BOSTON – The Astros’ season was circling the drain of inevitability when the smallest man on the field marched to home plate at Fenway Park on Tuesday. Down 2–1 in the game and six outs from a 3–1 deficit in the American League Championship Series, Houston needed oxygen. Fast.
“I had a good feeling,” Astros hitting coach Alex Cintrón said.
The little guy with the bat in his hands was 5-foot-6 Jose Altuve. He would rescue them again to mark the latest highlight of what is a stupendous 72-game postseason career. Altuve whacked the first pitch he saw from Boston lockdown reliever Garrett Whitlock—a 96-mph sinker—into the Monster Seats. It was his 21st postseason homer, which means Altuve pops homers in the postseason at a 47-homer regular season rate.
“And I bet like 14, 15 are big—tying games or taking the lead,” said Cintrón. “This guy is not afraid.”
The Astros would win the game, 9–2, when the decision by Boston manager Alex Cora to use starter Nathan Eovaldi in relief blew up. Cora is forever running games with the derring-do of a plate spinner or chainsaw juggler, so it was inevitable that something was going to go sour on him. The final score camouflaged the importance of the Altuve homer—and the fascinating in-game adjustment he made with the help of technology.
Altuve had been popping up fastballs all night. Before Altuve came to bat in the fifth, Cintrón called Altuve over and pulled out an iPad. He summoned video of an at-bat by Altuve in the third inning when he popped up a 94-mph cookie down the heart of the plate from Boston starter Nick Pivetta.
Then Cintrón asked the pre-loaded database to find home runs by Altuve at Fenway Park in June. One was hit off a slider from Darwinzon Hernandez. The other looked a lot like the Pivetta fastball he had popped up: a 94-mph cutter from Eovaldi.
“We showed him video from a couple of homers in Boston,” Cintrón says. “It was the same camera angle, so he can see all the movements, how he lands.
“Those games in Boston, we showed him his good swing on the same pitch [he popped up]. I compared the last swing that he had with the same camera angle. That way he cannot argue, ‘No, the camera angle is different.’”
The camera never lies. It was easy to see where Altuve had gone wrong. His stride had lengthened. He was lunging at the ball in ALCS Game 4.
“He was going too far forward,” Cintrón says. “Instead of the ball coming to him, he was going to the ball. That‘s why he was getting big. His stride was getting too far forward. Instead of letting the ball come to you, getting into the ground earlier and staying behind, he was getting forward. I said, ‘Look at this move.’”
Altuve understood. Whitlock throws such a hard, heavy sinker that only one right-handed hitter (Marcus Semien) hit one of them for a home run this year. Altuve is a notorious first-pitch fastball hitter, but Whitlock bet on his sinker over that reputation. He lost.
It was the 19th time over the past three years that Altuve crushed a first pitch for a homer, including the postseason. Only four players have done it more often: Pete Alonso, Vlad Guerrero Jr., Ronald Acuña Jr. and Fernando Tatis Jr.
The home run came two years to the day after Altuve burned Aroldis Chapman with a pennant-winning homer.
Asked about his adjustment in Game 4, Altuve says, “Pivetta was throwing risers. Next time I’ll know. Whitlock is nasty. His was a two-seamer. Going down.”
Says third baseman Alex Bregman, “He’s Mr. Clutch. He’s just a great player who does it time after time.”
Suddenly the entire series pivoted, beginning with that Altuve home run. The 1-2-3 hitters in the Houston lineup, Altuve, Michael Brantley and Bregman, all awoke with run-scoring extra base hits. The overworked bullpen shut down the red-hot Red Sox with 7 2/3 scoreless innings. A rested Framber Valdez, Houston’s best pitcher on the ALCS roster, takes the ball in Game 5, and José Urquidy follows him in Game 6 when the series comes back to Houston. The Astros regained homefield advantage.
“This,” Houston pitcher Jake Odorizzi says, “was the biggest momentum turnaround you could want.”
Altuve is a generational player because of his power at his size. Among all players who stood no taller than 5'6", Altuve has the second-highest career slugging percentage (.462), behind only Hack Wilson, who was born in 1900. Altuve becomes an even bigger slugger in the biggest games, slugging .563 in the postseason.
He is not to be taken for granted, not even by the ones who get to see him every day. In the tiny visiting clubhouse at Fenway, Cintrón pulled Altuve aside again, this time to give him a hug.
“I don’t know how you do it,” Cintrón told him. “You’re unbelievable.”
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