HOUSTON — October’s most dangerous hitter stood on deck, its most dominant starting pitcher stood on the ropes and Alex Bregman stood in a 3-0 count. He got there 44 times during the regular season and worked 32 walks while totaling two hits — a .773 on-base percentage for the Houston Astros’ most selective hitter.
Hitting third in the batting order means Bregman must pass a baton. The phrase encapsulates Houston’s entire offensive approach, one on display during the past three games of this American League Championship Series. The lineup worked wonderful at-bats from top to bottom, bludgeoned the Texas Rangers in their home ballpark and put itself on the precipice of a pennant.
Bregman sought to bring his club closer in the fifth inning. Nathan Eovaldi plunked nine-hole hitter Martín Maldonado to start the frame but followed it with Jose Altuve’s first-pitch flyout and a strikeout of Michael Brantley on a sublime splitter.
Eovaldi’s first three pitches to Bregman sailed outside. A center-cut fastball got him back in the count, but expecting Bregman to swing felt silly. Bregman had one hit in a 3-0 count during the regular season and put just four balls in play.
Yordan Alvarez loomed on deck, turning Bregman’s foremost objective into a simple one: find a way to get on base. Alvarez arrived on Sunday 9-for-13 lifetime against Eovaldi, who had no intention to inflate the numbers. Alvarez received an intentional walk in the third inning with a runner already on first base, but doing it again with two aboard in the fifth felt impossible.
One ball or base hit separated Bregman from putting Eovaldi in the predicament. The pitcher chose a cutter in a 3-1 count. It flattened in the heart of Bregman’s strike zone. Bregman began his swing but opened up too early. The fly ball traveled 22 feet into foul territory, settled into catcher Jonah Heim’s glove and prevented Alvarez from approaching the batter’s box.
“Bad mechanical swing on my part,” Bregman said.
Bregman missed a pitch he often bludgeons. For three days in Arlington, such a scenario felt impossible. The Astros annihilated all of Texas’ mistakes and erased a series deficit because of it.
Houston’s lineup scored 23 runs and struck 11 extra-base hits in its three wins at Globe Life Field. The same group struck six singles and scored twice during a 9-2 loss in Game 6 on Sunday, furthering a flummoxing trend that has defined — and now may derail — its season.
To secure a third consecutive trip to the World Series, the Astros must find a way to hit inside Minute Maid Park. They scored two runs on Sunday for the third time in five home playoff games. A 1-for-8 showing with runners in scoring position left them 5-for-34 during those five games.
“It’s just baseball,” utilityman Mauricio Dubón said. “It’s something you can’t explain. We could come tomorrow and win tomorrow and everybody would forget about it. It’s part of baseball. We win on the road. This year, we didn’t win at home and we have one more game to prove it.”
Players have fielded the same question for the past three months. Some bemoaned the batter’s eye in center field, but no answer was sufficient and patience is wearing thin. Before Game 5, Altuve acknowledged, “We’re tired of the same question everywhere we go, the whole team.”
“If I had that answer, we’d have fixed it a long time ago,” outfielder Michael Brantley said.
Blaming the batter’s eye by itself is disingenuous, but the team didn’t hastily extend it and paint over potential advertising revenue in late September for no reason. Sight lines have been problematic ever since Houston constructed the batter’s eye in 2017, even if it is not represented in publicly available statistics.
That the team electronically stole signs at Minute Maid Park in 2017 and 2018 skews some of those metrics. The Astros’ home OPS has declined in every 162-game season since 2019. They ended this regular season with a .723 mark. On the road, it was .798.
“We just play better on the road (than) at home lately,” said outfielder Kyle Tucker, who finished 0-for-3 and is now 5-for-35 this postseason. “It doesn’t mean we can’t put up runs tomorrow. We’re just going to try to put together good at-bats and try to do that.”
Houston could not against Eovaldi, one of this generation’s most prolific postseason performers. Another will stand in the way on Monday when Max Scherzer starts Game 7 for the Rangers.
The Astros tagged Scherzer for five runs across four innings in Game 3 at Globe Life Field. Houston has scored fewer than five runs in five of its six playoff games at Minute Maid Park.
“I’m not really sure what this is about,” Eovaldi said. “We’ve had a lot of success at home this year, but the Astros have had a lot of success on the road. They kind of overmatched us at home.”
On Sunday, Eovaldi needed 25 pitches to finish the first. He threw 37 across the next three, stabilizing a start that Houston could have put further in peril.
Taxing Eovaldi felt mandatory. Texas’ bullpen has, on a good day, three reliable relievers. Forcing manager Bruce Bochy to deploy some of the others is Houston’s blueprint to win. Instead, Eovaldi cruised into the sixth inning.
Alvarez struck the first pitch of the inning into center field for a single. Eovaldi had allowed one ball out of the infield in the four frames preceding it. José Abreu followed Alvarez with a cueball grounder through the right side, supplying the most meaningful threat against Eovaldi all evening. Tucker imploded it with a mis-hit ground ball to first base. The fielder’s choice did move Alvarez to third and allowed him to score on Dubón’s sacrifice fly.
No one else crossed home while Eovaldi worked. He exited with a one-run lead after Altuve’s seventh-inning single, but Brantley bounced into a 6-4-3 double play against reliever Josh Sborz to squander the momentum.
Bregman worked a walk against Sborz to start the eighth. Abreu struck a one-out single, forcing Bochy to bring in closer José Leclerc. He walked Tucker to load the bases, bringing Dubón — one of Houston’s best contact hitters — to bat.
With Leclerc wobbling, Dubón swung at all three cutters he saw. The last landed in Corey Seager’s glove for a harmless lineout.
“I was trying to bring the run in, trying to make something happen,” Dubón said. “I didn’t have the right plan at the time, failed and it showed.”
As the team did in Game 5, manager Dusty Baker summoned Jon Singleton to pinch hit for Jeremy Peña after Dubón’s lineout. Leclerc filled the count but fired a high cutter Singleton could not resist.
The strikeout started a scene all too familiar inside this ballpark — sighs and silence from a sold-out crowd.
Houston sold out Minute Maid Park on Sunday for the 28th time this season. The home team lost for the 21st time beneath it. One more will send the Astros to winter.
(Top photo of Alex Bregman reacting after striking out in the third inning of Game 6: David J. Phillip / Associated Press)