HOUSTON -- It had to be José Altuve, didn’t it? How perfect. How appropriate. This player who represents every single thing the Houston Astros hope to be. This player who endured the three consecutive 100-loss seasons and whose own rise to greatness mirrors that of an entire franchise.
With his Astros on the verge of the kind of stinging defeat that could torment a franchise and linger in hearts and minds for years, Altuve did what the great seem to do. He delivered the American League pennant to Minute Maid Park on Saturday night with a towering, resounding, city-shaking two-run home run in the bottom of the ninth inning.
In an instant, the Astros had eliminated the Yankees, 6-4, to win their second AL title in three seasons, taking the AL Championship Series four games to two.
“He’s the heart and soul of our franchise,” president of baseball operations Jeff Luhnow said of Altuve, named the MVP Award winner of the series. “He’s the last man standing from that 2011 team [that lost 106 games] and has developed every year into a better and better player. He continues to drive himself. He’s the best teammate. He’s a humble guy. We’ve got a lot of characters, a lot of personalities, but without Jose, we’re not the same.”
Now, a baseball season that has given us so much with the rise of more young players and improbable teams and tight races is down to this: the Astros vs. the Nationals in a World Series that will begin on Tuesday night at Minute Maid Park.
In a clubhouse celebration filled with joy and emotion, the Astros toasted this latest milestone and then emphasized that the job is not finished.
“What an incredible team,” third baseman Alex Bregman said. “It took every single person on this roster. It’s an honor to be on this team. It’s been a grind for us. We haven’t played our best baseball yet. Hopefully, we’ll play it in the World Series. [Football coach] Al Davis said it best. ‘Just win, baby.’”
Once upon a time, the Astros were the team that couldn’t seal the deal, the team that watched other teams celebrate.
That was then. Houston businessman Jim Crane brought the team in 2011 and assembled a front office that is the sport’s gold standard, from Luhnow to manager AJ Hinch to the game’s deepest roster of stars.
Yet for a moment on Saturday, an old familiar script reared its head when, with the Astros two outs from winning in the top of the ninth inning, Yankees first baseman DJ LeMahieu drilled a game-tying two-out homer off closer Roberto Osuna.
Suddenly, a ballpark that had been roaring with anticipation went eerily quiet. That would make the finish even sweeter, because this time the Astros wrote their own ending after Yanks closer Aroldis Chapman entered in the bottom of the ninth inning and got two quick outs.
That’s when leadoff man George Springer worked Chapman for a two-out walk. Then he watched as Altuve ripped a Chapman slider out of the park. The two rounded the bases joyously, jumping and screaming, hands in the air, as their teammates poured from the dugout to celebrate at home plate.
“We play with an edge,” Hinch said. “We won the most games in baseball, and it's nice to feel like you've still got to push a little bit for the credit this group deserves. And I think it's winning that drives this team. It's really all that drives us and each other and the players. The players do an unbelievable job of pushing one another.”
This ALCS was the latest milestone in a postseason in which the Astros have been challenged in all sorts of ways after a 107-win regular season. The Rays pushed them to a deciding fifth game in the AL Division Series and then, after Houston took a 3-1 lead in the ALCS, New York won on Friday to force the series back to Texas.
“It’s the most complete team I’ve ever been around in my 16-year career,” Luhnow said.
To win it this way -- that is, to be pushed by both the Rays and Yanks -- put the strength of the Astros on display. First, there’s Hinch, who has led Houston to three consecutive 100-win seasons and become the prototype for the modern manager by building unshakable relationships with his players and a data-driven front office.
Hinch has talent, too, lots of it. From Bregman, a potential AL MVP Award finalist, to Springer, who brings production and energy to the top of the order, to Michael Brantley, with his day-to-day professionalism.
The Astros do everything well. They were third in the Majors in both runs and earned run average. Houston won its 114th game of the season (including the playoffs) on Saturday; only seven teams in history have won more.
Hinch went with a bullpen game on Saturday, saving one of his two aces, Cole, to pitch a potential Game 7 on regular rest. Now he’ll have Cole and Verlander lined up to pitch Games 1 and 2, respectively, of the World Series.
"Even though we knew we had Gerrit Cole in our back pocket for tomorrow, I’ve been in too many Game 7s where it can go either way,” Luhnow said. “Having it end the way it did, it’s a huge relief.”
On Saturday, the Astros toasted this latest brick in the wall. By Tuesday, they should be recovered from the party that Altuve’s home run prompted.