HOUSTON - HOUSTON — Shortstop Carlos Correa told him not to throw to home plate. Right fielder Josh Reddick, a former Gold Glover who likes to show off his accurate arm, said he wouldn’t have attempted it. After all, with two outs and a full count, the runners were going with the pitch.
What chance did Marwin Gonzalez have to throw out Greg Bird running from second on a single? He’s not even an everyday left fielder.
That was no impediment for Gonzalez, who delivered the biggest play of Friday’s Game 1 of the American League Championship Series, a 2-1 victory for the Houston Astros over the New York Yankees.
Charging Aaron Judge’s line single to left in the fifth, Gonzalez uncorked a perfect one-hopper to catcher Brian McCann, who tagged out Bird to preserve Houston’s 2-0 lead. The importance of the play really came into focus when Bird crushed a two-out homer in the ninth for the Yankees’ lone run, before Ken Giles closed out the victory.
A natural shortstop, Gonzalez has been making plays from a variety of positions all year as he has become the majors’ top utilityman, leading the club with 90 RBI while starting at least 14 games at each of the four infield spots and left field.
Afterward, he had an even more meaningful role to play — that of proud father — as his wife, Noel, went into labor with their third child.
“It doesn’t matter who’s the hero. We’ve got to win,’’ Gonzalez said in Spanish just before rushing out to the hospital. “That was the goal we set for ourselves when the playoffs started. It doesn’t matter what happens during the game, the important thing is to win.’’
The Astros notched this victory on the strength of Dallas Keuchel’s superb pitching, a couple of clutch hits during a two-run fourth and Gonzalez’s perfect throw, his second outfield assist of the postseason after registering one in Game 4 of the division series.
Keuchel’s performance — seven shutout innings of four-hit ball with 10 strikeouts — was as clutch as it was predictable. The 2015 AL Cy Young Award winner came in with a career ERA of 1.24 in seven starts (including playoffs) against the Yankees, the lowest mark ever recorded by a pitcher with at least 50 innings vs. New York.
Keuchel was on his game from the beginning and did not allow more than one runner to reach base in any inning except the fifth, concluding his outing by retiring the last six batters he faced. Three of them came on whiffs as the finesse lefty joined Mike Scott (14 strikeouts in 1986 NLCS) and Nolan Ryan (12 in 1986 NLCS) as the only Astros pitchers to fan at least 10 batters in a postseason game.
“We have pretty similar pitching styles,’’ Keuchel cracked, “so I would expect myself to be in there.’’
The only noise the Yankees made against Keuchel was aided by Jose Altuve’s error at second base, which put runners on first and second with no outs in the fifth. Keuchel got the next two batters without any harm before Judge’s two-hop single to Gonzalez, who benefitted from playing in Minute Maid Park’s short left field as he came up throwing.
“We had a shot,’’ said Yankees manager Joe Girardi, who appealed the call at the plate, only to have it confirmed by replay. “If Bird’s safe, maybe we really get to him (Keuchel) in that inning, but he wasn’t.’’
These two teams ranked 1-2 in the big leagues in runs scored and homers, and at some point in this series their offenses are likely to go off. But strong pitching was the order of the day Friday, with New York’s Masahiro Tanaka looking sharp himself. After throwing seven scoreless innings in his division series appearance, the Japanese right-hander allowed just four hits and two runs against the Astros in six innings.
Altuve, who enjoyed his third three-hit game of the playoffs, beat out an infield single in the fourth for Houston’s first hit and stole second. Correa drove him in with a line single to left and, after advancing on a Gonzalez groundout, Correa scored on Yuli Gurriel’s single.
That was pretty much the extent of the Astros offense, as Tanaka and reliever Chad Green limited them to six hits, all of them singles. In fact, the game’s only extra-base hit came off Bird’s bat in the ninth, the shot to right field that momentarily stunned the sellout crowd of 43,116 before Giles nailed down the save.
As they filed out in jubilation, surely some of those fans developed renewed appreciation for Gonzalez’s contributions.
“We need to talk about how good he is at every position, not just the fact that I can put him in any position,’’ Houston manager A.J. Hinch said. “Back-to-back series now … his defensive play is at the position he’s the least experienced at (and he) comes up with the biggest play.’’
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