This version of Carlos Correa once carried the Astros. Now, Houston must stop him

HOUSTON — They are booing for befuddling reasons, perhaps because some noise is better than none. Nothing the home team did on Sunday deserved praise, so a sellout crowd of 43,077 at Minute Maid Park showered a Houston icon with hate.

Carlos Correa does not begrudge the bitterness. He arrived in Houston on Thursday night and went to dinner at one of his favorite restaurants. Houston Astros fans approached him to wish him luck against his former team. More passed on their well wishes during breakfast on Friday morning.

“Are you sure you want to wish me good luck,” Correa asked on Friday afternoon, a wry smile sneaking across his face.

Correa is morphing into the exact monster Houston once cherished. Now, the city and its ballclub must fear his wrath. Few players are better at minimizing moments and seizing the October spotlight. The Astros are allowing him to capture it.

“I’ve seen him do it before. He’s hot right now but we have to calm him down a little bit,” Astros outfielder Chas McCormick said. “He was awesome tonight, but we have to pitch him a little better and make sure he’s not taking control of the game. That’s what he wants to do — take control of the game and put it in his pace. I’ve seen him play like this before and we have to put a stop to it.”

Three more hits on Sunday raised Correa’s batting average to .533 and his OPS to 1.321 across Minnesota’s first four playoff games. Three more RBIs during the Minnesota Twins’ 6-2 Game 2 win moved him into a tie with David Justice for the third-most in postseason history.

Fifty-nine of Correa’s 63 RBIs arrived across the 79 postseason games he played as an Astro, during which he authored some of this franchise’s most memorable moments. He once hoped to be an “Astro for life,” but ownership did not share the desire for the “big, long contract” Correa often said he sought.

Few former Astros ended their tenures more popular than Correa. He did nothing to diminish it during the two free agencies that followed, going almost out of his way to heap praise on the franchise that selected him first overall in 2011. He left still loved. Now, is he actually loathed?

“They’re rooting for their team, right,” Correa said after Sunday’s game. “I’m not on their team anymore. After everything I did for the organization, that’s in the past. Now I’ve moved forward. They’ve moved forward as well. And I understand it. They want their team to win, and they want me to strike out every time.”

Correa could not grant their wishes. He willed the Twins to a win they had to have and took away home-field advantage from a team that didn’t value it to begin with. Houston lost its first home ALDS game since 2015 — Correa’s rookie season — after finishing 39-42 at Minute Maid Park in the regular season. It ended, fittingly, with a wonderful diving stop and trademark strong throw by Correa at shortstop.

Carlos Correa reacts after hitting a double in the seventh inning during Game 2. (Daniel Shirey / MLB Photos via Getty Images)

“We have to win ballgames. We’ve been in this situation before,” veteran catcher Martín Maldonado said. “We can just control one game at a time.”

Two losses will end Houston’s World Series defense. The team has now spent its two best starting pitchers, Justin Verlander and Framber Valdez, and will face Minnesota co-ace Sonny Gray on Tuesday at Target Field. Game 3 starter Cristian Javier finished the season with a 5.17 ERA on the road. It is anyone’s guess who will start Game 4.

Yordan Alvarez is responsible for five of Houston’s eight runs in this series, a superhuman effort that will be difficult to sustain. His two-run home run during the eighth inning spoiled Minnesota’s shutout bid and stirred a beaten-down ballpark back to life.

For seven innings, Twins ace Pablo López silenced it. He eviscerated the Astros’ lineup. Houston struck out seven times, struck six hits and put one runner at third base while he worked. The leadoff hitter reached in three of the first five innings. Not once did he advance a base.

Houston did take seven at-bats with runners in scoring position against López. Their lone hit did not produce a run, but did allow McCormick to bat as the tying run. López tore through him with three fastballs — two sinkers followed by a finish four-seamer that McCormick swung wildly through.

“He was just playing the slider/sinker game — slider away, sinker in. I thought his sinker was moving a lot,” McCormick said. “I thought he was putting it in a good spot. It started middle-in and went way in. I thought he did a really good job. He’s a really good pitcher and he’s really tough.”

López’s dominance forced Valdez to be mistake-free. Houston’s starter made far too many to count, giving away any pitching advantage Houston presumed it possessed.

Minnesota hit .241 against left-handed pitching during the regular season. Only four lineups were worse. According to Baseball Savant’s run value metric, Valdez spun the sport’s fourth-best curveball during the regular season. No offense posted a lower batting average against curveballs than the Twins’ .161 mark.

He hung a 1-1 curveball to Correa during the first inning. The cleanup man crushed it off the chain-linked fence in left field for the first of his two doubles. Jorge Polanco scored from first base, the beneficiary of a seven-pitch walk Valdez issued after getting ahead 1-2.

Valdez needed 62 pitches to procure his first nine outs. Too many of his sinkers stayed up in the strike zone, allowing Minnesota to elevate a pitch that is expected to generate ground ball contact. Kyle Farmer struck the first one he saw 377 feet into the Crawford Boxes for a two-run home run during the third.

Valdez spun just 15 curveballs. Minnesota swung at eight of them and whiffed twice. The Twins took 44 swings total against Valdez. Eleven were whiffs. A small groove appeared in the middle innings, but Valdez never seemed anything close to his best self. Against López, he needed that and more.

Valdez started the fifth inning facing a three-run deficit. Michael A. Taylor whacked the first pitch he threw for a single. Donovan Solano struck another to the opposite field. A sacrifice bunt moved both men into scoring position. A walk to Royce Lewis loaded the bases.

Boos began as the next batter approached the plate. Josh Reddick, Correa’s teammate here for four seasons, tweeted in incredulity before the game’s biggest at-bat, as one of the sport’s premier postseason performers strode to the plate. Boos greeted him and Reddick wondered: “So why are yall booing Correa?”

Valdez had just 87 pitches, but Phil Maton stood ready in Houston’s bullpen. Manager Dusty Baker stuck with Valdez in hopes his sinker could generate a groundball. In the regular season, no player in baseball produced more ground-ball double plays than Correa.

Baker’s decision followed sound logic. Valdez executed as the skipper presumed he would, placing a 96.1 mph sinker at the bottom of Correa’s strike zone.

“That’s a great pitch. Down. Normally a lot of guys ground that pitch for a double play,” Maldonado said.

Correa spent the afternoon slamming sinkers off a pitching machine in the visiting clubhouse. His familiarity with this battery prepared him for precisely what came.

“I knew Maldy was going to go sinker, changeup, and I was ready to elevate it,” Correa said. “I was going to swing under it even if I missed under. I didn’t want to hit a ground ball in that scenario. I hit (into) too many double plays in the regular season. I don’t want to hit for them in the playoffs.”

Correa sent the sinker into shallow center field for a two-run single. He arrived at first base, pounded his chest and pointed toward the third-base dugout. Silence enveloped this boo-filled ballpark, an October scene Correa has authored so many times before.

“He’s a great player, one of the best players in the league,” longtime teammate Alex Bregman said. “He’s done it time after time in the postseason. You tip your hat to him and try and move onto the next day, move onto the next pitch and continue to grind and battle.”

Added Correa: “I know what happens when they lose a game. I’ve been on the other side, and I know the speech and the meetings and all the stuff that happens. They’ll be ready to go in the next game. So will we.”

(Top photo of Carlos Correa hitting a one-run double in the first inning: Daniel Shirey / MLB Photos via Getty Images)

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