HOUSTON — Living by the long ball isn’t necessarily the Astros’ formula by design, but it has nonetheless been one of the biggest reasons in why they remain undefeated in these playoffs.
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Alex Bregman continued the trend with a three-run blast that proved decisive in Houston’s 3-2 win in Game 2 of the American League Championship Series vs. the Yankees on Thursday at Minute Maid Park, which gave the Astros a 2-0 series lead.
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Alex Bregman talks Game 2 win
It also underscored the state of the Astros’ offense, which has now scored 16 of its 20 runs this postseason via their 10 homers. Making the tightrope even tauter, their margin of victory in their five playoff wins — which tied their longest streak in franchise history — has been two or fewer runs, tied with the 1999 Braves for the most consecutive wins by that few in a single postseason.
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“You hate to live and die by the home run, but you’ll take them when you can get them,” Astros manager Dusty Baker said. “You don’t see many rallies with three or four hits in a row, period. That’s the same way during the regular season. It’s a different game now.”
Before Bregman went deep, Houston had been hitless in each of its previous 19 at-bats with runners in scoring position. Aledmys Díaz grounded into an inning-ending double play in their only such at-bat after.
Homers are always conducive to success, but that’s even more true in the postseason, where teams are now 16-5 when out-homering their opponent. Separate but related, teams are 20-9 when scoring first, like the Astros did Thursday.
“We’re a high-contact team, which helps us a lot,” Baker said.
Maybe it’s exploiting the Astros’ hitter-friendly park with a blast like Bregman’s, which carried just 360 feet with a 91.8 mph exit velocity and would have been a flyout in seven ballparks, per Statcast. Or maybe it’s the cognizance of capitalizing when the moments, so few and far between in the postseason, present themselves.
“We want to create runs in many different ways, but sometimes it’s the home run,” Bregman said. “They’ve got a really tough pitching staff over there. They’re really good. So we’re just trying to scratch and claw and battle and try and fight.”
The Astros’ opponent has been just as reliant on the long ball, and, perhaps not coincidentally, the fact that the Yankees only went deep twice in these first two games compared to Houston’s four is part of why New York now trails by two games. The Yankees (18-of-24) and Astros (16-of-20) have combined to score 34 of their 44 runs via the homer so far in the postseason, a 77.3% clip, while the percentage for the 10 other playoff teams is 37.8%.
Eleven of the Yanks’ 37 hits in these playoffs have been homers — nearly one third — and they almost had another when Aaron Judge flied out to Kyle Tucker at the warning track with a runner on first in the eighth inning. Had that ball cleared the fence — which it would have at Yankee Stadium, per Statcast — the Yanks would have gone on to win, illustrating just how thin the margin is between winning and losing, hinged so heavily on homers.
Kyle Tucker’s leaping grab
“Well, look — those guys over there, most of their runs come on home runs or walks,” Baker said. “It’s very important when you hit the home runs that they’re meaningful, and the scores are such that most home runs that are hit are meaningful. You can’t just hit home runs when you feel like it. Because if so, we would hit like seven, eight a night.”
In the current iteration of the game, where pitching and defense are so dominant, it’s challenging to manufacture runs by stringing four or five hits in an inning. And the Astros have been able to overcome a historically bad stretch from Jose Altuve, now hitless in 23 at-bats to begin the playoffs, and an 0-for-12 stretch that Yordan Alvarez snapped with a eighth-inning single, thanks to timely home runs.
This formula isn’t deliberate, and how could it be? Houston’s plus-seven run differential is the lowest in postseason history for a team to win five straight games, showing that putting all your chips into going deep night in and out is a roll of the dice.
Yet with elite pitching and standout defense, the Astros have been able to ride the long ball into a commanding ALCS lead — and maybe they’ll ride it all the way to the pennant.