From the moment Astros second baseman Jose Altuve launched a first-inning home run in Game 1 of the American League Championship Series on Sunday, he became the focal point of this Houston team through the good and bad.
His homer on Sunday was the lone run in the Astros’ loss. On Monday, his first throwing error led to a costly three-run homer before another throwing blunder led to some concern. On Tuesday, he attempted to right the ship with a first-inning homer, but a throwing error permitted another unearned run to cross the plate.
Instead of letting the defensive woes spill into a third consecutive game, Altuve forced himself to leap the mental hurdle. He returned Wednesday with a first-inning blast before recording an RBI double in the third, helping lift Houston to a 4-3 victory over Tampa Bay in Game 4 of the ALCS at San Diego’s Petco Park, forcing a Game 5.
“I didn’t have a choice,” Altuve said, when asked how he put the defensive miscues in the rearview mirror. “It was today or go home, and I didn’t want to go home. I turned the page pretty quick and showed up today ready to help my team.”
There was no hiding Altuve’s disbelief and bewilderment in Games 2 and 3. His body language told the story after each error, as he crouched down, stared off into the distance and even sat alone at the end of the Astros’ dugout at the end of the game on Tuesday.
“Yeah, it’s not easy,” Altuve said. “It’s not easy to do things against your team. You’re always trying to help your team and for me just to not contribute and not play good and help my team to win, I feel bad.”
There isn’t much to offer a player when he’s dealing with mental obstacles, but Astros manager Dusty Baker had a few words of encouragement for his second baseman before Altuve took the field on Wednesday night.
“I just told him he was similar to little Joe Morgan from the Cincinnati Reds and that Joe was with us, and especially with him,” Baker said. “He's been swinging the bat great. Everybody's just so happy for Altuve.”
Altuve responded with his first errorless game since Sunday and a red-hot night at the plate. He launched a 100.2 mph heater from Rays starter Tyler Glasnow 400 feet and over the left-center-field wall at Petco Park, per the Statcast projection. It was the fastest pitch hit for a home run in 2020 and the second-fastest home run pitch for an Astros hitter in the pitch-tracking era (since 2008), behind Preston Tucker’s long ball off a 100.6 mph pitch on Aug. 15, 2015.
If Altuve is going to connect, he doesn’t waste any time. Seven of his 18 postseason home runs have come in the first inning, which is the most by any hitter in postseason history. His blast gave him sole possession of first place on the Astros’ postseason home run leaderboard for a short while before George Springer tied him again with a two-run homer in the fifth inning. Altuve and Springer’s 18 homers are tied for fifth-most all time, with Mickey Mantle and Reggie Jackson.
“One of the most impressive things about Jose is the way he can clear his head and still contribute in all aspects of his games,” Springer said. “And to see him go out there and still keep wanting the ball hit to him, keep swinging the bat, is a testament to who he is.”
Altuve stepped into the batter’s box in the third inning with runners on first and second and served an RBI double off the right-field fence. The Astros had gone 25 at-bats with runners in scoring position without plating a single run. According to STATS, they became the first club to have at least four hits with runners in scoring position in the first three games of any postseason series without scoring.
“He obviously, I think, takes a lot of things to heart,” Springer said. “He prides himself in every aspect of his game. I think he’s starting to show people, again, who he is as a player. And our guys believe in him, he’s our leader and he’s doing kind of what we just expect him to do.”
Altuve has hit .412 with a 1.474 OPS and three homers so far in the ALCS. The second baseman credits his teammates’ support of him during his struggles the last few days to help him to push forward. And with the Astros still trailing 3-1 in the series, the club will need to lean on Altuve again in Game 5 to attempt to keep their season alive another day.
“Their support is probably the most important thing for me,” Altuve said. “That’s the reason why you play baseball, for your support of your teammates, your fans back in Houston. But my teammates have been great to me all year round and throughout my career so I’m really thankful for that.”