Led by Jose Altuve, Astros' journey to World Series shows the heart of a champion

HOUSTON — Manager A.J. Hinch loves to poke fun at the perception of his Houston Astros as an “analytical” organization. He’s a Stanford graduate, general manager Jeff Luhnow is an Ivy Leaguer with roots in the managerial consulting world and their reputation as the smartest guys in the room occasionally rankles some old-school types in the baseball community.

“We’re pretty book smart, but that’s not a bad thing,” Hinch said Saturday. “We still have instincts. We still rely on the chemistry that’s built in the clubhouse. We’ll usually do the opposite of what the rest of the industry is doing to continue to move and try to find a competitive advantage. But that old-school, traditional desire to win is as big in this building as it is in any building in the big leagues.”

The Astros’ biggest heart ticks in the littlest body, in the person of Jose Altuve. Take away the 5 o’clock shadow and Altuve might pass for a kid at the local strip mall collecting money for the local soccer travel team. But he combines the hitting acumen of a Miguel Cabrera with an indomitable spirit in a David Eckstein-size package, and where he leads, his teammates inevitably follow.

Altuve’s progression from 5-foot-5 curiosity to perennial All-Star to aspiring world champion took another step Saturday night, when the Astros beat the New York Yankees 4-0 in Game 7 of the American League Championship Series before a euphoric and emotionally spent crowd of 43,201 at Minute Maid Park.

When Lance McCullers Jr. retired Greg Bird on a fly ball to center field for the final out of the game to seal Houston’s first World Series trip since 2005, Altuve dropped to one knee on the infield dirt and said a silent prayer. Then he looked up and saw shortstop Carlos Correa, and they engaged in a choreographed hand-slap routine that culminated in the 160-pound Altuve leaping into Correa’s waiting arms.

“It was very special,” Correa said. “We’re like brothers from another mother. We love each other so much, and we embrace each other and try to get better together. For us to accomplish something like this as teammates and double-play partners, it’s extremely special.”

The roof was closed at the ballpark for the series finale, and cheers rained down from the stands as owner Jim Crane, club president Reid Ryan, Luhnow, the players and coaching staff climbed a podium for the National League championship trophy presentation. Justin Verlander accepted the series MVP award in honor of his two dominant starts, then the crowd and Altuve’s teammates broke into an “MVP! MVP!” chant as he inched his way to the front of the pack to say a few words.

For most of this series, Altuve let his play speak eloquently on his behalf. He hit .320 in the ALCS after posting an otherworldly .533/.632/1.133 slash line in the division series against the Boston Red Sox, and he was in the middle of several pivotal sequences once the series returned to Houston. His two-run single in Game 6 gave the Astros a desperately needed lift, and his solo homer off Tommy Kahnle in Game 7 helped turn a tenuous 1-0 lead into a slightly more comfortable 2-0 margin.

With five home runs in the postseason, Altuve is tied with Davey Lopes and Todd Walker behind only Daniel Murphy of the 2015 New York Mets (seven homers) and Chase Utley of the 2009 Phillies (six) for home runs by second baseman in a single October. And that’s with a minimum of four and a maximum of seven games yet to play.

“You run out of superlatives to say about him,” said Astros Hall of Famer Craig Biggio, now a member of the team’s front office. “It’s really been fun to watch him evolve from when they signed him, and he kept fighting his way to get here. Then all of a sudden, year in and year out, it’s batting title after batting title and 200 hits after 200 hits and winning Gold Gloves and becoming the player that he is.

“Jose is a great player. He can do amazing things with a bat and a glove in his hand. But the thing I love the most about him is that he’s so humble. He’s an unbelievable player and a better person.”

If casual ball fans aren’t up to speed on Altuve’s charisma, talent and on-field résumé, they’re about to receive a crash course. For much of this season, before the Cleveland Indians went on a tear and the Dodgers lapsed into a 1-16 funk, Houston and Los Angeles were perceived as twin juggernauts on a collision course. Now they’ll settle the argument over which juggernaut is best, starting Tuesday in Game 1 at Chavez Ravine.

The Astros didn’t experience many anxious moments during the regular season while winning the AL West by 21 games, but the playoffs have been fraught with tension. After eliminating Boston in four games in the division series, the Astros won back-to-back home games by 2-1 scores to get the early jump on the Yankees. Then they went on the road and lost their equilibrium, their swagger and the series lead before scrambling to recover.

Several principals played a role in the comeback. When the Astros appeared shaken after the New York leg of the series, Carlos Beltran and Brian McCann said a few words to help the team regain its composure. Then McCann contributed big run-scoring doubles in Games 6 and 7, and he made a deft tag on a tremendous defensive play by third baseman Alex Bregman to cut down the potential tying run in the fifth inning of the finale.

Charlie Morton, forced to start Game 7 when Verlander and Dallas Keuchel were all used up, rose to the occasion with five innings of two-hit, shutout ball to pave the way for four innings of shutout ball from McCullers. During Saturday’s postgame celebration, Morton paused several times to dab at his eyes, and it was hard to tell whether he was simply wiping away champagne or processing the overwhelming emotion of the moment.

“You don’t get to experience moments like this a whole lot,” Morton said. “There are guys who played a long time — great players — who never got to experience it. And here I am, experiencing this with this group.”

Luhnow and the Houston players all made liberal use of the word “heart” during the celebration. The Astros’ roster might have been assembled with a healthy dose of new-age analytics, but there’s no underestimating the importance of tenacity and togetherness in their run through October.

“Teams driven by stats or by names — I’m talking about in the clubhouse — they don’t do anything,” Morton said. “They don’t get anywhere. Teams with grit and personality and uniqueness and a tight-knit bond, those teams consistently outperform expectations. That’s what you’re seeing here. This moment is ours, for this team and the city, and it can’t be taken away. It will be etched in stone forever.”

While the Houston players celebrated their bond by spraying champagne, their emotional engine was nowhere to be found. Altuve was on the field hanging out with family and friends, and he missed a healthy chunk of the revelry.

In Altuve’s absence, his teammates and manager trumpeted his excellence and sang his praises. When Altuve was asked before the New York matchup to weigh in on the American League MVP competition, he gave a strong endorsement to Yankees outfielder Aaron Judge. Suffice to say, that’s not a popular opinion in the Houston clubhouse.

“We talk about his size or his hit total or a lot of different parts of Altuve,” Hinch said. “The bottom line is, he’s one of the best players in the whole game. He’s on our team and he’s one of our leaders, and he’s grown up in front of these fans and his teammates. To get him on the national stage and lead this team to the World Series is some kind of special.”

The Astros might think they’ve exhausted their supply of Jose Altuve superlatives. But if his inspirational play and flair for the dramatic lead them to four more wins against the Dodgers, they just might have to come up with a few more.

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