HOUSTON -- In some ways, the Astros are in a familiar spot. For the second year in a row, they're in the postseason. They've also advanced to the American League Championship Series again. And, like last year, they are dominant in enough areas to suggest they may be the favorites to return to the World Series, and, perhaps, repeat as champions.
But this year hasn't been exactly like it was in 2017. One glaring difference? A year ago, Jose Altuve was in the middle of everything, capping an AL MVP Award-winning regular season by continuing to post other-worldly offensive numbers in October.
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It's been quieter this time around for the 28-year-old Altuve, who has one hit in eight at-bats through the first two games of the ALCS.
"I feel bad for him, because he cares so much, and he wants to be there," Astros manager AJ Hinch said on Monday, an off-day, following the team's split with the Red Sox in the opening set at Fenway Park over the weekend.
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Altuve is nursing a sore right knee, an issue for much of the regular season that continues to be a problem as Houston progresses deeper into October. Altuve missed nearly a month of games with the injury, and though he's been off the disabled list since Aug. 21 and hasn't missed any games in the postseason, it's clear he's not in peak playoff form.
Due to Altuve's injury, Hinch inserted Altuve into the lineup as the designated hitter for Game 3 of the ALCS on Tuesday at Minute Maid Park, with Marwin Gonzalez getting the start at second base.
"We're going to play three days in a row here," Hinch said. "So I talked to him about that [Sunday], and just for him to continue to give us what he's got. And he's fine. Obviously it didn't hurt his swing in the ninth inning last night. He's able to be a productive player. But he's battling it a little bit."
Altuve lined a long single off Boston closer Craig Kimbrel in the ninth on Sunday, contributing to the Astros' near-comeback effort in a 7-5 loss to the Red Sox. Altuve's hit bounced off the Green Monster, scoring George Springer, and it looked like Altuve might have a clear pathway to second. But he stopped after his foot slipped slightly as he stepped on first base.
Players were instructed to stay home and rest on Monday after landing in Houston from Boston around 5 a.m. CT, so Hinch didn't have a lot of updated information about the health status of Altuve or Gonzalez, who crashed into the left-field wall -- an area with no padding -- attempting to field a fly ball in the third inning on Sunday.
But Hinch did mention that he talked to Altuve after Sunday's game about DH-ing Tuesday, and that Altuve was amenable.
"I started talking to him about how he's feeling, and my thought that I might want to just take him off half the game on the defensive side," Hinch said. "His first reaction was, 'Whatever you think is best for our guys.'"
Altuve has five hits this postseason. He was 4-for-14 with a home run in the AL Division Series against the Indians. In 2017, Altuve paced the Astros' offense in the first two rounds, slashing .533/.632/.1.133 in the ALDS and .320/.414/.560 in the ALCS.
His track record suggests he still could contribute mightily in the remaining games of the postseason this time around, but the health of his knee will likely dictate how much of a presence his has as the playoffs progress. But even with the uncertainty surrounding his health, there are no questions about the impact Altuve has, just by his name being in the lineup every day.
"I don't know how to define it or describe it other than to say that the team feels it," Hinch said. "They know when he's in the middle of the order. If you look at our record, when he's in the lineup, regardless of whether he's playing MVP caliber or whether he's slightly below that ... there's a calmness. He's a very stable part of our offense."