BOSTON -- Astros infielder Yuli Gurriel may be in the midst of his first full season in the Majors, but he's no stranger to the big stage.• Gear up for Astros' postseasonConsidered one of the most decorated players to come out of Cuba, Gurriel was a two-time Olympian and has
BOSTON -- Astros infielder Yuli Gurriel may be in the midst of his first full season in the Majors, but he's no stranger to the big stage.
• Gear up for Astros' postseason
Considered one of the most decorated players to come out of Cuba, Gurriel was a two-time Olympian and has represented his country in three World Baseball Classics. Before defecting from the Caribbean island last February, Gurriel starred on the Cuban national team for a decade, traveling around the world to participate in international tournaments and help the club capture championships at the Pan American Games, Central American Games, World Baseball Championships, International Cup and Caribbean Series.
So unlike most players making their postseason debut, Gurriel can lean on his experience on the international scene to ease some of the inherent pressure that's often associated with October baseball.
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"In one way or another, that helps me because at the level of the Olympics, the World Baseball Classic, the Baseball World Cup, there's a lot of adrenaline," Gurriel said in Spanish. "That's helped me here because you're always playing at a high level. The crowds are tough, and the fans are always supporting their teams. It's really difficult, honestly."
But Gurriel once again showed he can thrive in that environment, going 9-for-17 (.529) over four games in the American League Division Series presented by Doosan to help the Astros eliminate the Red Sox on Monday and advance to their first Championship Series since 2005. After a 4-for-4 showing in Game 3 at Fenway Park, Gurriel tripled and doubled in his first two plate appearances of Game 4, extending his hit streak to six consecutive at-bats.
"The first two games [in Houston], I felt good, but things worked out well here," Gurriel said while trying to dodge beer showers from teammates during the Astros' champagne-soaked celebration at Fenway Park. "I wanted to help the team and do my part. I'm very happy. To be in the playoffs in my first season and to advance to the semifinal is something very big. I'm really enjoying it."
The 33-year-old first baseman became the third rookie to collect at least eight hits in a division series, joining countryman Yasiel Puig and Ichiro Suzuki.
"They call him a rookie, but he's not a rookie," Astros teammate Marwin Gonzalez said. "I think he's played more than me and more than a lot of people on this team. Baseball in Cuba is very good, and they go to a lot of international tournaments, so he has a lot of experience. I think he came prepared to play at this level."
Still, Gurriel never imagined he'd be here two years ago. Born into one of the most prominent baseball families in Cuba, Gurriel's father, Lourdes Sr., was a star in the Serie Nacional and later managed the national team. His older brother, Yunieski, two of his uncles and a cousin were also well-known players on the island.
Gurriel followed in their footsteps and soon established himself as the best player in Cuba, batting .337/.421/.582 with 239 home runs and 118 stolen bases over 15 Serie Nacional seasons while primarily playing third base.
Gurriel had long hoped to receive permission from the Cuban government to play in the United States, but that wish never came into fruition. Instead, Gurriel and his younger brother, Lourdes Jr., decided to defect after competing in the Caribbean Series last year. Yuli went on to sign a five-year, $47.5 million deal with the Astros in July 2016, while Lourdes signed a seven-year contract with the Blue Jays in November.
Despite concerns about his age and how he might handle the transition to the United States, Gurriel proved that his talent could translate to the highest level of professional baseball, hitting .299 with a .817 OPS, 18 home runs and 75 RBIs in 139 games for the Astros this season.
While he doesn't draw as much attention as teammates Jose Altuve, Carlos Correa and George Springer and is probably best known by casual fans for his pineapple-like hair, Gurriel emerged as one of the key cogs at the bottom of the Astros' deep lineup and he set a franchise rookie record with 61 extra-base hits in 2017.
"There's no matchup that's bad for him," manager A.J. Hinch said. "He's really good and has come up with really big hits. ... He's been an international superstar his whole life. This level didn't spook him."
There are few challenges that Gurriel hasn't already countered in his baseball life, but an AL Championship Series is one of them. The Astros are set to face the Yankees in the next round, and Gurriel said he's optimistic about his club's chances of reaching the World Series.
As he stood in the midst of Monday's celebration, Gurriel paused for a moment to reflect on the 20-month journey that brought him to this point.
"It's pretty radical, no?" Gurriel said. "Sometimes you don't realize it because time passes quickly in this league, but there are times when I sit down and I tell myself, 'Wow. My life has really changed.'
"I never thought I'd be here two years ago. I never imagined playing in the big leagues, let alone in the playoffs. But thanks to God, I've had a great season, and now I'll enjoy the playoffs."
**Maria Guardado** is a reporter for MLB.com.