By BERNIE WILSON AP Sports Writer
SAN DIEGO (AP) — Before Carlos Correa headed to the plate in the ninth inning of Game 5 of the AL Championship Series, he told Dusty Baker, “Walkoff.”
The 71-year-old manager replied, “Go ahead, man,” and then said a quick prayer to his father and brother.
If the Houston Astros had been forced to go extra innings against the Tampa Bay Rays, Baker thought, he’d have to burn Framber Valdéz, his projected Game 6 starter.
Baker’s prayer was answered with a loud crack.
Correa homered with one out in the ninth, and the Astros beat the Rays 4-3 Thursday behind sensational pitching from five rookies, closing to 3-2 in the series.
Correa drove a fastball at the letters from Nick Anderson just past the palm trees to the right of the batter’s eye at Petco Park, watched the ball for a few steps and then flung his bat. He was greeted at home by his ecstatic teammates and had a long hug with Baker.
“I don’t mean no disrespect when I call my shot,” said Correa, who added that he went to the indoor cage after his second and third at-bats to work with hitting coach Alex Cintron and make adjustments.
“We felt it and it was like, ‘Wow. This feels good,'” the shortstop said.
He passed on his positive view to teammate Altuve after the eighth.
“I told Altuve walking off the field, ‘I’m going to end it,'” Correa recalled. “I could feel that my swing was in sync, I could feel that my rhythm was good, I could feel that I wanted to drive the ball. When he threw me the fastball I swung good and got exactly what I wanted.”
Correa is only 3 for 18 in the series, but two of the hits are homers.
Houston won a second straight elimination game thanks in large part to starter Luis Garcia and four fellow rookies, who combined to hold the Rays to two runs and four hits through 6 2/3 innings before Baker finally turned to a veteran, Josh James. Ryan Pressly, the seventh Astros pitcher, got the victory.
The Astros forced Game 6 on Friday, a rematch of the first game started by left-handers Blake Snell of Tampa Bay and Valdéz.
In the ALCS for a fourth straight year, the Astros are trying to join the 2004 Boston Red Sox as the only teams to come back from a 3-0 deficit in a best-of-seven series. The Red Sox beat the New York Yankees in the ALCS and went on to win their first World Series in 86 seasons.
Otherwise, big league clubs leading 3-0 in a best-of-seven postseason series are 37-1.
“Boy, that will go down as one of greatest games in history and hopefully go down as one of greatest comebacks in history after two more games,” said Baker, the first manager to take five different teams to the playoffs. “That’s as big a game as I’ve been involved in. That’s one of the reason’s that I came back.”
The Astros, who got into the playoffs with a 29-31 regular-season record, are trying to reach the World Series for the third time in four years. They are attempting to get there in a year when they have been criticized for their role in a cheating scandal en route to the 2017 title that was uncovered last offseason.
Correa also hit a walkoff homer in Game 2 of the 2017 ALCS off Aroldis Chapman of the New York Yankees.
“I still made a good pitch, and he wasn’t coming off the heater,” Anderson said. “I don’t think anybody is worried.”
George Springer homered on opener John Curtiss’ first pitch and Michael Brantley broke a tie with a two-run single. Houston became the first team with a leadoff and walk-off home run in a postseason game.
“You go from feeling pretty good about our chances to knowing the game was over a short time after that,” Rays outfielder Kevin Kiermaier said.
Tampa Bay’s Ji-Man Choi tied the game with a homer leading off the eighth.
Rookie Randy Arozarena continued his remarkable postseason by hitting his sixth homer in 12 games and Brandon Lowe also connected for the Rays, who need one more win to reach the Fall Classic for the second time.
Springer led off the bottom of the first by sending Curtiss’ first pitch onto the second balcony of the Western Metal Supply Co. Building in the left field corner. On Wednesday night, he drove a two-run shot onto the third balcony to break a tie and lead the Astros to a 4-3 win.
It was his fourth homer this postseason and 19th of his career, the most in franchise history and tying Albert Pujols for fourth all-time.
After Lowe homered off Blake Taylor leading off the third to tie the game, Brantley hit a two-run single against Josh Fleming.
Arozarena pulled the Rays to 3-2 with an opposite-field shot to right-center off Enoli Paredes with one out in the fifth. Arozarena homered for the second straight game, third time this series and sixth time this postseason, tying the rookie record set by Tampa Bay’s Evan Longoria in 2008.
His 20 postseason hits are two shy of Derek Jeter’s rookie record in 1996.
Garcia held Tampa Bay hitless in two innings while striking out two and walking one. Taylor allowed one hit and one run in two-thirds of an inning, Paredes allowed one run and one hit in 1 2/3 innings, Andre Scrubb gave up two hits in 1 ½ innings and Brooks Raley worked a scoreless inning with two strikeouts, including fanning Arozarena leading off the seventh.
Garcia, making his first postseason appearance, got out of a bases-loaded jam in the second. Paredes got consecutive strikeouts with runners on first and second in the fourth. Scrubb came on with a runner on first and one out in the fifth and struck out Yandy Diaz before allowing Ji-Man Choi’s single. He got Manuel Margot to hit a grounder to third baseman Alex Bregman, who bare-handed it and threw him out to end the inning.
Baker’s instincts won out again when he decided to leave in Garcia with two on and two out in the second. After a visit by pitching coach Brent Strom, Garcia walked Willy Adames and retired Mike Zunino on a flyout to the warning track.
Taylor took over opening the third and gave up Lowe’s leadoff homer.
“We get to play another day,” Baker said. “Tomorrow is huge. I mean, we’re one step closer to getting over that mountain, and that hurdle that seemed way off in the distance a couple days ago.”
Rays: Kiermaier was out of the starting lineup a second straight day after getting hit by a pitch on the left hand on Tuesday night. He pinch ran in the ninth.
Astros: Valdéz lost the ALCS opener 2-1.
Rays: Snell pitched five innings to win the opener.