When the Astros needed a game on Saturday night as much as they have needed one all season, when they were faced with the prospect of going to Philadelphia down 0-2 in this World Series, Jose Altuve did not just lead off for them in the bottom of the first. He led. He hit the first pitch he saw from Zack Wheeler for a double, and before long the Astros had a three-run lead on their way to winning Game 2, 5-2.
Here’s what Alex Bregman, who hit such a big home run for the Astros later, said about the way Altuve had started the game for their team:
“I feel like that one swing of the bat to start off the game got the crowd into it, got our dugout into it, got our offense going.”
Altuve, who has been such a terrific postseason player in his career, somehow started the ’22 postseason by going 0-for-25. But the Astros didn’t need him as they swept the Mariners in the division round, and then they did the same to the Yankees in the American League Championship Series. Then Altuve slowly started to come alive, and coming into Saturday night, he had four hits in 12 at-bats. Then he had three hits in Game 2. He hit in a big October game the way he has so many other times in his career, and he reminded everybody of something, as if anybody needs reminding at this point in Altuve’s career:
He has been one of the best players of his time, and one of the great second basemen of all time.
The Astros have had so many stars across Altuve’s career in Houston. Yordan Alvarez was the Astros' biggest and best hitting star during this regular season, and then won two of the three games the Astros got off the Mariners with dramatic home runs. But Altuve, who turned 32 in May, has been their best player for a long time, and he was again on Saturday night.
Altuve's last hit in Game 2, of course, was a ball up by his eyes that he hit past Phillies first baseman Rhys Hoskins and into right field. By then, he had gone from hitting .000 at the start of October to hitting .444 over the first two games of the World Series.
"Early in the playoffs, I was swinging at everything and then getting slowly better at swinging at my pitch," Altuve said after the game. "Yeah, I got a hit on a pitch almost above my head today. But it's a hit, so it's good."
Lance McCullers Jr., another longtime teammate, said something he's said before about Altuve, who has done what he has done in his baseball life at 5-foot-6:
“He is the heart of this team.”
Altuve still does what he does when Aaron Judge looked like the biggest guy in the world hitting 62 regular-season home runs. There are so many photographs over the years of Judge and Altuve standing next to each other, as a way of illustrating just how striking the size difference between the two of them is. But Altuve’s size hasn’t held him back -- because nothing has. He hit .300 again this season. He hit 28 more home runs. Alvarez was second in baseball in OPS at 1.019. Altuve quietly was fourth at .921. Sometimes you do forget, maybe because he has doing it for as long as he has, just how good Altuve is at baseball, and how much fun he is to watch.
“I never doubted what I could do,” Altuve told me one time. "It didn't matter to me how tall I was. I just wanted to be great."
He has been all of that. He has won three batting titles and hit .300 or better six times. His lifetime batting average is .307. His lifetime batting average in the postseason through Saturday night is .273, he's got 23 postseason home runs and the next hit he gets will be his 100th. And because of his size and because he still looks like a kid, Altuve continues to be as distinctive a star as anybody in his sport.
Listen, everybody knows what happened with the Astros in 2017, even as they keep winning. Altuve and his teammates are always going to hear it in New York, and they’re sure never going to love the Astros in Los Angeles. But the team is the same as the guy who leads off for Dusty Baker and is still out there at second: They don’t go away.
This looks as if it has a chance to be a tremendous World Series, and the volume will only get turned up for everybody in Philly starting Monday night. But the Astros badly needed that game. Jose Altuve helped get it for them, from the first inning on, first pitch he saw. Big players do big things.