HOUSTON -- It was the first pitch of the at-bat, a 93-mph fastball on the inside half of the plate, up around the shoulders.Here's what made this one unusual for José Altuve. Not a single one of his 3,464 Major League plate appearances had come against this pitcher -- Cardinals
HOUSTON -- It was the first pitch of the at-bat, a 93-mph fastball on the inside half of the plate, up around the shoulders.
Here's what made this one unusual for José Altuve. Not a single one of his 3,464 Major League plate appearances had come against this pitcher -- Cardinals closer Seunghwan Oh.
Another hitter might take a pitch, maybe get a feel for the delivery and the fastball movement. Baseball's best hitter had a different thought process.
"He's extremely confident," said George Springer, one of Altuve's teammates with the Houston Astros. "He's not scared of anybody."
Altuve is at that point in his remarkable career where he knows what he knows. He's as pure and gifted a hitter as baseball has seen in a long time.
Altuve has lightning-quick hands and a sense of what he can and can't do. He's relentless in his preparation, both in the use of video and fine-tuning his swing with hundreds of hours in the batting cage.
When Oh delivered that fastball in the bottom of the ninth inning of an eventual 8-5 Cardinals victory Tuesday night at Minute Maid Park, Altuve took a quick stride into the pitch and swung the bat smoothly in a nearly seamless motion.
Altuve lined the baseball into the left-field corner. Only this wasn't just another at-bat. This was a milestone moment, his most significant but not his last. His third hit of the game on Tuesday gives him 1,000 for his career. That's 1,000 hits in 786 games.
For some perspective, only one active player, Ichiro Suzuki, collected 1,000 hits faster than Altuve. He did it in 696 games.
For additional perspective, there's this: Pete Rose got his 1,000 hit in his 831st game, which is 45 more games than it has taken Altuve to get there.
As Altuve stopped at first base after the hit, he turned and tipped his batting helmet to the cheering crowd, and then motioned toward the home dugout and did the same to his teammates.
"They've been there for me," he said. "They've pushed me. They've inspired me."
Maybe the best thing about 1,000 hits is that it allows every baseball fan on the planet to pause and take a moment to appreciate how good this guy is. Altuve has made maybe the most difficult thing in sports look laughingly easy.
Altuve is a four-time All-Star, who at 26 is methodically crafting a Hall of Fame resume. His .365 batting average this season has him cruising toward a third straight 200-hit season and a second American League batting title in three seasons.
Altuve is hitting .436 since the All-Star break and an amazing .424 on the road. This game was a microcosm of all those others. He lined a fastball to left off Jaime García in the first and then dropped another into right field in the fourth.
And then there was No. 1,000 in the ninth inning. Cesar Cedeno held the franchise record for getting to 1,000 hits the fastest: 889 games. Altuve beat him by 103 games.
Inside the home clubhouse at Minute Maid Park, it's not about the numbers. They marvel at the numbers. They appreciate their context.
What they will tell you about Altuve is beyond numbers. It's his fanaticism toward preparation and his obsession with being a good teammate. It's always, always putting the team in front of everything else.
This franchise that has been so blessed to have Nolan Ryan and Craig Biggio and Jeff Bagwell and a string of other tremendously gifted, tremendously talented players may have someone who passes all of them.
"I'm proud of how he goes about it," Astros manager A.J. Hinch said. "I'm proud of what he represents. I hope the people that are around him and get to watch him daily appreciate what he does and how he does it. It's incredible what he's doing, and we're scratching the surface on what's possible."
Three years ago, Altuve finished the season and decided he wasn't as committed to nutrition and conditioning as he should be. He changed everything in the offseason, not just his diet, but the way he prepared for games, both mentally and physically.
That work put in place the foundation for winning a batting title in 2014 with a .341 batting average and a stolen-base title with 56. And then last offseason, after yet another 200-hit season, Altuve focused on plate discipline and getting the ball in the air more often on certain counts.
Results? Altuve's 50 walks are 10 more than he has had in any other full season. His 19 home runs are four more than he has ever hit before. As Hinch said, he's a great player and perhaps getting even greater.
Altuve's teammates say he's that rare combination of great physical gifts and a relentless drive to be great.
"He works hard and takes pride in his craft," Springer said. "There aren't a lot of guys, if any, who can do the things he does."
Altuve said a milestone like this one allowed him to reflect on how far he has come. When he began going to tryout camps in his native Venezuela in 2007, teams praised his skills but said they were reluctant to sign a 5-foot-6 player.
The Astros took a chance on Altuve only after once sending him home themselves. He rewarded them by flying through the Minor Leagues, playing just 382 games and making his big league debut at 21 in 2011.
Some of Altuve's Venezuelan heroes -- Victor Martinez, Félix Hernández, Miguel Cabrera -- say he should be a lesson to every scout to change the way they view potential prospects.
Regardless of height, Altuve brings something special to the table. As Hinch said, "We're lucky to have him."
After the game on Tuesday, Altuve said he was keeping this baseball from the game for himself as a reminder of the path he'd taken and how much he'd accomplished.
"It's great," Altuve said. "My time in the Minor Leagues wasn't that easy. I had to work hard to get to this point. I don't want to stop. I want to keep going. I'm not going to stop until I take my team to the World Series."
Richard Justice is a columnist for MLB.com. Read his blog, Justice4U.