'Like clockwork,' Altuve lights fire under Astros

October 5th, 2019

HOUSTON -- In 2015, following the Astros' first-round postseason loss to the Royals, an anguished went into manager AJ Hinch's office and apologized for not doing his part in making sure the team advanced.

Hinch answered him in a way that would still fit, four years later. He told Altuve he's the heart and soul of the team, that they wouldn't have even been playing in October if not for him, and that he is a big reason they're likely going to keep winning as the years progress.

That was the final time Altuve had to worry about not contributing enough in October. The second baseman's run of success in the past three postseasons is starting to teeter on historic, especially early on. Altuve further cemented that on Friday afternoon in the Astros' 6-2 win over the Rays in Game 1 of the American League Division Series at Minute Maid Park, when he broke a scoreless tie with a two-run homer in the fifth inning off Tampa Bay righty Tyler Glasnow.

"The big swing for José doesn't surprise me," Hinch said. "It's like clockwork, every ALDS, it seems like he busts out with a really good game."

Altuve has homered at least once in Houston's postseason opener for the past three years. He hit three in Game 1 of the 2017 ALDS vs. the Red Sox, and one last year in the opener against the Indians. Altuve's 358-foot shot off a 97.5 mph fastball from Glasnow on Friday made him one of just three players in history to homer in three consecutive Division Series Game 1 contests, matching J.D. Martinez and Jim Edmonds.

"Unbelievable," Carlos Correa said. "He told me before the game, he's like, 'Hey, I've hit a homer the first game of the last two postseasons. So I'm gonna make it three today.' And he did. When he tells me, I believe him. It doesn’t surprise me."

Until that blast, Glasnow and Astros ace Justin Verlander were going toe-to-toe in a relentless back-and-forth affair that resulted in no run production from either side.

But then Glasnow, who was averaging 99 mph with his fastball at that point, pumped a high four-seamer right into Altuve's happy zone, and the 5-foot-6 second baseman knew exactly what to do with it. He sent it into the Crawford Boxes in left field, igniting the sellout crowd of 43,360 while allowing Houston to breathe a little bit.

It was the fastest pitch Glasnow has allowed for a home run in his career.

"[Glasnow] was throwing so good through the game," Altuve said. "His fastball was almost invisible. I was not looking for one specific pitch. I was just looking up and I got lucky. He threw it there and I could hit it."

Altuve has done that a lot this year. Of his 31 regular-season homers, 14 were hit on pitches in the upper third of the zone, per Statcast. That's tied for the most in the Major Leagues, with the Dodgers' Max Muncy.

"Hindsight's 20-20," Glasnow said. "If I went back, I would probably throw a curveball. There were a lot of heaters leading up to it. It was a good pitch though. He's a really good hitter and he put a good swing on it."

The homer was the ninth Altuve has hit in the postseason, the second most in franchise history. George Springer has the most, with 11. Most importantly, it kick-started the Astros' crucial Game 1 victory. In the history of best-of-five postseason series, Game 1 winners have gone on to take the series 95 of 132 times (72 percent). In the Division Series with the current 2-2-1 format, teams winning Game 1 at home took the series 31 of 40 times (78 percent).

In a season where so many contributors to a star-studded lineup have stolen the spotlight, it might be easy to overlook the one player who has defined consistency, whether muddling through 100-loss seasons (Altuve played in three of those) or 100-win triumphs, which Altuve has been a part of for three years running.

Alex Bregman may end up winning the American League Most Valuable Player Award, and Yordan Alvarez just completed a rookie season that may never be matched. But there's something about October baseball that always turns the conversation back to Altuve, who predates everyone on Houston's roster.

“Everybody's so happy and so excited about making another playoff,” Altuve said. “This is my fourth one, and it feels like the first one. I want to go out there and I want to win. I don't think it ever gets normal.”

Hinch, in an attempt to summarize what Altuve means to the team, picked the same phrase he used four years ago, during that gut-wrenching private conversation following a disappointing loss: heart and soul.

"I think that it's easy to have the new kids come up and be the World Series heroes. He's just been doing his thing every year," Hinch said. "He means so much to this team. He's the heart and soul. We need a little bit of something from everybody. But it seems like all's right in the world when Josey's in the middle of what we're doing."