It was truly a tale of two halves for Houston Astros batters Thursday night at Minute Maid Park, with a four-run outburst coming in the opening inning before two eighth-inning home runs sealed the deal for the home team.
In a do-or-die Game 5 of the American League Division Series against the Tampa Bays Rays, Gerrit Cole retired the side with a pair of strikeouts and a flyout to start the game, sending the top of the Astros' lineup to the plate.
George Springer started a string of a record-setting five hits which ultimately led to a four-spot by the end of the opening inning, both of which were franchise records.
Springer, Michael Brantley and Jose Altuve all supplied singles which advanced the previous baserunner to third base before Alex Bregman cleared the bases with a double to the wall, ultimately coming around to score himself on a Yuli Gurriel single, providing Cole a four-run advantage to work with.
"It was huge, to jump on Glasnow was big," said the opposing pitcher. "It gave us a little bit of cushion, a little bit of area to breath and be able to get creative."
Those good feelings were dialed back just a bit, however, as Eric Sogard took the first pitch he saw in the second inning deep over the right-field wall for a lead-off home run but Cole bounced back with a groundout and a pair of strikeouts to keep it moving although that's when the Houston bats went a little cold.
Over the next five and one-third innings, Brantley was the only Astro to reach base, via the base on balls, before Josh Reddick grabbed a single in the seventh, although he was ultimately stranded there following a pair of Houston strikeouts.
"Obviously, we had a big first inning and then I don't think we got a hit for another five or six innings," Springer said. "But that's what good teams like that do, they made an adjustment to us and shut us down for the basically the whole game."
Of course, Cole also shut down the rest of the Rays batters, allowing just one more hit in the fourth inning while accumulating 10 strikeouts for the 11th straight start and walking just two batters.
"It felt good to step up for the team," Cole said. "We've been battling all series and we needed to make some big plays in some big situations and get some big hits."
Also racking up over the series were Cole's strikeout totals and his 25 over his two Division Series starts makes him the leader in that category all-time, besting 22-strikeout performances from Stephen Strasburg in 2017 and Justin Verlander in 2012.
That provided all of the space necessary to keep Tampa Bay at bay but just for good measure, a couple of Astros left the building in the eighth inning.
Brantley started the bottom of the eighth with his first career postseason round-tripper before Altuve followed up with one of his own for the first back-to-back scenario since Springer and, of course, Altuve did it in Game 1 of the 2018 ALDS against the Cleveland Indians.
That made things a 6-1 game, more than enough to bring the closer out of the bullpen and Roberto Osuna needed just 10 pitches to record three outs and send the 43,418 fans into a frenzy with the third consecutive ALCS berth.
"It means everything to be able to celebrate in front of your home crowd and have them behind you," Reddick said. "We were very happy to get them off their butts and make some noise for us when we scored four in the first. We were very happy to get them behind us because we knew it was going to carry us for nine innings."
When asked what makes this place special, Springer responded with: "Did you hear our fans? That's it.
Playing in this atmosphere is unbelievable, this is the best place to play; I love it," Springer continued. "The fans are into it from the start of the day until the end of it so this is a pretty special place to play."
Those fans will have more baseball coming their way with the New York Yankees flying down to the lone star state Friday ahead of Saturday's Game 1 which has a 7:07 p.m. start time.
Still, Reddick talked about the advantage Houston holds by owning the home-field advantage.
"We're very happy to be able to start here because we know how rough it can be up in New York, their fans are loud and they're rowdy," he said. "They're pretty obnoxious, they get behind their team."
Springer closed with some enthusiasm for what the team accomplished but knows the work isn't over yet.
"This is obviously something great for us and something special so we'll enjoy this one but it's time to get back to work," he closed.