HOUSTON — In the eye of the swirling storm around them, there was calm. There always is.
Two outs from punching their World Series ticket, the Houston Astros had just taken a punch. To lesser teams, it might have been a knockout blow. DJ LeMahieu had just drilled a two-run homer, the desperate New York Yankees saw a crack of light, and now they were pushing to muscle their way in.
Tied game, bottom of the ninth, two out, and New York closer Aroldis Chapman breathing dragon fire and spitting 100 mph sliders. But he had made a mistake: He had lost George Springer. He had jumped ahead in the count with a strike-one slider, but then he couldn't locate the plate. He had delivered four consecutive balls.
In the Houston dugout, two outfielders sat together, Josh Reddick and Michael Brantley. It was Brantley who had helped position the Astros for this moment two innings earlier, with a full-on diving catch in left field before scrambling to his feet and throwing a one-hop pea to double off Aaron Judge at first base and end the seventh with a fabulously artful and incredibly rare 7-3 double play.
Now the sea of orange was deafening in Minute Maid Park and Jose Altuve was at the plate and Reddick watched Chapman deliver ball one, and then ball two. It was then, 2 and 0 count, Chapman having thrown six consecutive balls, that Reddick calmly leaned over and declared to Brantley, "Josie's going to win this game right here for us."
On the mound, Chapman threw his first strike in seven offerings, a slider that sailed by Altuve for a called strike.
And then he threw another, this one 83 mph and high in the zone, and in a flash, Altuve unleashed a quick, violent swing that sent a laser into the night.
The ball's landing was the anticlimactic part. By then, everyone knew this one was over and the Astros had slayed the Yankees. Again, for the second time in three seasons in this ballpark, this time 6-4 in a Game 6 that started slowly and then veered toward classic.
"He's one of the best," Springer was saying moments later, soaked with champagne, standing on the field amid family and the warm embrace of a city that cannot get enough of these Astros. "I know right there I have to do anything I can to get to first base, and I was able to.
"He can do special things. There's nothing he can't do. Incredible moment. Incredible swing. Unbelievable."
"Talk about Joe Carter-esque," Astros president Reid Ryan, son of Hall of Famer Nolan, added, referring to Carter's legendary walk-off homer against Philadelphia closer Mitch Williams to win the 1993 World Series for Toronto.
"To hit a [winning] home run off of the game's elite closer, can you script it any better? He's the best player in baseball."
As Altuve stood in the on-deck circle while Springer expertly worked that two-out, ninth-inning walk, nerves jangling all around him as the moment grew, he noticed one important thing as he worked hard to slow his own breathing.
As he watched Springer battle, what struck Altuve was "how confident and quiet he was. We all know Chapman throws a hundred miles an hour. But Georgie was so calm. And … he wasn't trying to be the hero; that's the kind of thing where [you] just pass the bat to the next guy.
"And I just tried to copy his approach by just [being] quiet, just trying to get my pitch to hit. And I got it."
He did, and they got it. The Astros, a second AL pennant in three seasons, another chance with this special group to win another World Series.
From the beginning, everyone knew this was going to be a weird and wild night. When was the last time neither team had a legitimate starting pitcher for an elimination game? It was unheard of, two teams playing an elimination Game 6 and both emptying their bullpens in one of those infamously modern "bullpen games."
"No matter what I script out right now or how we feel like it's going to be, there's going to be a change of course at some point during the game," Houston manager A.J. Hinch had predicted—accurately—before the game. "There's going to be a big swing that sways a decision one way or another. That's October baseball in 2019."
It was unusual and tedious for an LCS game, let alone an elimination game, for six innings. Houston built a 4-2 lead as the Astros and Yankees both spun the bullpen gates like turnstiles.
The first three innings took nearly 90 minutes to complete as five different pitchers entered the game. With Houston reliever Josh James on the mound in the second inning alone, you could have streamed entire episodes of Fleabag between pitches. Not that the game dragged, but you could have dripped an entire bottle of honey over several pieces of toast before the next inning ended.
A total of 14 pitchers toiled, none of them named Gerrit Cole or Justin Verlander or Masahiro Tanaka.
From that perspective, as heavyweight a fight as this was between two 100-win teams, this was a series that didn't deserve a Game 7—not when Game 6 emptied the bullpens.
But more importantly, this series deserved to end after six games because what happens next is a turbocharged World Series between the Astros and Washington Nationals in which the projected starters for Game 1 are Cole vs. Max Scherzer, the projected starters for Game 2 are Verlander vs. Stephen Strasburg, and then Game 3 should be Zack Greinke against Patrick Corbin.
Had it taken the Astros a seventh game to reach the World Series, they would have leaned on Cole for Game 7, which would have pushed him back to a Game 3 World Series start and eliminated a Cole-Scherzer (or Strasburg, if the Nationals decide to go that way) duel to start the World Series.
"I don't know if the sport is ready for all of these elite starting pitchers to be back in play," Hinch joked.
Another oddity on this night is that the World Series matchup that fell into place features two teams that share their still fairly new spring training complex together in West Palm Beach, Florida.
"They're one of the most talented teams around," Hinch said of the Nationals. "I've watched them in the playoffs really start to get as hot as anybody.
"It's going to be a tough challenge."
No more difficult, surely, than the battle with LeMahieu that nearly extended this ALCS into Sunday and Game 7. Needing just two outs to close out the Yankees, Roberto Osuna failed to figure out a way to escape LeMahieu during an epic, 10-pitch at-bat that ended with the right-handed LeMahieu pushing a 94 mph cut fastball over the right-field fence, just over the glove of Springer, to temporarily even the score at 4-4.
"Incredible at-bat," Hinch said.
"Heartbreaking," Reddick said of watching the ball land on the other side of the fence.
But as Hinch said: "Our resolve is pretty good. It always has been."
These guys have been playing together too long not to push back, hard, when they absorb a body blow. Altuve goes back to the days when the Astros were one of the game's worst teams, after they had stripped down while rebuilding, and he suffered through three consecutive 100-loss seasons.
"This team doesn't give up, and we've got some pop too," owner Jim Crane said. "And Tuve is amazing. He continually keeps doing things you don't think he can do, and he does them with such grace."
Said Hinch: "I should never be surprised by anything Jose Altuve does. He's remarkable."
The least surprising thing over the course of the evening was once Altuve connected with Chapman's slider the baseball sailed over the fence.
Everyone knew it was out, especially Hinch.
"I've seen Jose's reactions to a lot of homers here over the years," Hinch said with a wry smile. "He's never wrong."
Scott Miller covers Major League Baseball as a national columnist for Bleacher Report. Follow Scott on Twitter and talk baseball.