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Astros eliminate Yankees to reach World Series

HOUSTON — There were moments early in the American League Championship Series when it felt like the Houston Astros were one play away from stumbling into a serious hole against the Yankees. But the final moment belonged to Jose Altuve, and the Astros are AL champions.

Altuve blasted a two-run, walk-off homer with two outs in the bottom of the ninth off New York Yankees closer Aroldis Chapman, igniting a raucous crowd and sending Houston to the World Series for the third time in franchise history and second time in three years. The Astros won 6-4, clinching the pennant in six games.

But it was not easy.

With the Astros two outs from the flag, Yankees second baseman DJ LeMahieu battled closer Roberto Osuna for 10 pitches before finally lofting a high-arching fly ball that just cleared the right-field fence. It was a two-run shot, and it knotted the score at four. As it turned out, LeMahieu was only setting the table for Altuve’s heroics.

The clincher fueled a sellout crowd at Minute Main Park under the roof on an autumn night in Texas. The pregame whistles and train toots and towel waves had barely subsided when, after a snappy 1-2-3 first for Houston opener Brad Peacock, Yuli Gurriel lined a three-run homer into the Crawford Boxes in the left field.

The quick start left the Yankees scrambling to catch up all night in what turned out to be a futile effort to save their campaign. Finally, LeMahieu’s great at-bat brought New York even — at least for a few minutes.

The Astros capped their third straight 100-win season with another AL flag, and in doing so, they ensured that the Yankees go without a pennant in the 2010s — their first decade without a league title since before they acquired Babe Ruth in 1920. Instead, it’s Houston that might someday be remembered as the team of the decade that’s coming to a close.

Houston defeated the Yankees in the ALCS for the second time in three seasons. In doing so, the Astros knocked New York out of the postseason for the third time in five years — something no other team has done to the Bronx Bombers.

As for those moments of vulnerability: Initially in the series, the Yankees seemed poised to knock off the top-seeded Astros. They routed Houston 7-0 in Game 1. In Game 2, the teams battled in a grueling, 4-hour, 49-minute, 11-inning affair in which New York stranded seven runners in the final seven innings — a series-long issue for both teams.

Finally, Carlos Correa homered on the first pitch he saw from J.A. Happ to lead off the 11th, tilting the series Houston’s way. Instead of the team falling behind 2-0 with three games looming at Yankee Stadium, the Minute Maid crowd erupted in a frenzy, the series was tied, and the Astros’ championship train was back on track. The Astros then won the first two in New York to seize a commanding 3-1 lead in the series.

After 107 regular-season wins, the Astros ended up where the consensus figured them to be — at least, the consensus of baseball pundits and the betting markets. Their path was rocky at times — the five-game AL Division Series against Tampa Bay, the early struggles against New York — but that’s how October baseball goes. Now Houston is positioned to stake claim to the dynastic throne the Yankees have occupied so often in baseball’s history.

With the pennant secured, the Astros will open the World Series at home on Tuesday against the well-rested Washington Nationals. Washington completed its four-game sweep of St. Louis on Oct. 15 — the night Houston and New York played Game 3 of their six-game tussle. The Nationals are making their World Series debut.

Game 1 of the Fall Classic should be a premium pitching matchup: Houston figures to send Gerrit Cole to the mound, now that he won’t have to start Game 7 against the Yankees on Sunday. The Nationals will likely counter with Max Scherzer.

The starting pitching will be the initial dominant storyline of the World Series, but ironically, the Astros clinched the pennant on a night when both managers went to a bullpen day in lieu of a traditional starter. Peacock opened for Houston, giving up one run in 1 2/3 innings. Meanwhile, Chad Green threw the first inning for New York and gave up Gurriel’s home run. The Yankees fell to 12-6 in opener games, including the postseason, and Houston won one for the first time in three tries.

The strategy smacked of 2019 baseball: According to Elias, the most recent postseason game in which neither starting pitcher threw at least two innings was Game 4 of a 1999 ALDS between the Red Sox and Indians.

That the Astros won a bullpen game against a Yankees team with one of the most feared relief staffs in baseball is hardly a surprise. That’s the Astros: They win in ways old and new and in ways big and small.

Now, things are about to get as big as they get in baseball: the World Series. This time, it’s between a team trying to secure its place atop the mountain and another trying to ascend to that peak for the first time. The bad news for the Nationals is that the moments of vulnerability for the Astros might have already passed.

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