HOUSTON — Brian McCann had no interest in gloating.
McCann was standing in the middle of the field at Minute Maid Park on Saturday night, his 5-year-old son at his side and the Houston Astros’ pennant-winning celebration raging all around them. For the second game in a row, the veteran catcher delivered a big hit. And now, after a 4-0 victory in Game 7 of the American League Championship Series, he’s headed to the World Series for the first time in his 13-year career.
But if you think McCann took any added pleasure in the fact that the Astros vanquished his former team, the New York Yankees, to reach this point, well, he was here to say that isn’t the case at all.
“Not one bit,” said McCann, whose two-run double against Yankees reliever Tommy Kahnle proved to be the biggest blow in a three-run fifth inning. “I love that organization. I have lifelong friends over there that I’ll be talking to when I’m in my 70s and 80s. That’s how close I got with a lot of people over there.”
Never mind that the Yankees decided last year that McCann wasn’t part of their future. Forget that they were so eager to trade him to open up a spot for slugging 24-year-old catcher Gary Sanchez that they agreed to pay $5.5 million of his $17 million salary this year and next.
McCann insists he harbors neither ill will nor hard feelings. In fact, he’s as impressed as anyone that the Yankees were able to reach Game 7 of the ALCS in what was expected to be a bridge year with their young core of “Baby Bombers.”
Heck, if it wasn’t for McCann, it would probably be the Yankees rather than the Astros who are headed to Dodger Stadium for Game 1 of the World Series on Tuesday night.
The Astros lost three consecutive games in New York last week, and after dropping Game 5, McCann and Carlos Beltran — the veteran leaders that Houston lacked over the past two seasons — observed that their younger teammates were hanging their heads so low they could have dragged the infield dirt. So, they stood up at their lockers and delivered their version of an it-ain’t-over-til-it’s-over pep talk.
But four innings into Game 6, with the Astros on the brink of elimination, the highest-scoring offense in baseball still didn’t have a hit against Yankees starter Luis Severino. Even Houston general manager Jeff Luhnow, the man who put together this 101-win team, was beginning to wonder if the bats would ever come around.
“I was worried,” Luhnow said. “The Yankees’ pitching is unbelievable. Their starting pitching was great this series, and their bullpen is lights-out, has been all year. I was definitely worried.”
Then, with one out in the fifth inning of Game 6, McCann stepped to the plate. Alex Bregman and Evan Gattis had drawn walks in front of him. McCann looked at two strikes, then worked the count even. Severino uncorked a 97-mph fastball, a pitch that was meant to put away a 33-year-old whose bat had looked slow in going 0-for-11 in the series to that point.
Instead, McCann stroked it to right field. Bregman scored and Gattis might have, too, if the ball hadn’t skipped over the short fence for a ground-rule double. But the Astros had a lead with ace Justin Verlander on the mound, and suddenly, everyone in Minute Maid Park believed again.
“Huge,” Luhnow said. “It was huge.”
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McCann’s fifth inning in Game 7 was equally enormous.
In the top of the inning, he somehow held on to third baseman Alex Bregman’s strong throw to the plate even though Greg Bird slid feet-first into his mitt in an attempt to jar it loose. Then, in the bottom half, McCann lined another two-strike pitch — a changeup from Kahnle — to right field for a two-run double that opened a 4-0 lead.
From there, McCann did what he was brought to Houston to do. He guided starter-turned-reliever Lance McCullers through a four-inning save mostly by helping the right-hander believe in his best pitch. McCullers’ final 24 pitches of the game were all curveballs, and the final six Yankees batters were all retired, four by strikeout.
“That curveball is one of the best pitches in baseball,” McCann said. “He had his groove, he had his release point, and he went with it.”
In part, McCullers was emboldened by McCann’s desire to keep calling for the breaking pitch.
“He’s got an incredible reputation,” Luhnow said. “You talk to any pitcher that’s thrown to him and they’re going to tell you that this is the guy they want to throw to. We knew knew [catcher Jason] Castro was a free agent [last winter]. We knew we were going to replace him with somebody. McCann was at the top of our list.”
It made sense, too, for the Yankees to send him away. Sanchez is the best hitting catcher in the majors. He needed to play, which meant McCann needed to go. McCann told the Yankees he would waive his no-trade clause for the Astros and the Atlanta Braves, and general manager Brian Cashman worked out a deal that sent him to Houston.
“When [last] season ended, I kind of assessed where I was and what I wanted to do going forward, and I just wasn’t ready to catch once a week and DH against right-handed pitching. I didn’t think I was there in my career,” McCann said. “I felt like I had a lot of good games behind the plate going forward. I’m very thankful this all worked out the way it did and it worked out for both sides.”
The Yankees just didn’t expect McCann would come back to end their season.
“For [the Yankees] to be where they’re at after a year of rebuilding and getting rid of some pieces, I’m so happy for them,” McCann said. “They had a remarkable year — Game 7, it came down to, in the ALCS. But I’m thankful to be a Houston Astro, and I’m thankful to be going to the World Series.”