NEW YORK -- The Houston Astros were close enough to see a clear path to the World Series. Leading by four runs late at Yankee Stadium with Dallas Keuchel up next and Justin Verlander lurking beyond that, they didn't need advanced degrees in baseball analytics to realize the math was in their favor.
Things looked promising enough, almost, for Jeff Bagwell and Craig Biggio to be warming up in the bullpen in anticipation of their ceremonial first pitch duties in the World Series next week at Minute Maid Park.
Then the bottom of the seventh inning arrived, and Aaron Judge sent a surge of energy through the park with a solo home run. The place got louder. After a parade of Houston relievers with scant October track records began taking their lumps, the implosion began in earnest.
The new Yankee Stadium can seem sterile compared to the old model. But as the Yankees churned out big hit after big hit, it felt like the good old days when Derek Jeter was diving into the stands for foul pops and "Cotton-Eye Joe" was blaring from the PA system.
Astros fans will no doubt lament how quickly a 4-0 lead turned into a 6-4 loss in Game 4 of the American League Championship Series. But to the players who experienced the collapse and the manager who felt powerless to stop it, events unfolded agonizingly enough for them to be able to recount every misstep in vivid detail.
"It may look like it was unraveling real quick," closer Ken Giles said. "But in my eyes, they were just slowly bringing us to the ground."
Said manager A.J. Hinch: "It's not a great visual from my side of the dugout. I'm not sure how it was from the other side. We just couldn't get the inning to end."
Now the dynamic has shifted: Instead of being up 3-1 with Keuchel and Verlander on tap, the Astros need to summon their poise against an inspired Yankees team that suddenly feels like it has something magical going on. The series is tied 2-2, but it isn't a reach to categorize the Astros as underdogs at this point.
In a quiet clubhouse after the loss, several Houston players put on brave faces and talked about how they've already put the disappointment behind them.
"This isn't an easy game," outfielder George Springer said. "Our team understands what we have and who we are. This is a game where you have to have a short memory and stay in the present because you play a lot of games, and a lot of things can happen over the span of a playoff series or 162 games. It's on to tomorrow."
With six outs to go, the Astros appeared to be in great shape. Hinch had made an inspired call with his decision to start Lance McCullers Jr., and Yuli Gurriel's bases-loaded double in the sixth was enough to make the Astros feel as if they were in charge against a Yankees team that is hitting .205 in the series.
But the Astros' bullpen was going to have to record some big outs in hostile environs, and the reckoning came in the seventh and a nightmare eighth.
Hinch has said throughout the postseason that he's confident in all his relievers, but it was a telling sign when he used Giles for a 37-pitch save in Game 1 and stuck with Verlander for nine innings and 124 pitches in Game 2.
Somewhere between now and the World Series, Hinch is going to have to cobble together some big outs with the other guys. Chris Devenski had a terrific first half, but he's looking like a guy who's worn out from throwing 80 2/3 innings during the regular season. Joe Musgrove was a late-season revelation in the pen, but he has been doing it for only two months. Will Harris had shoulder issues and pitched only 10 2/3 innings after the All-Star break. Luke Gregerson wasn't the same guy this season, and Tyler Clippard -- another established veteran -- didn’t make the postseason roster.
Still, when McCullers yielded a solo homer to Judge on his 81st pitch of the evening, Hinch took the ball from him and gave him a congratulatory pat on the back for a job well-done.
"He was awesome," Hinch said. "And I'm really proud of him because I know how important this start was for him."
After the Yankees scored a run off Devenski to pull within 4-2, everything unraveled for Houston in the eighth. Todd Frazier singled off Musgrove to lead off, and Chase Headley followed with a single, only to get caught up between first and second base. Astros shortstop Carlos Correa lofted his relay throw to Gurriel at first, and Headley quickly scrambled, changed course and beat the throw to Jose Altuve at second.
New York suddenly had runners on second and third. Then back-to-back doubles by Judge and Gary Sanchez off Giles made it 6-4 and put the capper on the comeback.
Correa said after the game that he was heeding the advice of a teammate -- he isn't sure precisely which one -- when he threw the ball to first base.
"I've got my back to the play there," Correa said. "I heard, 'one, one,' so I threw to Yuli, and he threw to second, and [Headley] beat it out. It was just great, heads-up baserunning on his part.
"We didn't drop the ball. We didn't throw the ball away. We threw the ball right all the time, and he just beat the throw. There wasn't a mistake there. I guess he just did better than we did."
As the Astros try not to dwell on everything that went wrong late Tuesday, they'll look forward to a Game 5 that will be a gut check in many respects. Can a Houston lineup that is hitting .153 and has scored nine runs in four games show any semblance of life? Can the Astros' shell-shocked relievers recover after such a stunning and demoralizing performance?
"I have the utmost confidence in our guys," Springer said. "They can get it done. They've been great all year, and I love 'em all. It doesn't matter who A.J. puts out there. All those guys are going to go out there and compete."
At times like this, a calming veteran voice can carry a lot of weight. Carlos Beltran, the Astros' resident clubhouse sage, was asked if he plans to deliver any words of wisdom to his young teammates to help them turn the page. After a brief pause to consider, Beltran indicated that he will probably take a pass on the inspirational messages.
"You know what? I think we're doing what we have to do as a team," Beltran said. "If you come here early, we're doing the same routine we were doing during the regular season. I don't think there's a lot to say other than, 'Go get them tomorrow.'"
The Astros' ability to bounce back from a loss this difficult will hinge in part on whether they can remember all the things they did right during a 101-win regular season. It's also going to depend on how quickly they can forget a long, traumatic October night in the Bronx.