SAN DIEGO—When the Astros began their rebuild at the start of last decade, the most critical element of their plan was amassing top draft picks.
They did that successfully, becoming the first team to pick No. 1 overall three years in a row. The thought was those top overall picks would supply the club a core to build around, and lead them back to contention when the time was right.
It didn’t work out that way. The Astros went just 1-for-3 on those first overall selections. Righthander Mark Appel, the top pick in 2013, topped out in Triple-A and is now retired. Lefthander Brady Aiken, the No. 1 pick in 2014, didn’t sign with the team after an ugly public dispute over the health of his elbow.
But the Astros’ one hit, their first one, was so big it overshadowed those failures. Carlos Correa, eight years after going No. 1 overall in the 2012 draft, is still paying massive dividends.
Correa called his shot and hit a walkoff home run in the bottom of the ninth inning, and the Astros staved off elimination for the second straight day with a dramatic 4-3 win over the Rays in Game 5 of the American League Championship Series.
The Rays lead the series 3-2. Game 6 is Friday.
“Carlos told me before he went up there, he goes, ‘Walkoff,’ ” Astros manager Dusty Baker said. “I said ‘Go ahead man.’ Then I said a prayer to my dad and my brother and I said ‘Lord, please let us walkoff.’ ”
Correa answered that prayer with the 17th postseason home run of his career, tying him with Reggie Jackson, Mickey Mantle and double-play partner Jose Altuve for fifth-most all-time. It’s the second-most home runs of any shortstop in postseason history, trailing only Derek Jeter’s 20.
He joined David Ortiz and Bernie Williams as the only players in major league history with multiple walkoff postseason home runs. It was also his 47th career postseason RBI, tied for eighth all-time with Chipper Jones.
Every team’s dream on draft day is for their No. 1 overall pick to enter such hallowed company. With Correa, the Astros are living it.
“As soon as I hit it I knew it was gone,” Correa said. “I was visualizing before the at-bat. I was visualizing the pitch that I wanted. I was visualizing what I wanted to do with that pitch.”
Correa’s blast could not have come at a more critical time. The Astros cycled through seven pitchers—including five rookies—in a bullpen game and had Framber Valdez, their scheduled Game 6 starter, warming in case the game went to extra innings with the scored tied 3-3. Even if the Astros won in extras, they would have been in a difficult position with no rested starters and an exhausted bullpen heading into Game 6.
“I’m just glad we didn’t use Framber,” Baker said. “I am so glad. I was praying…I was like please, walk it off here because we’re in bad shape pitching-wise.”
Knowing full well the situation, Correa stepped up with one out in the ninth, got to a 1-1 count on Rays closer Nick Anderson and pummeled a high fastball 416 feet over the center field fence.
“When you’re facing a guy like Anderson, this is a guy who throws a fastball with 20 plus inches of hop,” Correa said. “So I knew I had to get on top of it. My approach going to the plate was to see him middle out, and if the ball is here swing over so you can drive it and not miss it or foul it off. Drive it to dead center, and that’s exactly what I did and it played out really well.
“When you have the plan that’s one thing. But when it works out, that’s a whole new different story.”
Now, the Astros are one step closer to coming back from a 3-0 deficit. Only one team, the 2004 Red Sox, have ever done it. The Astros are one of only four teams (out of 39) who have been down 3-0 to even force a Game 6.
The odds remain against them, but they have the momentum on their side.
Above anyone else, they have their former No. 1 overall pick to thank for that.
“We get to play another day,” Baker said. “We’re one step closer to getting over that mountain and that hurdle that seemed like was way off in the distance a couple days ago.”