For the second consecutive night, Jose Altuve was left in disbelief. The second baseman crouched down and stared off into the distance.
The rest of the infield joined together at the mound for a pitching change, but Altuve remained at his position, fixated on the fact that he had just committed his third throwing error in three days. After a few moments, his teammates approached and patted him on the chest.
“I said, ‘Keep your head up. We got a lot of game left. We're gonna win this game,’” shortstop Carlos Correa said.
“It’s a team effort,” outfielder Michael Brantley said. “You win or lose together. I’m gonna tell [Altuve] the same thing I tell him every day: We need him, he’s a big part of why we’re here and a big part of what we do. We’re always there for each other. That’s what makes this team so special.”
When Altuve had his chance for redemption in the ninth with two runners on, he struck out on a check-swing called by the home-plate umpire. And after the final out was made, he sat alone at the end of the dugout, chin resting on the railing, motionless, as everyone cleared the field.
With no outs and a runner on first in the sixth inning, Brandon Lowe served a ground ball a few feet to Altuve’s glove side. Altuve shifted over, planted and threw the ball to second base to start a routine double play. But just like his two-error night on Monday, his throw came up short, and Correa was unable to make the play, as the ball bounced into left field.
“I blame myself for that error as well, because I feel like I make that pick nine out of 10 [times] and I didn’t,” Correa said. “When I look back at the replay, I wish I could have that play back, because I know I can make that play and I can make that pick. I know the error goes to him, but I blame myself for that.”
Instead of a double play that would’ve allowed Astros starter Jose Urquidy to face Yandy Díaz with two outs and nobody on, Urquidy was replaced by Enoli Paredes to attempt to escape the jam. But back-to-back singles, a sacrifice bunt and consecutive hit batters plated three runs, and two more runs scored after Brooks Raley took the ball from Paredes before the inning came to an end.
Does Altuve have the yips?
“The yips” can simply be defined as a psychological hurdle that prevents a player from completing a basic on-field task. In Altuve’s case: making a good throw to first or second. But is this something Astros manager Dusty Baker thinks his second baseman is battling?
“I really don't know,” Baker said. “It's tough to see this happening to such a great player and such a great guy. … I mean you can go in a different slump the same way you can go into an offensive slump. Physical turns mental. We certainly have to get past this one.”
Altuve short-hopped a throw to Yuli Gurriel at first base on Monday, which led to a three-run homer. He had another throwing error later in Game 2 before allowing the fourth unearned run of the series to cross the plate for the Rays on Tuesday.
“He’s a really special player, a Hall of Fame-caliber player,” Rays manager Kevin Cash said. “It is surprising to see that, but you do whatever you can to make the most of the opportunities that the opposition presents you.”
What can the Astros do?
The club could insert Altuve at DH -- something he’s not done since May 5, 2019 -- to keep his hot bat in the lineup while getting him out of harm’s way defensively, but Baker was adamant that would not be the case for Game 4.
“That's without a doubt,” Baker said. “I mean, that wouldn't help us and it would certainly kill him.”
While his last plate appearance on Tuesday didn’t end in the manner Altuve would’ve preferred, the Astros wouldn’t want to disrupt the production they’ve still received from their second baseman, who's hitting .385 with a 1.313 OPS and two homers in the first three games of this series after enduring his worst offensive performance during the shortened regular season.
His first-inning blast on Tuesday tied him for the most playoff home runs in Astros history (17) with George Springer, and also tied him for seventh-most in postseason history with Springer, David Ortiz, Nelson Cruz and Jim Thome. Altuve now has six career first-inning long balls, which is tied with Albert Pujols for the most all time.
While he continues to build momentum at the plate, there’s no simple fix for what Altuve is working through defensively. With elimination on the line for the Astros on Wednesday, all the team can do is offer Altuve support.
“Nobody feels worse than Jose,” Baker said. “He takes it very serious and takes it to heart. He's one of ours and we've all been through this before; not in this spotlight like this. It hurts us all to see him hurting. And we will give him all the support that he needs.”