There was a moment in the middle of Saturday's Game 7 of the American League Championship Series where it felt like the tables could have turned. Yes, the Astros ended up winning 4-0 with relative ease to clinch a trip to the Fall Classic, but it didn't always look that way.
In the fifth, the Astros were up 1-0, but the Yankees were challenging, with men at the corners and one out. Houston starter Charlie Morton had been fantastic, but his struggles getting through a lineup multiple times are well-known, and he'd already allowed a double and a walk in the inning. With No. 8 hitter Todd Frazier up, the Yanks were just two hitters away from seeing the top of their lineup for a third time.
A single would have tied the game; an extra-base hit might have cost the Astros the lead and forced them to make a comeback against the Yankees' deep bullpen in this finale of the ALCS presented by Camping World. Instead, a fantastic defensive play from third baseman Alex Bregman and catcher Brian McCann prevented New York from tying it up by mere inches. The Yanks never would up scoring -- either in the inning or the game -- and now Houston is headed to Los Angeles for Tuesday's Game 1 of the World Series presented by YouTube TV.
Let's break down exactly how this one happened. Morton, to his credit, induced a pretty weak grounder from Frazier. The ball had an exit velocity of a mere 61.8 mph and was pounded into the ground at a -38 degree launch angle, a combination which has a Hit Probability of just 6 percent. It's rarely, if ever, a hit, but that also means it took some time to get to Bregman, 2.26 seconds after contact was made.
The relatively slow bouncer most likely took away the possibility of a 6-4-3 double play from Bregman, because by the time he fielded the ball, Aaron Hicks, the runner on first, was just 29 feet from second base and going at full speed. By the time Bregman released his throw, Hicks was just 15 feet away. While Bregman was nine feet closer to second base than he was to home at the time of the throw, Greg Bird, the runner on third, was 23 feet away from home, or six feet closer to his goal than Hicks was, and the throw still barely beat him. It might not have been possible to get Hicks.
Besides, getting the out at second, even if possible, wouldn't have been worth it on its own without the double play. When Bregman released the ball, Frazier was slightly more than halfway to first (48 feet away from home, to be exact), so while we can't say it was impossible to turn the double play, it would have been extremely difficult. Given the risk involved, and the fact that Bregman was already facing home plate and would have needed to turn his body to throw back to second, he made the right decision.
That's in part because of past experience. Speaking to FS1's postgame show, Bregman referenced a similar opportunity against the Angels on Sept. 24, except that time, he did try for two. It didn't go well, as he got the runner at second but not the hitter, and the run scored. The Astros lost that game, 7-5.
"Ten games before the end of the regular season, we had a similar play, and I tried to turn a double play and we didn't get the guy at first base," Bregman said. "I told myself, and I talked to [manager A.J. Hinch and bench coach Alex Cora], we thought in the playoffs in a close game, it would be smart to try and get the lead runner. We were fortunate enough to put it on the cash, and McCann made a great tag."
Meanwhile, Bird's trip home from third was full of its own intrigue. Working against him was the fact that he hadn't taken a large lead -- just 9.2 feet when Morton released the pitch -- and that speed isn't one of his strengths. Bird's average Sprint Speed this year was just 25.9 feet per second, below the Major League average of 27 feet per second, and ahead of only one other Yankee, Chase Headley.
But Bird was off on the contact play, and he showed tremendous hustle here. On this particular play, Bird's Sprint Speed was 27.2 feet per second, and while that's still only around the Major League average, it was the fastest time Statcast™ has tracked him at all season long. It needed to be, too -- the play from contact to the out at the plate took just 3.41 seconds.
Bird was still 37 feet from home when Bregman caught the ball, and he was hustling while Bregman set his feet and cut the throw loose. In the .56 of a second it took for Bregman to get the ball out of his glove, Bird traveled another 14 feet, so he was just 23 feet away from home at the time of the throw. Bregman, meanwhile, was 75 feet away.
Even with a runner not known for his speed, that's a pretty tight turnaround. But in the same way that Bird found something extra, so did Bregman. His throw home was measured at 81.2 mph, and that's in the top four percent of all throws tracked by Bregman this year. It took .56 of a second to reach McCann -- and, as importantly, it was as accurate as it possibly could have been. It wasn't high. It didn't bounce. It was low, on a fly and put in a spot where McCann caught it, didn't have to move his glove and let Bird slide right into it.
"I have no idea how it stayed in my glove," McCann said following the game, "or how I caught it or how he put it right on the money. It was just perfect all the way around. It stayed in, Bregs put it right on the money, and I was able to hang on."
Bird, for his part, didn't second-guess his choices, saying: "You've got to score a run, so I went. No regrets."
He sure did go. The entire play took 3.41 seconds from the time Frazier made contact, and two-thirds of that time was taken up waiting for the slow bouncer to get to Bregman, meaning everything else happened in 1.15 seconds. It's the blink of an eye, really, but that's all it took. After years of planning and months of games, some part of Houston getting to the World Series is due to a defensive effort that happened in the span of a little more than one second.
Mike Petriello is an analyst for MLB.com and the host of the Statcast podcast. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.