By MoiseKapenda Bower, The Sports Xchange
HOUSTON — Leave it to Houston Astros general manager Jeff Luhnow, the architect of this incredible franchise resurgence, to add the necessary perspective to the proceedings, to rattle off the key contributors on Saturday night and outline the roles they played in the celebration taking place.
From Jose Altuve and Lance McCullers to Evan Gattis, the pieces were added one by one until the Houston Astros, once laughingstocks throughout the majors following their relocation from the National League, claimed their first American League pennant with a 4-0 win over the New York Yankees in Game 7 of the American League Championship Series at Minute Maid Park.
Houston advances to its first World Series since 2005 on the backs of Altuve, the homegrown MVP candidate whose opposite-field home run in the fifth inning keyed the decisive three-run frame, and McCullers, the first-round compensatory draft pick in 2012 who worked in tandem with Astros right-hander Charlie Morton (1-1) to deny the storied Yankees their 41st pennant.
Gattis, whose leadoff home run in the fourth provided Morton and McCullers all the run support they would need, was acquired via trade on Jan 14, 2015 in exchange for touted prospect Rio Ruiz, taken in the same draft as McCullers and Astros star shortstop Carlos Correa.
“That was the beginning of the transformation,” Luhnow said of his first draft as GM. “To have those players that you bring into the organization help you get to this point where you win a pennant, it’s validation and satisfaction for everybody involved: our scouts, coaches, front office, everybody.”
The Astros will visit the Los Angeles Dodgers on Tuesday night in Game 1 of the World Series.
Playing in just their second Game 7 in franchise history while serving as hosts for the first time, the Astros became the eighth team in postseason history to win a seven-game series after losing three consecutive games during that series. The home team won all four games of the ALCS, with Houston limiting the power-laden Yankees to just three runs at Minute Maid Park.
Astros right-hander Justin Verlander was named series MVP. He went 2-0 with a 0.56 ERA, allowing just one run on 10 hits and two walks over 16 innings while recording 21 strikeouts.
Gattis crushed his first home run of the postseason off Yankees left-hander CC Sabathia (1-1). After Altuve socked his fifth postseason homer off Yankees right-hander Tommy Kahnle, the Astros responded with three hits over their ensuing four at-bats, with Brian McCann delivering a two-out, two-strike, two-run double that scored Correa and Yuli Gurriel and doubled the lead.
After Morton worked the first five innings, McCullers emerged from the bullpen for just the second time in his career, both coming this postseason, and allowed two baserunners over four strong innings. McCullers recorded six strikeouts in relief while producing his first career save.
“These guys came out throwing strikes, quality strikes,” Astros manager A.J. Hinch said. “Power breaking balls work against these guys. They executed a great game plan. Brian McCann handled them terrifically … and we look up and we got our 27 outs from two guys.”
Said McCullers, who dealt with injuries throughout the second half: “I wanted to prove that I’m back and they can give me the ball whenever they want and I’m going to do a good job.”
Morton needed only 28 pitches to complete his first three innings. With Houston leading 1-0, Morton finally hit a trouble spot when he surrendered a leadoff double to Greg Bird in the fifth.
After fanning Starlin Castro for the first out, Morton benefited from the defensive brilliance of third baseman Alex Bregman and McCann. Bregman fielded a Todd Frazier grounder and fired home to McCann, who applied a perfect tag on Bird as he attempted to score from third base.
“I thought I got a good jump, so I went,” Bird said. “I wanted to score a run, so I went.”
Morton responded by inducing a ground-ball out from Chase Headley and closed his outing by allowing two hits and one walk over five scoreless innings, adding five strikeouts to his ledger. After rolling in the Bronx, the Yankees found chances fleeting on the road to their demise.
“You’ve got to give them credit,” Yankees manager Joe Girardi said. “They pitched their rear ends off and, the bottom line is they beat us.”