Astros even series as Jose Altuve breaks out of his funk
By Scott Miller
The Philadelphia Phillies served sharp notice in the World Series opener Friday that they are here for far more than purely ornamental reasons.
Houston, which entered as heavy favorites and previously had faced nothing it couldn’t handle this postseason, took note. Then the Astros came out in Game 2 looking like a team that had spent a long night contemplating how they let things get away in Game 1, and decided they were not going to let it happen again.
Working quickly, aggressively and decisively, the Astros plated three first-inning runs Saturday night, seemingly before the last notes of the national anthem had been sung. Phillies starter Zack Wheeler had barely finished tying the laces in his cleats before Jose Altuve, Jeremy Peña and Yordan Alvarez knocked him off balance and the Astros were well on their way toward pocketing a 5-2, series-evening win.
Now, thanks to that and Framber Valdez’s dazzling 6 1/3 innings, the venue shifts back to Philadelphia for Game 3 on Monday evening with a very different tone.
“This team has a short memory on bad occurrences and bad games,” Houston manager Dusty Baker said. “You can’t bring yesterday into today or else it will continue.”
They didn’t, and it didn’t.
The Astros became the first team in World Series history to start a game with three consecutive extra base hits. In doing so, it appeared as if they simply couldn’t wait to erase the memory of the five-run lead they blew in their 6-5, 10-inning Game 1 loss.
Altuve, the team’s slumping leadoff man, ripped the first pitch of the game, a 96 mph sinker, into the left-field corner for a double.
Up stepped Peña, the team’s rookie shortstop, who laced the second pitch of the game, an 82 mph curveball, into left for another double.
Then came Alvarez, the team’s mighty designated hitter, whose plate appearance seemed to take forever by comparison. He fouled off Wheeler’s first pitch, a 96 mph fastball, and then ripped into the second pitch, a 92 mph slider, drilling it the same way Altuve and Peña did, into left for a third consecutive double.
“And I was pulling for a fourth, actually,” Baker said of the three doubles. “Try to score as many runs as you can. Because you know Wheeler is one of the tougher guys in baseball.”
So for those scoring at home, two pitches into the bottom of the first inning, the Astros led 1-0. Four pitches in, they led 2-0.
The Astros knew that Wheeler features a hard cutter and a hard fastball, “so we really hit hard,” outfielder Chas McCormick said of his team’s approach. “We were not going to sit on soft stuff.”
Their third run of the first inning was produced by sheer aggressiveness. Alvarez tagged and advanced to third base on Kyle Tucker’s fly ball to center. The ball was shallow enough to make it a risky decision, but Phillies center fielder Matt Vierling’s throw was strong and wide and Alvarez was safe. It paid off enormously when the next batter, Yuli Gurriel, hit what should have been an inning-ending ground ball to shortstop. But Edmundo Sosa, Philadelphia’s normally sure-handed infielder, bounced the throw past Rhys Hoskins at first base and Alvarez crossed the plate, making it 3-0.
Within all of that, the headline news of the night for the Astros was their second baseman’s breakout. Altuve, playing in his 88th postseason game, had been uncharacteristically quiet this month. He was 4 for 37 (.108) with no homers and just one extra-base hit (a double).
That Houston won each of its first seven postseason games despite silence from its leadoff hitter is a tribute to the powerful Astros. But they all know based on his past that it is only a matter of time until Altuve starts hitting, and when that happens, it makes life easier for all of them.
With a double and two singles in Game 2, Altuve only heightened his teammates’ anticipation.
“When you see Altuve with three hits tonight, he might go completely off now,” McCormick said. “Not to put pressure on him or anything, but it would be something else if he could go off.”
Third baseman Alex Bregman, who belted a two-run homer in the fifth inning, tossed a vote of confidence in Altuve’s direction as well.
“I feel like he’s the same guy every day,” Bregman said. “He comes to the park excited and ready to compete. He’s an unbelievable leader and gives us real confidence as a team.”
Clearly, Altuve was frustrated. When he lofted a high fly ball to center field in the ninth inning of Game 1 with two outs and the score tied 5-5, he slammed his bat into the ground and jogged most of the way to first base. When the ball fell cleanly into a sort-of Bermuda Triangle in the outfield for a single, it was apparent he could have made it to second base had he been running hard. Instead, he stole second and then one batter later, Phillies outfielder Nick Castellanos made the play of the game on a Peña fly ball. It was a running and diving catch that set the Phillies up to win.
Altuve rarely shows frustration, but he did then, which Baker addressed before Game 2.
“I mean, he can’t be happy, but he’s happy we’re winning,” Baker said. “He might be the strongest dude in this building mentally. He’s probably had to be most of his life. So I just know that any minute now he’s one hit away from a hot streak.”
That hit came on the first pitch of Game 2, then came two more — including one base hit on a swing at a pitch at eye level. That lightened the mood and Altuve was visibly laughing.
“His track record speaks for itself,” Baker said afterward. “I mean, he swung the bat great today. It was a good feeling to get him to lead off like he’s been doing all year in the first inning. Boy, it was great to see.”
Altuve said that he has gone through phases during this extended October slump. Early, he hit more and studied more video. When that didn’t work, he said, he started hitting “less and less.”
“So I think that lately, the less I get on my mind, it’s going to be better,” Altuve said. “So just try to simplify everything.”