By GLENN GUILBEAU | Tiger Rag Featured Columnist
HOUSTON, Texas – It was a Warren Morris type moment to say the least.
Two outs … bottom of the 10th inning … Game 5 of the World Series … Houston Astros tied 12-12 with the Los Angeles Dodgers… runner on second base … MLB’s best closer Kenley Jansen of L.A. on the mound … Minute Maid Park in Houston Sunday night … Houston’s Alex Bregman at the plate.
The scene was not unlike that of June 8, 1996, at the College World Series national championship game. LSU’s Tim Lanier, who had just struck out for the second out, told Morris, “Pick me up” as Morris stepped to the plate and to immortality with LSU trailing Miami, 8-7, in the bottom of the ninth. He hit a two-run walk-off home run for a 9-8 win over Miami and the national title.
Fast forward to Oct. 29, 2017, and Houston’s Carlos Correa, who was on deck, told Bregman as he took his last warm-up swing, “It’s your time.”
And it was not too big time for Bregman because he made it smaller. He was not thinking home run, even though he had just homered off a Jensen slider the night before in the ninth inning in the Astros 6-2 loss in Game 4.
“I thought to myself, ‘What’s your approach going to be?’ And I said, ‘I saw him last night and he threw me a slider and I was fortunate enough to put a good swing on it, and hit it out of the yard.’ And I basically eliminated the slider, and I said, ‘I need to get a pitch that I can stay on top of,’ because he’s a guy that throws high cutters, and a guy that gets a lot of fly-ball outs,” Bregman said.
Ever the analyst, Bregman decided to look for a low strike. With the speedy Derek Fisher on second base with the winning run, all Bregman needed to do was hit a single.
“Something down in the zone that I could stay on top of,” he said. “And Skip (Houston manager A.J. Hinch) put Fisher in. As soon as it left the bat, I knew Fisher would score. He’s probably the fastest guy in baseball.”
The Astros won, 13-12, and took a three games to two lead over the Dodgers in the best-of-seven World Series. And Bregman has the boy’s life moment he never got a chance to have through two trips to Omaha, Nebraska, and the College World Series with LSU in 2013 and ’15.
“Just pure, pure joy,” Bregman said after the game. “Because when you look around, and you see the smiles on your teammates’ face, it makes everything worth it. It makes every weight that you lifted in the offseason, every swing that you took in the cage worth it. When you feel like you came through for your team, and you see the joy on their faces, there’s nothing like it. It’s such a special feeling that I’m so fortunate and blessed to feel today. It’s an unbelievable moment.”
Bregman and the Astros will get two chances to finish the dream. The World Series returns to Los Angeles for Game 6 Tuesday night. Game 7 – if necessary – will be Wednesday night in Los Angeles.
“Yeah, I’d say everybody is pretty tired now, but we won’t be that tired when we show up in L.A.,” Bregman said. “Back and forth, the two best teams in baseball fighting to the very end and going toe to toe with each other. Everybody was used on both teams, pretty much, every single player. It was special for us to come out on top. It meant a lot to us. Before the game I know that everybody knew that this was our last home game of the year. And that the people of Houston have been here with us the entire season and they’ve stood strong through some tough times (Hurricane Harvey in August). And we were going to figure out a way to win this game for them. You saw that we go down 4-0 early, but we were still smiling and having a good time, because we were going to play our game. If we were going to lose today, we were going to play our game. We were going to fight to the end.”
The Astros were only tied in the Series, 2-2, going into Sunday, but it seemed like they were down a game, what with the Dodgers having two home games to their one and untouchable ace Clayton Kershaw pitching Sunday night. He had beat Houston in the World Series opener last week. But the Astros had been in a dire situation before. It trailed the New York Yankees, three games to two after getting swept in New York in the American League championship series. It beat them two straight to get to the World Series, and on Sunday night the Astros chased Kershaw.
“I think that one thing that has helped this team is going down 3-2 to the Yankees, because when we got back home, as soon as we got off the plane, I think our team really decided that we’re going to play to win, and not play not to lose,” Bregman said. “And ever since then we’ve been playing to win every single pitch and it’s been fun. It’s been a fun journey, to be honest with you. We’ve got (Houston ace) Justin Verlander going for us Tuesday. I know everybody’s ready to go.”
They will need some rest before Tuesday, though. Houston’s win over Los Angeles in Game 5 took five hours and 17 minutes. It did not end until Monday morning.
But someone back in Baton Rouge was watching every pitch.
“Did last night really happen? Or am I dreaming?”
Why, it’s LSU baseball coach Paul Mainieri texting.
“I can’t think of a player that I’ve ever coached that deserved that moment more than Alex,” Mainieri said. “He was made for moments like that. I saw him deliver like that many, many times during his three years at LSU. Because of his strong self-confidence, he is fearless on a baseball field.”
Houston star second baseman Jose Altuve said Bregman does not seem like a 23-year-old only now completing his first full season in the Major Leagues after getting drafted with the second pick of the draft in 2015 out of LSU and debuting well into last season.
“It’s hard to believe he’s as young as he is. He’s like a veteran,” Altuve said.
“And he was facing Jansen, the best closer in the game,” Correa said.
The fearlessness comes through preparedness armor. This makes huge moments smaller before they happen.
“I think it’s just due to the preparation I put in in the offseason and spring training, and knowing that I have such good teammates around me,” Bregman said. “I know that I just need to do my part and pull my end of the rope. When you have a guy like Jose Altuve hitting behind you right there. I’m pretty sure Jansen would rather face me than him. So I was just trying to get a good pitch to hit.”
That’s what Morris said. But Bregman was channeling another World Series hero – the player he imagined he was as a youngster with two outs and the winning run on second in the bottom of the ninth … or the 10th.
“I was pretending to be Derek Jeter,” Bregman said of the great former Yankee shortstop. “I always grew up loving him. One of the reasons I wear No. 2 is because of him. Yeah, he was ultimate team guy. He was a winner. And just a good guy for a kid to look up to. And I always pretended to be Jeter.”
As of Sunday night – if they were not asleep – many kids will be pretending to be Bregman for years to come.
“Like you said, you dream about it as a little kid,” he said. “To be living a dream, one win away from the World Series, is really special.”