Richard Justice

Eighth-inning magic a sharp contrast from '15

Houston shows maturity, builds momentum toward ALCS

Eighth-inning magic a sharp contrast from '15

BOSTON -- The Astros told us this time would be different. That they were better prepared for a moment like this one when the stakes would again be large, the spotlight again bright.

Here's the thing about that. Talk is cheap. There's no real simulation for testing poise and resolve. To find out, there has to be a postseason game like the one the Astros won, 5-4, against the Red Sox at Fenway Park on Monday.

Game Date Results Highlights
Gm 1 Oct. 5 HOU 8, BOS 2 Watch
Gm 2 Oct. 6 HOU 8, BOS 2 Watch
Gm 3 Oct. 8 BOS 10, HOU 3 Watch
Gm 4 Oct. 9 HOU 5, BOS 4 Watch

It was played on a wet, uncomfortable day. The Astros led early and trailed late as the Red Sox threw everything they had at them, fighting desperately to keep their season alive.

Dress for October: Shop for Astros postseason gear

This is when teams are tested. This is when teams with a championship DNA separate themselves. In the end, this time was different for the Astros as they won a clinching Game 4 of an American League Division Series presented by Doosan and advanced to the AL Championship Series presented by Camping World. The Astros will host the Yankees in Game 1 on Friday.

"You don't know how different the playoffs are until you actually play in them," outfielder George Springer said. "It's a grind one run at a time, one inning at a time. It's really a different game."

Two years ago, when the Astros had a 6-2 lead on the Royals in what could have been a clinching Game 4 of the ALDS, they allowed the game to get away from them in the eighth inning. Kansas City put up five runs with some timely hitting while capitalizing on Houston miscues, most notably a botched double-play ball by Carlos Correa that led to two runs.

Springer on advancing to ALCS

To say that the 9-6 loss to the Royals in that game -- and then a 7-2 defeat in Game 5 -- lingered in their hearts and minds for two years would not be accurate. These Astros simply have too much energy an confidence to dwell on such things.

"We came so close two years ago," pitcher Dallas Keuchel said. "And to finally finish it off this year, it's only the second step. But man, that second step feels so good. The young guys have learned from the older guys, and that's what it's going to take to win a championship."

The Astros always figured they would get back to this place and time. They thought it would be different when they did. Springer, Correa and Jose Altuve are older and wiser. Veterans like Josh Reddick, Carlos Beltran and Brian McCann have been added. Justin Verlander arrived on Aug. 31 and pitched 2 2/3 innings of relief on Monday.

Verlander earns win in relief

Verlander allowed what could have been a punch-to-the-gut, two-run home run from Red Sox outfielder Andrew Benintendi that turned a 2-1 lead into a 3-2 deficit in the fifth inning. The Red Sox nursed that 3-2 lead right into the eighth inning, getting 4 2/3 innings from their ace, Chris Sale.

That's when the Astros took control. Third baseman Alex Bregman led off the top of the eighth inning with a game-tying, momentum-changing home run off Sale.

"That was very emotional for our dugout," Astros manager A.J. Hinch said. "I think that Chris Sale had pitched so well for the entire stretch, [but] we did feel like he was tiring a little bit. But that doesn't make him easier to hit. So our guys just hung in there the whole time."

Beltran's RBI double

Bregman is 23 years old, and he had just been drafted out of LSU when the Astros and Royals played in that 2015 ALDS. He's part of how the Astros are different in '17.

"[Bench coach] Alex Cora came up to me and said, 'Hey, one at-bat, that's all that matters,'" Bregman said. "He said, 'Have some fun, play the game how you did the beginning of the series, just having fun.'"

Bregman homered on a Sale changeup in Game 1 and was sitting on another one. When he got it, he launched it over the Green Monster in left.

Astros clinch ALDS series win

Everything changed right there. The Fenway Park crowd, roaring on every pitch earlier, went quiet. The Astros scored another run that inning, what turned out to be the game-winner, in the top of the ninth.

When it ended, the Astros mobbed one another in the middle of the diamond and then took the celebration inside. Yes, this time was different.

"So now, we have one more challenge ahead of us," Hinch said, "and then we'll continue to try to work towards our ultimate goal, which is to win the whole thing."

Richard Justice has been a reporter for since 2011. Read his columns and follow him on Twitter at @RichardJustice. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.