That hit, like Gary Sanchez’s two-run double that would put the Yankees ahead — Sanchez’s first hit of the series —came off Astros closer Ken Giles, one of four relievers the Astros used to try to hang on to what had been a four-run lead with nine outs left.
“The Yankee gods are watching us,” Todd Frazier said. “There’s no other way to put it.”
After closing the gap to 4-2 in the seventh, the Yankees needed every bit of munificence in the eighth when the pinch-hitter Chase Headley followed Frazier’s leadoff single with a line drive into the left-center gap off Joe Musgrove. Headley hit first base awkwardly and, instead of advancing for a comfortable double, he stumbled and fell halfway between the bases.
“I was going from extremely excited to extremely panicked in a matter of seconds,” Headley said.
As shortstop Carlos Correa gathered the throw from left fielder Marwin Gonzalez, he turned and fired to first baseman Yulieski Gurriel after hearing his teammates yell, “One, one, one!” It was a lifeline Headley was hoping for. He scrambled toward second, and his headfirst slide just beat Gurriel’s throw to second baseman Jose Altuve.
“When you’re in that position, you’ve got to make a decision one way or another,” Headley said. “Fortunately it worked out.”
There was no underselling the importance of the play in either clubhouse. Instead of one out and a runner at third, the Yankees had none out, the tying run at second and the top of the order up.
“Biggest play of the game, bar none,” Frazier said. “That changes the whole game if he’s out.”
Said Correa: “That’s when I thought the inning was going a little their way.”
Giles, who had closed out the Astros’ 2-1 victory in the series opener, was summoned. Brett Gardner greeted Giles, the most reliable member of the Astros’ bullpen, with a groundout to second that scored Frazier and advanced Headley to third. Jacoby Ellsbury then entered as a pinch-runner for Headley.
That brought up Judge, who had grounded out against Giles in the opener. This time, Judge hit a 2-2 slider on the outside corner — a pitch that has befuddled him during his strikeout-filled playoff run — on a line to left. It carried over the head of Gonzalez and off the wall for a standup double.
“He’s a good hitter for a reason, and he did exactly what he’s wanted to do — put it up in the air and found the wall,” Giles said. “There’s nothing I can do about it.”
Didi Gregorius, who had tripled and scored on a fly ball by Sanchez in the seventh inning, followed by hitting a weak grounder into a hole in the shift for a single that advanced Judge to third.
That brought up Sanchez, who was hitless in his last 18 at-bats and was in the lineup as the designated hitter so that Austin Romine could catch starter Sonny Gray.
After taking two sliders for balls, Sanchez lined a fastball over the plate into right-center field for a double that scored Judge and Gregorius. Just like that, the Yankees led by 6-4 — and the crowd erupted like it did the last time the Yankees had rallied from a four-run deficit in a playoff game: Game 7 of the 2003 A.L.C.S., which Aaron Boone would win with a home run.
“When I got to second base, my emotions were going through the roof,” the normally taciturn Sanchez said through an interpreter.
The Astros said they were undone less by the crowd than by the hardened at-bats the Yankees put together: single, single, run-scoring groundout, double, infield single, double.
“It may look like it’s unraveling real quick,” Giles said. “But in my eyes it’s just slowly putting us to the ground.”
If Tuesday’s loss proves to be the Astros’ undoing in this series, it will be another Game 4 eighth-inning boogeyman they must confront. With a chance to close out a division series two years ago at home against the Kansas City Royals, the Astros unraveled, blowing a four-run lead in the eighth inning before eventually losing, 9-6. The Royals won Game 5 two days later and went on to win the World Series.
The similarities on Tuesday were hard to miss. Just like in 2015, the Astros rode a command performance from McCullers into the seventh inning. Gurriel had provided the breakthrough hit — a bases-loaded double in the sixth off reliever David Robertson that gave the Astros a 3-0 lead. The lead grew to 4-0 in the seventh when Yankees second baseman Starlin Castro stumbled and fell while fielding a grounder – his second error of the night – allowing Gonzalez to score from second base.
As it turned out, though, the Yankees had plenty left.
“Sometimes I feel like we like playing with our backs against the wall,” said Judge, alluding to the wild-card win over Minnesota and the comeback from a 2-0 deficit to beat Cleveland in the division series. “It’s kind of crazy, but like I said before: We’re a team that goes out there and fights and keeps fighting until it’s the last out.”
The Yankees, who have already won four elimination games, were not quite ready to play another.