The Nationals are in last place in the NL East after losing five straight games and sit five games under .500. Now they have to face the two teams at the top of the division standings.
HOUSTON (AP) -- Jose Altuve homered off Aroldis Chapman with two outs in the ninth inning and the Houston Astros outlasted the New York Yankees 6-4 Saturday night to advance to the World Series for the second time in three years.
In a bullpen game with a back-and-forth finish, DJ LeMahieu hit a tying, two-run shot off Astros closer Roberto Osuna in the top of the ninth. Altuve answered with a two-run drive to left-center, setting off a wild celebration at Minute Maid Park and earning himself AL Championship Series MVP.
"Beautiful game," Altuve said.
Astros ace Gerrit Cole was waiting to pitch a potential Game 7 on Sunday. Instead, the postseason star -- undefeated since May 22 -- could be lined up for Game 1 at home against the NL champion Washington Nationals on Tuesday night.
Yuli Gurriel hit a three-run homer in the first inning, and flashy outfield defense helped Houston's relievers defeat the Yankees and their vaunted bullpen.
It almost fell apart in the ninth. Gio Urshela singled off Osuna leading off for his third hit of the game, and LeMahieu put a ball into the first row of seats in right field -- inches over the glove of leaping George Springer -- to tie it at 4.
Altuve, a 5-foot-6 sparkplug touted as Houston's heart and soul, didn't let this one get away.
"I get asked to describe Jose Altuve all the time," manager AJ Hinch said. "I think MVP is what he is."
The teams combined to use 14 pitchers in a game that lasted 4 hours, 9 minutes.
Houston's bullpen got a lift from flashy outfield defense. Right fielder Josh Reddick dived for Brett Gardner's liner for the second out of the sixth. An inning later, left fielder Michael Brantley laid out for Aaron Hicks' shallow floater and doubled off Aaron Judge at first.
Gurriel, a holdover from Houston's 2017 championship team, was 1 for 20 to start the ALCS before his drive in the first inning. The shot into the Crawford Boxes was his first connection this postseason.
It's the third time Houston has eliminated New York in the past five postseasons. The Astros won the 2015 wild-card game in the Bronx and beat the Yankees in seven games in the 2017 ALCS before winning their first title.
Washington is seeking its first championship in the 51-season history of the Montreal Expos/Nationals franchise. The original Washington Senators won their only championship for the nation's capital in 1924 and last reached the World Series in 1933 before becoming the Minnesota Twins for the 1961 season.
Gary Sanchez had an RBI single in the second and Urshela homered in the fourth.
Alex Bregman gave the Astros an insurance run with an RBI on a forceout in the sixth inning.
Brantley's double play elicited one of the loudest ovations of the night -- before Altuve's blast -- from the sellout crowd of 43,357 which included Hall of Famers Nolan Ryan and Craig Biggio and Rockets stars James Harden and Russell Westbrook, who watched from the front row in personalized orange Astros jerseys.
New York lost its fourth straight ALCS after falling in 2010, 2012 and 2017. The Yankees will go without a World Series appearance in a calendar decade for the first time since the 1910s.
Altuve doubled off opener Chad Green with one out in the first inning and Bregman drew a walk with two outs. After a short visit to the mound, Gurriel knocked the next pitch into the seats in left field for a 3-0 lead. The runs were Houston's first with two outs in the series.
Houston had been 4 for 40 with runners in scoring position before that big swing.
Brad Peacock, who threw eight pitches in a scoreless eighth inning Friday night, became the fourth pitcher ever to finish a postseason game and then start the next day, and the first since 1924.
He needed seven pitches to retire the side in the first before running into trouble with two outs in the second. Josh James ended the inning by striking out Gardner.
Ryan Pressly had another gutsy escape, too. He hurt his right knee again fielding a bases-loaded grounder by Didi Gregorius but limped over to tag him for the final out of the third. Pressly, who grimaced as he went toward the dugout after one pitch, had arthroscopic surgery on the same knee on Aug. 22 and returned Sept. 20. Pressly also got two strikeouts with the bases loaded in Game 4.
WASHINGTON -- Inside the age discussion around Washington’s older team is another percolating topic. Those same members of the 30-plus realm also tend to roll their eyes -- to a degree -- at analytics.
Multiple veterans have pushed back at the influence of statistical analysis on success. They are not discounting it on the whole. They are trying to add emphasis on the human element, the so-called “eye test” and, no matter how it is received elsewhere, express their thoughts about information overload.
Washington's organization remained scout heavy even as it developed its in-house analytics system named “Pentagon”. General manager Mike Rizzo comes from a scouting background. He also spearheaded a push for more depth in the organization’s analytics department, capping those efforts by promoting Mike DeBartolo and Sam Mondry-Cohen to assistant general manager positions before the season began.
Both were reared in the organization. DeBartolo graduated from Tufts University, then Columbia Business School. He worked at an investment advisory firm prior joining the Nationals as an intern in baseball operations seven years ago. Mondry-Cohen is charged with “the front office’s analysis of baseball data and the development of department-wide baseball systems.” He went to the University of Pennsylvania, and, like DeBartolo, began his work as a baseball operations intern.
Next to Rizzo, they represent balance. Rizzo ascended from assistant college coach to regional scout to director of scouting in Arizona, where a portion of his roster-building technique (starting pitching, plus more starting pitching) was honed. He consistently touts the club’s scouts.
Davey Martinez was hired to use more information and deploy it. In all, the Nationals have tried to balance the sides while keeping a large emphasis on scouting.
At this point, the distribution and absorption of information is more of a challenge than discovering or creating it. One thing Scherzer pointed out about Juan Soto is his ability to process so much information so quickly. Soto mostly does this via experience, not charts and scouting reports. Another thing Scherzer pointed out at the All-Star Game was his irritation the weight of analytics now possesses in the game.
“Everybody thinks this is just a math game and a numbers game, and you just look at WAR, and you know your team,” Scherzer said. “We can have projections and models -- you name it -- and that’s baseball. That’s not baseball.
“Baseball’s played by humans. We’re humans. We experience emotions and we’re pretty good about channeling what it takes to compete every single day, but when you get a good clubhouse and you get some good energy, good vibes, it makes it easy for everybody to compete at the same level. I feel like that’s what we have going on. We have very good clubhouse. Everybody’s kind of settled in their roles. We all know how to clown on each other, have fun, when anybody makes a mistake -- my God, I’ve been making a heck of a lot of mistakes lately, everybody is getting a good laugh at -- that’s a sign of a winning club.”
Rendon uses analytics as a key to jokes about his success. When he beat out a grounder after returning from quad and hamstring tightness, he told reporters to “Statcast me.” Asked during the National League Division Series why this became his best statistical year, he sent another zing.
“Launch angle,” Rendon said with a smile. “No. Yeah, I really don't know. I've been getting a lot of those questions lately or at least this season. And I think if I actually knew, if I changed anything or if I knew if I was going to have this type of season, I actually would have done it a long time ago and I wouldn't have waited six or seven years into it. But I think that, man, I say all the time, I think I'm partly, I'm getting lucky.”
The idea of simplicity -- and the human touch -- trickles down to the initial assessments when hunting the next prospect. Johnny DiPuglia, Nationals director, international operations, explained the club’s player-hunt philosophy is less about using technology to assess spin rate and more about finding the best player on the field.
“We don't complicate ourselves with all this analytic stuff that's out now with all this TrackMan (pitching analysis) and all the Blast (swing analysis sensor and software) and all this stuff that is used," DiPuglia said. "We go out in the field, we beat the bushes and we watch games. We try to find the best player on the field, get the checkpoints and if he checkpoints the profile of a big-league position, we evaluate the numbers money-wise and try to sign the kid. We do it to the simplest form here. We don't try to complicate things.
“The game is the same game it was 50 years ago. Unfortunately, now it's a little more complicated and too much information is given.”
The contrast between the Nationals and their likely World Series opponent, Houston, is striking. Astros shortstop Carlos Correa is on the box of the Blast “complete hitting solution.” Tomes have been written about Houston’s application of analytics when restructuring and rebooting its organization. Its success indisputably shows the process has worked: The Astros won the World Series in 2017, made it to the ALCS in 2018 and are back there again in 2019. Five years ago, they lost 92 games. Baltimore hired former Houston assistant general manager Mike Elias to repeat the process.
In Washington, the veteran-filled clubhouse casts a wary eye toward analytics. Their process has been simpler. They believe in the karma coming out of their room. Many of them think its value rivals that of deep scouting reports or color-coded charts. Whatever the formula, it was enough to finally breakthrough and reach the World Series.
Chase Hughes contributed to this report.
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