HOUSTON — When the rally towel-waving fans at Minute Maid Park last fixed their gaze on Jose Altuve, he was making a mad dash around the bases and sliding safely across home plate to score the winning run for the Houston Astros on Saturday night.
Then, he took a three-game snooze.
Altuve went 0-for-New York in the middle games of the best-of-seven American League Championship Series. He was hardly alone. The Astros’ vaunted offense fell silent against New York Yankees pitching, a collective slump unlike any it experienced all season. But as a three-time AL batting champion and the favorite to be named league MVP, Altuve’s struggles were symbolic of a team on the brink of elimination.
Leave it to Altuve, then, to bring the Astros back from the edge of the cliff.
Not only did the All-Star second baseman deliver a two-out, two-run single in the fifth inning of Game 6 against hard-throwing Luis Severino to give Houston a three-run lead, but he answered Yankees slugger Aaron Judge‘s solo home run in the top of the eighth with his own in the bottom of the inning.
Led by Altuve, the Astros finally broke out in a big way on Friday night, scoring more runs than they had in the past three games combined. And with a rousing 7-1 victory behind another lights-out performance from Justin Verlander, they forced a decisive Game 7 on Saturday night for the right to go to Hollywood, where the Los Angeles Dodgers will be waiting in the World Series.
It seemed like only a matter of time before Altuve — and the Astros, collectively — erupted. During the regular season, they scored more runs (896) than any team in the majors since the 2009 Yankees. In their division series, they jumped all over the Boston Red Sox for 24 runs in four games. A.J. Hinch, their doting manager, said he hadn’t seen the Astros shut down for more than a few games in a row all season, and for the most part, they hadn’t been.
But with each passing inning, each zero on the scoreboard, it was beginning to look like the Yankees would succeed in doing to the Astros what they did to the Cleveland Indians one series earlier. Even in Game 6, the Astros didn’t record their first hit against Yankees starter Severino until Carlos Correa singled with two outs in the fourth inning.
The tide began to turn in the fifth. Severino issued a leadoff walk to Alex Bregman and a one-out walk to Evan Gattis. Brian McCann, 0-for-11 in the series to that point, came through with what might have been the Astros’ biggest hit of the season, a line drive that skipped over the right-field fence for an RBI ground-rule double to open a 1-0 lead.
Three batters later, after George Springer walked and Josh Reddick, who after Friday is 0-for-21 in the ALCS, popped out, Altuve strutted to the plate, chants of “M-V-P! M-V-P!” ringing out all around him. He hadn’t gotten a hit since his ninth-inning single in Game 2, a span of 12 at-bats. But with two outs, he jumped on a first-pitch slider from Severino and lined it into left field for a single that stretched the margin to 3-0.
For Altuve, for Verlander, for the Astros, for their nervous fans, it was downright cathartic. The Astros sealed it with a four-run eighth inning that provided a lead too large for even their bullpen to blow. Ken Giles, who imploded in Game 4 in New York, tossed a scoreless ninth to send the ALCS to a Game 7 for the first time since the Tampa Bay Rays outlasted the Red Sox in 2008.