HOUSTON -- Now that the Houston Astros have left the cauldron of Yankee Stadium and returned home to the comforts of Minute Maid Park, Carlos Correa acknowledges the challenge that awaits them. But the young shortstop also knows this isn't some mission impossible.
"It's not like we've never won two games in a row before," Correa says.
True. But the Astros also hadn't lost three in a row since early September. In doing so this week -- by a 19-5 margin, no less, against the surging New York Yankees -- they reached the brink of October oblivion, their 101-win season that inspired dreams of Houston's first-ever World Series title on the verge of disappearing.
Led by shutdown starting pitching and relentless offense, the Yankees have seized control of the American League Championship Series. And they will get two shots at winning the 41st pennant in franchise history, beginning with Game 6 Friday night deep in the heart of Texas.
The most important thing of the day: Credit the Yankees pitchers for executing the game plan to near perfection, but George Springer (2-for-18), Josh Reddick (0-for-17), Alex Bregman (2-for-17), Marwin Gonzalez (2-for-15), Carlos Beltran (1-for-12) and Brian McCann (0-for-10) have all gone missing at the wrong time. Even Correa and Jose Altuve were a combined 2-for-22 in Games 3, 4 and 5. The Astros will point to ace Justin Verlander as the reason to be supremely confident. But they could run J.R. Richard, Mike Scott and Roy Oswalt out to the mound in succession and it wouldn't matter if the offense doesn't snap out of it.
ALCS Game 6: Yankees at Astros (Yankees lead 3-2)
The stakes: High, to put it simply, for the Astros. They have their best team since at least 2005, but it's either win or go home five victories shy of that elusive World Series championship. Things aren't as urgent for the Yankees, although Game 7s are always a crapshoot.
If the Yankees win: It will be the first road victory for either team in the series. In the Yankees' case, it would be no small feat either. As tough as they are to beat at home, they had a sub-.500 record (40-41) away from the Bronx.
If the Astros win: Manager A.J. Hinch hasn't named a Game 7 starter, but it would be right-hander Charlie Morton's turn -- with the entirety of the pitching staff, save perhaps Verlander, backing him up. Given how much the bullpen has struggled, the Astros might want to consider suiting up Nolan Ryan for an out or two.
One key stat to know: Surely, the Astros would rather not be in this predicament, but at least it appears they're handing the ball to the right guy. Not only is Verlander coming off a 124-pitch complete-game gem in Game 2 last Saturday in Houston, but he has had plenty of experience with no-tomorrow situations. In 11 postseason series with the Detroit Tigers, he started four elimination games and went 3-1 with a 1.49 ERA.
Verlander's past two win-or-else starts were masterpieces. He struck out 11 batters in a four-hit shutout on the road in Oakland in Game 5 of the 2012 American League Division Series. A year later, in the exact same situation, he gave up two hits, fanned 10 and blanked the A's for eight innings. When the Astros say there's nobody they would rather have on the mound than Verlander, they mean it.
The matchup that matters most: When the series began, the Astros' lineup of fastball-hunting hitters was supposed to present a problem for the Yankees' staff of high-velocity pitchers. It hasn't played out that way. The sluggin' Stros have scored a grand total of nine runs, matching their lowest output in a five-game stretch all season (Sept. 9-13).
But there is evidence to suggest they might finally break out in Game 6. The Astros are 19-for-60 (.317) with a .583 slugging percentage against Severino, the hardest-throwing starting pitcher in baseball this season. Correa, in particular, might be poised to go off after going 2-for-12 in the three games in New York. He's 4-for-5 with 3 walks and 4 RBIs in his career against Severino, including a solo home run in Game 2.
The prediction: Chin up, Astros fans. Four of the past five teams that rallied to take a three-games-to-two lead in a best-of-seven series after dropping the first two games still wound up losing the series. In all four cases, those teams lost Games 6 and 7 on the road. This isn't to suggest that the Yankees are going to blow it, only that they will have their hands full. Verlander will lead the Astros to a 3-2 win and set up a Game 7 to remember.