ARLINGTON -- With 100 postseason games already under his belt, there was a moment early on Friday afternoon when someone attempted to shift Jose Altuve’s focus toward the way-back machine, quizzing the Astros' second baseman about his most treasured highlights. That proved to be a conversation non-starter, swatted away like a flat changeup.
This time of year, Altuve only looks forward.
A few hours later, he authored a favorite addition to his playoff legend. Altuve’s go-ahead three-run home run off José Leclerc in the ninth inning has the Astros on the doorstep of back-to-back World Series appearances, powering Houston’s 5-4 victory over the Rangers at Globe Life Field in Game 5 of the American League Championship Series.
“Yeah, I’ve got to say this one, because it just happened and I still have the emotions, the adrenaline in me,” Altuve said. “It was a cool moment -- and because we ended up winning.”
Collecting 26 career postseason homers, as Altuve has, is a staggering achievement. A truly remarkable aspect is that, despite a wild back-and-forth contest that featured a benches-clearing incident one half-inning prior, absolutely no one in Astros orange could claim to be shocked that Altuve owned the moment.
“You don't use the word ‘expect,’ but you anticipate something great happening,” said right-hander Justin Verlander. “More often than not, he just seems to deliver. Just an incredible feel for the moment, incredible baseball player. This doesn't surprise anybody in our locker room, that's for sure.”
With Leclerc seeking a four-out save, Yainer Diaz opened the ninth with a pinch-hit single, and Jon Singleton came off the bench to work a six-pitch walk. That brought up Altuve, who looked at a slider for a called strike. He then pounced on an 89.8 mph changeup and sent it a Statcast-projected 382 feet, just over a leaping effort from left fielder Evan Carter.
Alex Bregman was among the Astros who poured out of the dugout, saying he lost his voice screaming in celebration. Bregman did sound a little raspy later on Friday evening, but he still had enough timbre to describe his pal.
“He’s got a slow heartbeat, confidence in himself,” Bregman said. “The game is slow for him. He’s just incredible. I feel like I lose the words to say about him, because it’s something new every time.”
From the on-deck circle, Mauricio Dubón said that he turned his attention to a higher power.
“I was praying, 'Go out! Go out!'” Dubón said. “It went out. I got excited, and then I realized I've got to hit next, so I couldn't get too excited. It's pretty crazy, but he's been doing it forever. He's one of a kind.”
Altuve trails Manny Ramirez (29) by only three homers for the most in postseason history. It was Altuve’s third go-ahead postseason homer in the ninth inning or later, which is the most all time. And, again, no one was shocked that Altuve delivered. But why?
“No. 1, he wants to be up there,” said Astros manager Dusty Baker. “No. 2, he's got a high concentration level, because that's what it takes in big moments like that -- concentration, desire, and relaxation all encompassed into one. And everybody can't do all three of those things. I mean, this dude is one of the baddest dudes I've ever seen, and I've seen some greats.”
Added closer Ryan Pressly: “I'm so lucky and blessed to have him as a teammate. I get to see him every single day. … The moment never gets too big for him, and he thrives in these kinds of situations. So you’ve got the right guy up for some magic to happen, and we've seen it time and time again.”
There have been nine go-ahead postseason homers in the ninth inning or later with a player’s team trailing; Yordan Alvarez hit the most recent, in Game 1 of the 2022 AL Division Series against the Mariners. The only other ALCS example came in 1986, when Dave Henderson of the Red Sox slugged one to help topple the Angels.
“I know everybody is talking about the homer,” Altuve said, “but if you go and see Diaz's base hit and then Singleton walked, especially when he hasn't played in a lot of days -- coming from the bench facing probably one of the best closers right now in the playoffs. So I think the key was these two guys and to be able to score all those runs.”
Dubón agreed, calling the contributions from Diaz and Singleton “the salt in the cake.” Indeed, even Leclerc seemed to kick himself less for surrendering Altuve’s homer than the fact it came with a couple of runners aboard.
“I feel like I should have done a better job with the first two batters,” Leclerc said in Spanish. “With Altuve, I actually felt like I did well. Altuve is simply a good ballplayer, and you’ve got to recognize how good he is.”
The issue, of course, is that Altuve’s famed intensity won’t allow him to savor this new memory for long. It likely will meet its expiration date by the end of the Astros’ 250-mile journey home, replaced by a steely-eyed focus on winning the next game. It’s the only way he knows how to operate.
“We show up every day, like I said before the game, ready to play,” Altuve said. “We've done it so many times. We never give up until the last out. And that's in our game, like today.”