HOUSTON — Even as his team was leading and looking to close it out and then tied in the top of the ninth, A.J. Hinch would not flinch.
Gerrit Cole was in his ear, the Astros ace who has been nearly unbeatable for months with a put-me-in-coach plea to help win the game and get to the World Series.
No, no and no was the answer.
And as a result, Hinch’s plan — call it a gamble if you like — played out to near perfection. Had the Yankees gone on to win Game 6 in extra innings, Cole would have been on the mound for a deciding Game 7 on Sunday.
The manager was saving his ace for when he needed him most, in other words. And guess who he has available for Tuesday’s opening game of the World Series?
“It’s incredible to finish a series at any point,” Hinch said. “I think the nerves and unpredictability that come with Game 7s are miserable. So not getting pushed to the brink of Game 7 and not having to use not just Gerrit but (another day) with the bullpen we’re lined up better to give ourselves a chance to win another world championship.”
Hinch was adamant not to use Cole on three days rest for Game 6 as he was both confident and willing to roll the dice with his underrated bullpen.
And now he can start the World Series with a trio of Cole, Zack Greinke and Justin Verlander should he chose.
“I said at the beginning of this series when we lined up or pitching after the rainout (of Game 4 on Wednesday), we wanted to win as fast as possible,” Hinch said. “That was one, to get a little bit of rest before the World Series and No. 2, it’s the easiest way to line things up moving forward.”
Does Astros closer Roberto Osuna want the pitch back that almost destroyed the party in Houston on Saturday night?
The two-run homer Osuna allowed to D.J. LeMahieu in the top of the ninth that tied the game at 4-4 on Saturday certainly deflated the sellout crowd at Minute Maid Park but other than losing the lead, the former Jays closer had no regrets.
“A lot of people are telling me that was the wrong pitch to LeMahieu,” Osuna said. “That was the pitch I got him out (for a save) New York. That was the pitch you hope to get him out with tonight. Sometimes you’ve got to tip your hat.”
That said, Osuna was certainly relieved when Jose Altuve came through with his game-winning walk-off homer in the Astros half of the inning.
“I was probably the happiest guy in the dugout,” Osuna said. “I was feeling terrible because I gave up the two-run homer and when Altuve hit the homer I just jumped out of the dugout and I was ready to celebrate.”
Including the post-season, the Astros are now 37-9 in their last 46 games at home, which is certainly a daunting task for the upstart Nationals entering the World Series.
While it doesn’t have the history of last year’s championship round venues, Dodger Stadium and Fenway Park, Minute Maid Park certainly gets rocking.
The sellout crowd of 43,357 was deafening throughout on Saturday night with most standing for the majority of the game. And they damn near blew the roof off when Altuve won it.
“This is one of the best places to play,” Hinch said of a town that wasn’t always that way. “We’ve learned how to win together I think as a fan base, as an organization. The players and the coaches, we feed off of that energy.
“To reward them with that experience of the walk-off homer, give them a chance to just go crazy at close to midnight and know that we’ve got more baseball to be played we want to hang another flag for them and we’re four wins away.”
There is perhaps grudging acknowledgment from the Yankees that the Astros are the class of the American League. And with three post-season losses to them in the past five seasons, the evidence supports the statement.
But Bronx Bombers manager Aaron Boone believes the gap is closing and will continue to do so.
“The work never ends and we’ll continue to try and close that gap or put ourselves in a position to get over the hump,” Boone said. “I know everyone in our room believes we will, and we’ll have a lot of battle scars when we finally get to the top of that mountain.”
Boone was hired by the Yankees after Joe Girardi was fired following the seven-game ALCS loss to the Astros in 2017. The second-year manager believes the AL East champs have improved since he took over, albeit with more work to be done.
“I think we’re a better team this year than we were last year,” Boone said. “And we’ll work hard this winter in every phase from the front office and the decisions we make with what players to bring in.
“I feel like we’ve made a lot of strides in that area.”
VEGAS LIKES THE ASTROS
Not surprisingly, given their franchise-record and major league-leading 107 regular-season wins, the Astros have opened as definitive betting favourites for the 115th Fall Classic.
The Astros have opened as the minus-213 favourites over the Nationals, who are plus 175 at many Las Vegas casinos. That makes the Astros the heaviest favourite entering the series since the Red Sox were the heavy choice over the Colorado Rockies.