Manager AJ Hinch’s office at the Ballpark of the Palm Beaches in West Palm Beach, Fla., is just down the hall from the Astros' clubhouse. The clubhouse is at the far left side of a less-than-three-year-old complex as you come in off Haverhill Road, in behind the huge Astros logo
Manager AJ Hinch’s office at the Ballpark of the Palm Beaches in West Palm Beach, Fla., is just down the hall from the Astros' clubhouse. The clubhouse is at the far left side of a less-than-three-year-old complex as you come in off Haverhill Road, in behind the huge Astros logo out front. At the other end of the place is the huge “W” for the Nationals.
It all started here in February for both teams, at what has become a new capital of baseball on the east coast of Florida. Now it ends with both in the World Series.
• Dress for October: Shop Astros postseason gear
There was a Spring Training morning when Hinch was once again telling a story about José Altuve that he has told before. It was October 2015, and the Astros, in the process of becoming what they are now, had just lost to the Royals in five games in the American League Division Series. It wasn’t Houston's time yet, as it turned out. Altuve, coming off another 200-hit regular season, had hit just .136 against the Royals, with three hits, one RBI and two runs scored in five games. When it was over, he came into Hinch’s office in tears.
“I’m the reason we lost,” Altuve said.
“No,” Hinch said to him four years ago. “You’re the reason we’re here.”
Now, Altuve is the biggest reason why the Astros are back in the World Series for the second time in three years. He hit a dream October home run, a bottom-of-the-ninth, two-out home run against Yankees closer Aroldis Chapman on Saturday night to win the AL Championship Series and secure the pennant. It gave him a .348 batting average against the Yanks in the ALCS, and it settled who the Most Valuable Player of the series was once and for all.
Before the ALCS, Altuve had hit .350 in the Astros’ five-game ALDS against the Rays. In the 11 postseason games he’s played so far in 2019, he's batting .349/.417/.767 with a 1.184 OPS, five homers, eight RBIs and 10 runs scored. What he has really done, after two years when injuries to both legs caused him to miss a total of 63 regular-season games, is remind everyone all over again -- as if they needed reminding -- that they are watching one of the great players in the game, one well on his way to being one of the greatest second basemen of all time.
It is always worth pointing out that Altuve isn’t just a remarkably gifted player because of his size. He is a remarkably gifted player, period. Joe Morgan, another second baseman who began his career in Houston and ended up in Cooperstown, told me a couple years ago that he thought Altuve was the best all-around player in baseball.
Last year in the ALCS against the Red Sox, Altuve was trying to play through the patella fracture in his right knee, one that required surgery after the season. He was playing on one good leg, but would not sit down. He managed to hit .250 against the Sox, and the only home run he hit -- what would have been a very big homer for the Astros even though it was only the first inning of Game 4, was taken away from him by umpire Joe West, who called fan interference after Mookie Betts was unable to pull the ball out of the stands at Minute Maid Park.
The Astros ended up losing that game, 8-6, when Andrew Benintendi made an amazing diving play on Alex Bregman's hit to left field in the bottom of the ninth with the bases loaded. Boston closed out Houston the next night in Game 5. The Astros will always wonder how Game 4 would have played out if Altuve’s home run had stood. They have a right to wonder how that series would have played out if Altuve had been healthy, too, because now we see -- in the most important games of his team’s season -- what he can do when he is healthy.
“Back in the day,” Altuve said to me once at the Ballpark of the Palm Beaches, “when I am still in the Minor Leagues, I used to think about size, but only because I wondered if people would really be able to see what I could do. But I never doubted myself. Never. Never doubted what I could do. It didn’t matter to me how tall I was. I just wanted to be great.”
Altuve has had some setbacks. He had the right knee injury and subsequent surgery. This season, he sat down with a left hamstring issue and missed 38 games, even more than he did in 2018. Altuve still managed to hit 31 home runs, the most of his career, and he finished the regular season with a .298 batting average. On Saturday, he made an October swing that will always be remembered. Still just 29, he is one of the great players of his time.
Once more for the Astros, Altuve is why they’re here.
Mike Lupica is a columnist for MLB.com.