After what was otherwise a fairly quiet affair punctuated by the occasional home run, the Houston Astros won Game 6 of the American League Championship Series 6-4 on a walkoff home run from José Altuve. Houston takes the series four games to two, and avoids a high-stakes Game 7 that would have left Gerrit Cole unavailable in the World Series until the third game.
The evening got off to an inauspicious start for the Yankees as Houston’s first entrant in the bullpen battle, Brad Peacock, quickly dispatched DJ LeMahieu, Aaron Judge, and Gleyber Torres with seven pitches. Chad Green opened for New York and didn’t perform as well in his half of the inning as Peacock did in his. Green was perhaps fortunate to escape a rather pedestrian slider to Altuve with only a double, but he was less lucky with a high, very inside fastball to Yuli Gurriel, which the first baseman turned on for a home run to give the Astros an early 3-0 lead. That high, inside fastball isn’t usually that dangerous for a pitcher; there were only 13 home runs hit this year by right-handed hitters swinging at a four-seamer in Statcast’s inside and high-inside “chase” zones. Coincidentally enough, Gurriel had one of those home runs, comfortably turning on a sorta-fastball from Trevor Williams. This might have been one of the highest-leverage of those since Kit Keller’s.
New York got a run back off Peacock in the second, though there was a rather egregious umpire error committed by crediting the Yankees with a score despite no home run having been hit, which I’m fairly sure became an illegal play sometime before the 2019 season started. (Likely more offensive to Yankees fan was the fact that Gary Sánchez’s single was the only such rule violation committed by New York during the game.)
J.A. Happ and Luis Cessa combined to throw four scoreless innings, allowing just a single hit between them, but the Yankees’ issues with runners on base continued and they missed a golden opportunity in the third against Josh James. James threw eight fastballs either above or below the strike zone and the Yankees let every single one of them go by for a ball. But two walks and a Gleyber Torres single resulted in no runs, as has been their recent custom. Ryan Pressly’s knee only lasted for a single pitch, but it was an important one, resulting in a Didi Gregorius groundout to end the threat. Pressly missed a month of the season due to arthroscopic knee surgery, but Saturday night’s soreness is not currently expected to be serious enough to affect his World Series eligibility.
Jose Urquidy went after the Yankees aggressively, a strategy that paid off with five strikeouts in two and two-thirds innings. Urquidy’s stint was marred by a Gio Urshela’s home run, reducing Houston’s lead to one, which I’m told is an especially dangerous sort of advantage as it is an odd number. The Astros got their run back on a fielder’s choice from Alex Bregman.
There were the usual social media complaints about the Yankees not playing in, conceding the run for the double play (there were runners on first and third), but with Altuve at third, I would argue his speed is enough of a threat that playing with the hope of turning two was probably the right idea. I’m less forgiving of Aaron Judge being doubled up by Michael Brantley. While the catch wasn’t a sure thing, Judge was too aggressive on the bases, leaving himself an easy target if Brantley had managed to make the catch. Which he did! While they had trouble with baserunners in the postseason, the Yankees were second in baseball in their percentage of baserunners driven in this season (16.6% compared to 14.8% league average), and they did it through station-to-station thumping, being in the bottom third of teams in extra bases taken and the third least likely team to advance a runner with an out.
The last gasp of the Yankees was driven by a familiar 2019 story for the squad: the player brought in to be a backup infielder (LeMahieu) hitting a homer off Astros closer Roberto Osuna to drive in the backup-backup-backup infielder (Urshela) and tie the game. Giving first place votes to LeMahieu in MVP balloting would have been silly, but the Summer of DJ was one of the best stories in baseball this year. Maybe it’ll even motivate contending teams to once again shell out actual money to fill holes with seemingly league-average veterans. (Ha!)
But the joy in the Bronx was short-lived. Aroldis Chapman didn’t have much trouble with Martín Maldonado, and got Josh Reddick to pop out on a 100 mph fastball to put the Bombers an out away from extra frames. But Chapman started having location issues against George Springer, who wasn’t even moderately tempted to swing at his stuff. Against Altuve, Chapman threw a rather slow, uninspiring slider that hung on the plate like a bad slurve, and unlike Green’s similar pitch in the first, Altuve was able to take this one out of the park.
The Astros return to the World Series for the second time in three years and have to be ecstatic about getting the win here instead of in Game 7, making a fully rested Gerrit Cole available to pitch in Game 1 against the Washington Nationals.
Much will be made about the Yankees leaving a multitude of runners on base, but while it’s no silver lining for Yankees fans, leaving batters on base in positively correlated with future offensive performance. Teams that score a lot of runs have a lot of baserunners and as I noted above, the Yankees were one of the best teams in the majors in 2019 at driving those in.
If you want to take away something from this series, I think it’s that the Yankees may have paid the price for not being more aggressive in their attempts to pick up a top-end starter like Marcus Stroman at the trade deadline. The Yankees have a marvelous bullpen, but they also have the resources, both in trade bait and cash, to avoid entering the playoffs with such a weak fourth-starter situation. The bullpen threw a lot of innings in October and having Stroman or Mike Minor or Robbie Ray to soak up six innings would have kept the high-leverage guys fresher.
I’d also be at least mildly concerned that against a very patient Astros team, which otherwise struggled offensively, the Yankees allowed a lot of free passes this series, with 27 walks in 54.2 innings.
Despite the disappointing ending to the season, it would be hard for the Yankees to look back and regret 2019. The team absorbed a ludicrous number of injuries and finished in triple-digit wins without the help of their missing stars. If my award vote this year was for American League Manager of the Year, I’d happily have cast my ballot for Aaron Boone. It might be cold comfort as the skipper looks ahead to a World Series spent at home, but he and his players accumulated a lot of winning moments despite their Game 6 exit.
Dan Szymborski is a senior writer for FanGraphs and the developer of the ZiPS projection system. He was a writer for ESPN.com from 2010-2018, a regular guest on a number of radio shows and podcasts, and a voting BBWAA member. He also maintains a terrible Twitter account at @DSzymborski.