[This will be an ongoing series during the Astros' playoff run, where I highlight one pivotal moment in each game and break it down.]
There were a handful of tense moments in the AL Wild Card matchup between the Houston Astros and the New York Yankees. Perhaps the most tense was in the sixth inning, when Alex Rodriguez came to the plate against Dallas Keuchel. With two outs and two on, Rodriguez represented the go-ahead run. Keuchel, pitching on short rest, looked like he may have been losing steam. After a brief coaching visit to the mount, Astros manager A.J. Hinch decided to leave Keuchel in the game.
There was good reason to be scared. Forty-year-old Rodriguez has experienced something of a renaissance in his career in 2015. After posting just 0.5 fWAR in 181 plate appearances in 2013 and missing all of 2014, he bounced back this season with 2.7 fWAR over 620 plate appearances. He carried a slash line of .250/.356/.486 with 33 home runs - and while that's not exactly vintage A-Rod, as a player entering his fifth decade of life on this planet, it's still impressive.
Keuchel, on the other hand, is the ace of a pretty good Houston Astros pitching staff. Building on an impressive 2014, he accumulated 6.1 fWAR in 2015, with a 2.48 ERA, 2.75 xFIP, 1.02 WHIP, twenty wins, and a fighting chance against David Price for the AL Cy Young Award. The man that Lloyd McClendon once called "average" was in good form on three days' rest in the one-game Wild Card playoff, but he was obviously clearly showing signs of fatigue as Rodriguez strode to the plate.
A single by A-Rod probably plates at least one run, gives the Yankees momentum, brings Brian McCann to the plate, and possibly chases Keuchel from the game. An out keeps the Astros' two-run lead intact, ends the inning, and gives the Astros the chance to tack more runs onto their lead (which they did in the following half-inning when Jose Altuve singled pinch-runner Jonathan Villar home.)
In a perfect world (well, for a writer, not necessarily for a fan), this is where I would detail a long, epic pitch sequence between two giants of the game: One, a nascent ace in his first-ever playoff game; the other, an aging veteran superstar in his 330th postseason plate appearance. But that's not what happened.
What really happened, though, was that with their respective teams' playoff chances on the line, the epic showdown between these two men lasted precisely one pitch: A cutter in on Rodriguez's hands, which he lifted to center field for an easy can of corn that ended up in Carlos Gomez's glove for the final out of the inning.
Sometimes baseball is like that. You stand, you wait, you anticipate, you grind your teeth, you worry... and then, with one pitch, your heart starts to beat again. Keuchel emerges victorious, the Astros go on to victory, and A-Rod finishes the night 0-for-4 in possibly the final postseason game of his career.
Per FanGraphs, the Yankees' WPA fell by .065, or 6.5%, as a result of that out. It was the biggest such drop they saw all night. And it took just one pitch to do it. Talk about a cutter.