One fateful ground ball just changed everything in the Astros-Royals series

After getting a pair of home runs and an RBI double from superstar rookie shortstop Carlos Correa, the Astros took a 6-2 lead into the top of the eighth inning. Protecting a four-run lead with just six outs to go, Houston had a 96.8 percent chance of winning, which would have advanced it to the ALCS to await the winner of the Blue Jays/Rangers series.

Then Will Harris gave up consecutive singles to Alex Rios, Alcides Escobar, Ben Zobrist and Lorenzo Cain, as the Royals crawled their way back into the game. With the go-ahead run suddenly at the plate, the Astros turned to left-hander Tony Sipp to go after Eric Hosmer, but Hosmer continued the single streak, plating another run and keeping the bases loaded. The lead was down to 6-4 and the tying run was in scoring position, with Kendrys Morales, the team’s most productive hitter this year, stepping to the plate, still with nobody out. The Astros’ chances of winning had fallen to 55.6 percent.

Even with the Royals roaring back and Morales a quality hitter, there was also some upside to the at-bat for the Astros. Morales is a double-play machine, frequently hitting groundballs with men on base and lacking the speed to prevent the opponents from turning two on just about any ball hit on the infield. Morales hit into 24 double plays this year, fifth most in baseball, and if Sipp could just get him to keep the ball on the infield, the Astros could put the comeback to a halt in a hurry.

Sipp did his job, and Morales did exactly what the Royals did not what him to do: hit a one-hop bouncer back to the mound. But everything that happened after Morales hit the ball is a reminder of just how small the differences can be between winning and losing:

Sipp just missed fielding the ball himself, and if he had gloved it cleanly, that’s likely a 1-2-3 double play, cutting down both the run at the plate and Morales at first base. That would have been the most perfect outcome the Astros could have hoped for, but the ball ricocheted off Sipp’s glove and out to shortstop.

But that’s OK, because the ball wasn’t traveling quickly, and shortstop Carlos Correa had plenty of time to get in front of the ball. With Morales running, even with the deflection, Correa had plenty of time to field it, flip to Jose Altuve for the force at second, and then still double up Morales at first. A run would score, but the Astros would have a 6-5 lead and there would be two outs, with the rally almost squashed.

But then Correa "just missed it," in his own words, and instead of starting a double play, Correa looked back to see the ball roll into center field. Zobrist and Cain scored, and Hosmer advanced to third. The score was tied, and there were still no outs. The exact outcome the Astros were hoping for turned into a disaster.

The team’s odds of winning dropped 31 percent on that play, and then went to zero over the next few innings, as Hosmer deposited a home run into the Astros bullpen and Wade Davis dominated for the final two innings. The Royals capped off a remarkable comeback even by their own standards, showing that, once again, they aren’t out of it until the final out has been recorded.

But in the midst of their string of singles, the Astros had two chances to turn a rally-killing double play, and neither the pitcher nor the shortstop could quite get the ball to end up in their glove. An inch here or an inch there, and maybe the Astros are planning for the ALCS right now. But that’s baseball; the ultimate game of inches.