Let’s Watch an Improbable Astros Comeback by Jeff Sullivan September 14, 2015 The Nationals aren’t mathematically dead, and there are several reasons for why they’re so far behind the Mets, but if you want to say the Nationals’ season died one day, you could point to the game they lost to the Mets after leading 7-1. Here’s that win expectancy graph, and you can see that, for Washington, it topped out at 99.2%. That game was absolutely devastating. That game all but sealed the dueling narratives. It can also get worse. Source: FanGraphs Sunday, Astros, Angels. The lead was three, not six. It was a game between first and third place, not first and second. But the Angels’ win expectancy topped out at 99.7%. They had the Astros down to their last strike. The Angels find themselves now behind 4.5 games, not 2.5. And the rally itself was almost inconceivable, even independent of the context. This would’ve been a dramatic conclusion in a game between the Braves and an area college. Let’s watch the meat of the top of the ninth inning. Some of you already know everything that happened, but those who don’t really need to. It was an important weekend series, and it was a series the Angels had already won. At the beginning, the Angels trailed the Astros by 5.5 games, but then they won Friday 3-2, and they won Saturday 3-2. There was relevance, as well, for the Rangers, trying to gain games on both rivals. But just focusing on Houston and Los Angeles — over the first two days, the Astros’ division odds dropped from 80% to 70%. The Angels’ division odds, meanwhile, jumped from 3% to 9%. Sunday, then, would have a big swing to it, because either the Angels would close in further, or the Astros would shove them back away. Up 3-0, the Angels got within three outs of a sweep. Then two, and then one. I’m going to skip a part. With two out and none on in the top of the ninth, Preston Tucker yanked a home run. Huston Street wasn’t thrilled, and the team shutout bid was over, but the solo homer was almost irrelevant. The Angels’ odds of winning remained all the way up at 99%. Only then did it really get weird. And it got weird with Street facing George Springer with two strikes. The box score says that Springer tripled. He did, legitimately, but the box score isn’t interested in colorful story-telling. Down to his last strike, Springer fought off an outside slider. He then took a ball before getting another outside slider, too close to the plate to take. So Springer swung, and hit a line drive to right-center. This might not have happened a year ago. A year ago, Springer hit .114 with two strikes, slugging .183. This year, with two strikes, he’s hitting .190, slugging .333. Springer’s become a more difficult out, and his progress showed in the ninth. His line drive: One of the themes of the ninth inning: luck. Maybe it was the theme. And if you don’t like the word “luck,” then we can instead lean upon the cliche about how baseball is a game of inches. The game could’ve ended right here: That would’ve been a hell of a play for Kole Calhoun to make, but it also could’ve been made, Calhoun coming maybe an inch or two short. On a close play like this, luck has to favor someone. With the ball dropping, luck favored the Astros. But had Calhoun made the catch, Springer would’ve returned to the dugout feeling like he was robbed on solid contact. So would’ve ended a damaging sweep. Ultimately, Springer made it to third base. Anxiety rose. Jose Altuve immediately singled Springer home to cut the lead in half. Anxiety rose ever more. Mike Scioscia felt like things were going awry. Future Mike Scioscia wishes he could go back to feeling like that Mike Scioscia. That Mike Scioscia was blessed. He was in a good situation he didn’t properly appreciate. Maybe he deserved to lose. Maybe there’s a lesson for all of us. Carlos Correa. Carlos Correa was next. Correa did his job, stinging the ball back up the middle in an 0-and-1 count. But no one will remember the play for Carlos Correa. They’ll remember it instead only for Taylor Featherston. I don’t know how many people have any major-league memories of Taylor Featherston, but the number has certainly gotten a lot bigger since Sunday afternoon. It’s a little like the Springer triple. The game could’ve ended here, on a sensational play. It was nothing routine. But, Featherston made his dive, and he gloved the baseball. He got to his feet, in plenty of time to throw Correa out and complete the sweep. As you watch the play, you see Featherston get up and you expect him to toss the ball to first, but instead there is no toss. He gets to his feet and then that’s it, as if he’s giving Correa a break for having made such quality contact. Inning alive, because Featherston’s glove played dead. From the MLB.com game recap: Featherston, a rookie infielder who’s exceptional defensively, dove to his right, cleanly made the catch, gathered himself and suddenly couldn’t feel the baseball in his hand. It stayed lodged in the “I” web of his glove. It’s the first time that has happened to him. It’s a funny thing that happens after errors and assorted other misplays. A high percentage of the time, the player who made the mistake will look down at his glove, as if it was the glove’s fault that the ball bounced out of it or whatever. It’s blaming of the instrument instead of the operator. Almost all of the time, it’s the operator’s fault. Even then, the Astros would’ve gladly traded places with the Angels. The Angels’ odds of winning had topped out above 99%, but they remained still just above 86%. Six times out of seven, the Angels still win the ballgame. They just needed an out; the Astros needed a non-out. The Astros sent up Jed Lowrie as a pinch-hitter. He was pinch-hitting for the guy batting cleanup. Mounting nervousness was evident in the background, the home crowd’s mood betrayed by its body language. A game of inches. Never more apparent than in this particular top of the ninth. Lowrie worked the count to 2-and-1. What if the count had been, say, 1-and-2? What would Street have thrown? Where would he have thrown it? What would’ve been Lowrie’s approach? It was the fourth pitch of the at-bat that everyone will remember, but the fourth was set up by the preceding three, and Street was awful close to having the count in his favor. But, 2-and-1. And then: mistake. A game of inches. The ball isn’t easily visible, there, but it is a faint blur, eluding Kole Calhoun again by a fraction of the length of his glove. A fraction of his height. A fraction of anything greater in size than one or two or three inches. Over in the very corner of the ballpark, Calhoun tracked a fly ball, and he jumped, and he nearly caught the fly ball, and instead it was four bases. Plus more bases, for the baserunners already on. According to the ESPN Home Run Tracker, the home run was hit 339 feet. It was 17 feet shorter than the day’s next-shortest home run. This year there have been more than 4,300 homers, and of those that actually left the park, just 20 have had a shorter distance than Lowrie’s shot. The play was so close that, when it was over, an Angels fan in the immediate area thought his team had just won: Huston Street couldn’t believe his life. Jose Altuve couldn’t believe his life. Mike Scioscia attempted to believe his life, but he didn’t like it. More things happened in the ninth inning, but nobody noticed. The Astros kept batting, but didn’t score again. Three Angels batted, and three Angels made outs. So the Astros avoided a sweep, in improbable fashion; so the Angels lost a wide-open opportunity to make the division a three-team race. Said Street later: “You just think that one of those balls is going to find a glove,” Street said, “and it didn’t.” It was worse than Street suggested. The Angels would’ve won if Springer’s drive found Calhoun’s glove. The Angels would’ve won if Lowrie’s drive found Calhoun’s glove. But Correa’s drive did find a glove, Taylor Featherston’s glove, and once it found the glove, it refused to let go. The ball hugged the glove, and the glove hugged the ball back, and despite interfering attempts by Featherston’s bare hand, theirs remained an unbroken embrace. The problem wasn’t just balls finding gloves. It was also separating one from the other. In a sense, every game comes down to luck. Every hit is a millimeter or three on the bat away from being something else entirely. Sometimes good hitters mis-hit hittable pitches; sometimes bad hitters square up less-hittable pitches. Everything is a matter of inches, or of something smaller than inches, but Sunday’s game between the Angels and the Astros didn’t require that you think like a pedant. Any tiny, imperceptible break, and the Astros get swept. The division looks different. Dozens of players feel different. Such an enormous swing, all because of something only a little bit bigger than nothing. “Turn the page” is one of Angels manager Mike Scioscia’s go-to idioms after days like this. “Sometimes that page is heavy, like it is this afternoon,” he said. “We have to turn it.” OK.