Carlos Correa and the Houston Astros had the Kansas City Royals on the ropes. But they couldn't provide the knockout punch.
The defending American League champions rallied for five runs in the top of the eighth inning Monday to pick up a shocking 9-6 win in Game 4 of an American League Division Series. The comeback set up a Game 5 in Kansas City, Missouri, on Wednesday.
The Astros, led by rookies Carlos Correa (two home runs, four RBI) and Lance McCullers (two runs on two hits and two walks with seven strikeouts in 6.1 innings), appeared to be on their way to the American League Championship Series after taking a 6-2 lead in the bottom of the seventh.
But the Royals scored seven unanswered runs to close the game, including Eric Hosmer's two-run homer in the ninth. Hosmer finished with two hits, two runs and three RBI, while Wade Davis allowed one hit and struck out three in the final two innings to seal the victory.
It was familiar territory for the Royals, per ESPN Stats & Info:
Jeff Passan of Yahoo Sports thinks this comeback may have been even better, however:
Ryan Madson (two runs on four hits in one inning) nabbed the win, while Tony Sipp (one unearned run on one hit in 0.1 innings) took the loss. Kansas City starter Yordano Ventura went five innings, giving up three runs on four hits and three walks while striking out eight.
Correa, meanwhile, played like a superstar, putting the team on his back for much of the game with a solo home run that tied the contest 2-2 in the bottom of the third, a go-ahead RBI double with two outs in the bottom of the fifth and a two-run shot in the bottom of the seventh.
He's certainly come a long way in a short time, as Passan noted:
Keith Law of ESPN had his own theory on Correa's growth as a player:
It wasn't enough to send the Astros to the ALCS, though.
Salvador Perez gave the Royals an early lead, ripping an opposite-field homer after Mike Moustakas drew a walk. That broke Kansas City's streak of 22 hitless at-bats with runners on, per ESPN Stats & Info, which also noted Perez became the first catcher in Royals history with two home runs in one postseason.
Houston quickly responded, however, as Carlos Gomez hit a solo shot in the bottom of the inning. His injured oblique didn't seem to be bothering him too much, as Bleacher Report's Zachary Rymer noted:
Correa took over from there before the Royals threatened in the top of the seventh. Pinch runner Terrance Gore was initially called safe at third on a steal attempt with two outs. But replay showed he came off the bag while Luis Valbuena applied the tag, and the call was overturned.
Houston responded by exploding for three runs in the bottom of the inning. Jose Altuve led off the frame with a walk before Correa and Colby Rasmus hit back-to-back home runs.
Kansas City answered with five straight singles against relievers Will Harris and Sipp to make it 6-4. With the bases still loaded, Kendrys Morales hit a grounder back up the middle that deflected off Sipp's glove, bounced off the mound and then nicked Correa's glove on its was into center field, which allowed two Royals to score.
After Sipp got the first out of the inning, Luke Gregerson came on and walked Drew Butera to again load the bases. Alex Gordon followed with a groundout to second base to give Kansas City a one-run lead, and the stunned crowd was rendered silent.
The late comeback was nothing new for this team, as Bob Nightengale of USA Today noted:
But the Royals weren't done. Hosmer's homer gave them a three-run cushion for Davis.
Correa did his part in the bottom of the ninth, opening the inning with a single, but the closer stranded him on first by striking out the next two batters and getting Gomez to fly out.
The Astros have the talent to recover from their Game 4 collapse, and they'll send Game 1 winner Collin McHugh to the mound at Kauffman Stadium on Wednesday.
The Royals, meanwhile, reminded the baseball world they are never truly out of a game. They'll go with Johnny Cueto in Game 5.
On Monday, Kansas City never looked particularly shellshocked when it fell behind or particularly impressed when it rallied to take the lead. The Royals looked like they had been there and done it all before. And they looked like they expect to do it again.
Despite the staggering nature of the loss, the Astros aren't conceding defeat in the series just yet.
"We're still in it," Rasmus said after the game, per the team's official Twitter account. "We have a chance to go to K.C. and win. That's all you can ask for."
Manager A.J. Hinch added: "We're going to be ready to play in Kansas City. It doesn't surprise me it's coming down to Game 5."
The Royals had a much different response after the game, however, and players spoke of their mindsets heading into the transformative eighth inning.
"Everyone was telling each other, 'You've got one big one left,'" Hosmer told Andy McCullough of the Kansas City Star.
Davis spoke with Jon Morosi after the game about watching the comeback and changing his mentality as it became apparent he would need to enter the game, per Fox Sports on Twitter:
Alex Gordon summed up the win, noting, "We love each other. We have fun together. And we fight together."
And fight they did. Now it's Houston's turn to rise from the mat and prove it can take a punch too.