Houston is one step closer to the ultimate comeback

Astros stay hot, force winner-take-all Game 7 by winning ALCS Game 6

Photo by Ezra Shaw/Getty Images

Not going down without a fight, the once 0-3 record for the Astros in the ALCS improved to 2-3 after a big walk-off home run by Carlos Correa to end Game 5 and force Game 6. One more win and they'd force a decisive Game 7, where they could join the 2004 Boston Red Sox as the only two teams to erase a 3-0 deficit in a best-of-seven series.

They would do just that, with their offense coming alive in the middle innings to take over the game to back up another impressive start by Framber Valdez. It sets up a winner-take-all Game 7 on Saturday. Here's how Game 6 unfolded:

Final Score: Astros 7, Rays 4.

Series: tied 3-3.

Winning Pitcher: Framber Valdez.

Losing Pitcher: Blake Snell.

Rays score first, Astros answer back with four in the fifth

After a scoreless first inning on both sides, it was Tampa Bay who started the scoring in the bottom of the second. Despite Valdez starting hot and striking out three of the first four batters, he allowed a one-out single that would come around and score on a two-out RBI-double to put the Rays up 1-0.

That score held until the top of the fifth, when a leadoff walk by Yuli Gurriel followed by a single by Aledmyz Diaz would spell the end for Blake Snell, whose manager would take him out to try and get his trusted bullpen into the game. Instead, Houston would move the runners on a sac bunt by Martin Maldonado then bring both in to take a 2-1 lead on a two-RBI single by George Springer. That opened the floodgates, with Jose Altuve driving in another on the next pitch, an RBI-double to the left-field wall, followed later by an RBI-single by Carlos Correa, making it a four-run inning and a 4-1 Astros lead.

Valdez impresses again and leaves in line for the win

Kyle Tucker would make it a four-run lead in the top of the sixth, leading the inning off with a solo home run to make it 5-1. Framber Valdez continued his impressive night in the bottom of the inning, getting his fifth scoreless inning and wrapping up a one-run gem, leaving in line for the win. His final line: 6.0 IP, 3 H, 1 R, 1 ER, 3 BB, 9 K, 0 HR, 101 P.

Houston's offense kept rolling into the top of the seventh, when Jose Altuve would start it off with a single, moved to second on a passed ball, then scored on an RBI-single by Michael Brantley. Tucker would later bring in his second run in as many innings, getting a sac fly to make it a six-run game at 7-1.

Houston forces Game 7

With Valdez's night done, Andre Scrubb would come in for the top of the seventh with the big lead. He was met with a solo homer by Manuel Margot to cut it to 7-2, then was only able to get two outs while putting two more on base before Dusty Baker would bring in Blake Taylor to finish the inning. Despite loading the bases on three straight walks to start the top of the eighth, the Astros would follow it with three strikeouts in a row to stand all three runners, keeping it a 7-2 game.

Cristian Javier would take over on the mound in the bottom of the inning, but after two strikeouts, he would issue a two-out walk to set up another home run to Margot, his second in as many innings, to trim the lead to 7-4. After a scoreless top of the ninth, the Astros would be forced to use closer Ryan Pressly in the three-run situation, his third appearance in as many days. He would come through with the save, finishing off the win as Houston evened the series to move one step closer to one of the ultimate comebacks in the sports world.

Up Next: It all comes down to this. The end of the road for one of these two teams comes after ALCS Game 7, which will start on Saturday at 7:37 PM Central, though that time could change if the Braves finish the NLCS Friday night. Though not announced, the expected pitching matchup mirrors Game 2, which was Lance McCullers Jr. for Houston and Charlie Morton for the Rays.

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Here's what the data tells us about Bregman. Photo by Joel Auerbach/Getty Images

Alex Bregman had a rough season in 2020 by his standards. He slashed .242/.350/.451 in 42 regular season games. His regular season included a trip to the 10-day IL for a hamstring strain he suffered in mid-August. His surface-level struggles continued in the postseason, where he slashed .220/.316/.300 in 13 games. However, that postseason sample size does include a tough luck game against the Tampa Bay Rays where he went 0-for-5 with five hard hit balls.

All-in-all, 2020 felt like a lost season for Bregman. He never really got going. He got off to a slow start, but he's always been a slow starter. Once he started to pick it up, he strained his hamstring, and he played poorly after returning from the hamstring strain. Then, he started to turn his batted ball quality around in the playoffs, but he hit into a lot of tough luck outs.

Hard Hit % - 33.6%

Barrel % - 3.9%

K% - 14.4%

BB% - 13.3%

Chase % - 18.1%

Bregman comes from the Michael Brantley school of hitters. He has elite plate discipline and elite bat-to-ball skills. This makes Bregman a fairly consistent hitter. That may sound odd considering his 2020 "struggles" but even an extended period of poor performance for him resulted in a .801 OPS and a 122 wRC+. If his valleys are still 22% better than the league average hitter, then that's a pretty reliable producer.

There aren't any alarming trends in Bregman's statistics. Yes, his K% was slightly up, his BB% is slightly down, but it isn't a massive difference in either category. His Chase % was up, but again, 18.1% is elite discipline. The biggest drop was in his Hard Hit%, where he fell from 38% to 33.6%. Even so, his average exit velocity only dropped .4 MPH, so there's not really a catastrophic trend here.

His .254 BABIP (Batting Average on Balls In Play) was low, but he's never put up really high BABIP numbers. In fact, his BABIP has gotten worse every year of his career, from .317 to .311 to .289 to .281 to .254. While his BABIP will likely spike back up next year, it isn't enough to be the difference between the 2019 and 2020 versions of himself. His xBA and xSLG weren't out of whack either. His .256 xBA isn't much better than his .240 AVG, and his .400 xSLG is actually worse than his .451 SLG.

Bregman is as forthcoming with his hitting mechanics, approach, and mental cues as any big leaguer out there. Here is what he had to say about his swing this year. This was a Zoom press conference with the media following the Astros game on September 25th against the Rangers.

Bregman says he wants to hit balls in the air to the pull side and on a line to the opposite field, but in reality, he was hitting flares to the opposite field and hitting them on the ground to the pull side.

The data mostly backs up that claim. In 2019, on balls hit to the pull side, Bregman had an average exit velocity of 90.7 MPH at an average launch angle of 16°, a 40% Hard Hit %, and a 16% HR%. Since Bregman has elite bat-to-ball skills, most of those metrics didn't change. In 2020, his average exit velocity was 90.6, essentially the same as 2019. His Hard Hit % was 42%, a touch better than in 2019. However, his average launch angle dipped from 16° to 11°, which contributed to his HR% dropping all the way to 9%. Bregman hit 47% of his pull side swings on the ground. In 2019, that number was 40%. He absolutely had less production to the pull side in 2020.

The data gets a little hazier going the opposite way when comparing 2019 to 2020, as Bregman actually performed slightly better to the opposite field in 2020 than 2019, but he also only had 20 batted balls to the opposite field all season. Considering the small sample size, it isn't worth diving too deep into the data.

He's right that most of the balls he hit that way were flares. He had an average exit velocity of 83.4 MPH with an average launch angle of 32°, but that's about the same as what he did in 2019. A lot of the statistical drop off comes from balls that were backspun rockets to the pull side in 2019 becoming top spinners or roll overs in 2020.

Bregman also performed horribly against breaking balls in 2020. He batted .150 with a .250 SLG against them in 2020. He had an 84 MPH Average Exit Velocity against them and whiffed 26.5% of the time against them.

It was a far cry from 2019, when he hit .265 with a .588 SLG, 87 MPH average exit velo, and whiffed 18% of the time.

Those numbers lend credence to his statement on his mechanics. It's tough for a hitter to have adjustability against breaking balls if he's blowing out his front side and pulling off of the baseball.

Bregman will spend the offseason working on these mechanical fixes and getting back to the hitter he used to be. If he's consistently hitting the ball in the air to the pull side next year, and he's performing better against breaking balls, then he should be right back in the mix for AL MVP.

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