most decorated player in Phillies camp. He is a six-time All-Star and baseball’s active leader in saves (437) and appearances (948). Released twice last season, he is trying to win a spot in the Phillies’ bullpen as a non-roster invite to camp.

He opened last season as Detroit’s closer, but was released in June after recording a 7.82 ERA in 28 games. The Nationals took a peek at him in the minors a few weeks later and also let him go.

Rodriguez said he was not healthy last season. He said he had issues with his groin and hamstring.

“I couldn’t be 100 percent,” he said. “But that’s not an excuse. I should have found a way to get the job done in Detroit and I couldn’t. That’s one of the reasons that I’m in this situation now.”

Rodriguez ranks fourth all time in saves behind Mariano Rivera, Trevor Hoffman and Lee Smith. He does not have the power fastball that once earned him the nickname K-Rod — he topped out at 89 mph Friday — but location, a good changeup and old-fashioned savvy are still strengths. Pitching coach Rick Kranitz was influential in bringing in Rodriguez for a look. The two were together in Milwaukee, where Rodriguez was an All-Star in 2014 and 2015.

“He’s a great reliever,” Kranitz said.

Does he have anything left?

“I believe so, yes,” Kranitz said.

Kranitz went on to say that Rodriguez was a high-character guy who would help the Phillies’ young pitchers.

Rodriguez was asked what pushed him to continue his career and come to camp essentially on a tryout.

“I love the game,” he said. “I don’t think I have to prove anything. I don’t think I went to Walmart and bought 900 appearances and 437 saves. I did that with a lot of pride and hard work. This is the only thing I know how to do, play baseball. God gave me the opportunity to throw a baseball and I’m going to continue to do it.”

The Phillies may go with an eight-man bullpen. That could help Rodriguez’s chances of sticking. But he will have to pitch well.

“I’m looking forward to having a great spring,” he said.