Jose Altuve, Carlos Correa Igniting Astros Offense Looms Large for ALCS Game 7

Just when they needed them to, the Houston Astros' stars aligned and saved their season.

Due to the seven shutout innings he hurled, Justin Verlander will get the lion's share of the credit for Houston's win over the New York Yankees on Friday at Minute Maid Park, which evened the American League Championship Series at three games apiece. George Springer will also get plenty of love for the stupendous catch he made in the seventh inning.

But the biggest story is right there in plain sight when looking at the 7-1 final of Game 6: The Astros offense is back just in time for Saturday's Game 7.

Those seven runs are only two fewer than they had scored through the first five games of the series. And a good chunk of them came from a likely source.

Jose Altuve, who's fresh off his third batting title and possibly on his way to his first AL MVP, provided a long-anticipated big hit with a two-run single in the fifth inning and a dagger with a solo home run in the eighth inning. 

Just like that, the All-Star second baseman upped his RBI count for the series from zero to three. He also collected his first hits since going 5-for-8 in Games 1 and 2.

Of course, Altuve didn't do it all by himself in Game 6.

Carlos Correa also had a pair of hits, one of which was a scorching 107.2 mile-per-hour double in the eighth inning. Brian McCann had two hits of his own. Alex Bregman only had one, but it was a clutch two-run double.

Short version: It was a team effort mainly headlined by the Astros' young, homegrown stars. Or, pretty much what everyone came to expect from their offense up until the ALCS.

Pick an offensive category, any offensive category, and chances are the Astros led Major League Baseball in it this season. To name just a few, they led in runs, hits, batting average, on-base percentage, slugging percentage and OPS.

If that's not enough to drive home the point that theirs was no ordinary offense, consider a stat called "Weighted Runs Created Plus." It captures total offensive value in relation to league average (100), and it puts the 2017 Astros behind only three Babe Ruth-era Yankees offenses as the greatest ever:

Rank Team wRC+
1 1927 Yankees 126
T2 1930 Yankees 124
T2 1931 Yankees 124
4 2017 Astros 121

The Astros looked the part of an all-time great offensive team in dispatching the Boston Red Sox in the American League Division Series, posting a .974 OPS and hitting eight homers. It seemed like a short jump from there to the franchise's second World Series appearance.

But then, the first five games of the ALCS played like the "All Good Things Must Come to an End" phrase of Houston's 2017 offense.

The Astros scored just two runs in each of the first two games and five total in three games at Yankee Stadium. In all, they went into Game 6 with a .447 OPS for the series.

"We've lost a little bit of our offensive adjustments and a little of our offensive mojo," Astros manager A.J. Hinch said, according to David Adler of MLB.com. "It's rare, because of how much offense we put up through the first six months of the season and even in the Division Series. We've swung the bats very well, and I believe we're one good game from coming out of it."

The easiest and, per the eye test, most valid explanation was that Houston's superior hitting had simply run into more superior pitching. Masahiro Tanaka, Luis Severino, CC Sabathia and Sonny Gray took turns baffling Astros hitters to start games. Then New York's star-studded bullpen finished them off.

But it was also evident that there was bad luck at play.

As Adler pointed out, the Astros had little to show for the balls they'd hit well through the first five games of the ALCS. That changed in Game 6. At least as measured by exit velocity, all seven of their hardest-hit balls found paydirt.

Houston's hitters also found an equilibrium between patience and aggression that they'd been sorely lacking at Yankee Stadium. A good example was when they chased Severino in the fifth inning, forcing him to throw 26 pitches as they worked him for three walks and two hits.

An added benefit of getting Severino out early was pushing Yankees skipper Joe Girardi to use some of his best relievers. Chad Green, David Robertson and Dellin Betances will be on zero days' rest for Game 7.

The Astros still face a tough assignment in a second go-round against Sabathia, whose contact management talents won the day in Game 3. And while Green's availability will be limited after he threw 38 pitches Friday, there won't be leashes on Robertson, Betances, Tommy Kahnle or Aroldis Chapman.

If it comes to it, the Astros don't have much hope of winning a low-scoring game. They're putting their faith in Charlie Morton, who got rocked in Game 3, and a bullpen that's been a leaky ship all postseason.

But after Game 6, it sure seems a lot less likely to come to that than it did before.

This Astros team is made to hit, and did indeed do more hitting through Games 1 and 5 than their results let on. Their outburst in Game 6 is less of a blip in the Yankees' dominance of the scoreboard and more a case of the Astros snapping out of an uncharacteristic funk.

One more game just like it, and a date with the Los Angeles Dodgers in the World Series awaits.

 

Data courtesy of Baseball Reference, FanGraphs and Baseball Savant

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