HOUSTON – This is a story about Reggie Jackson and Jose Altuve. In October. Yes, in the same sentence. In the same breath. In the same small pocket of time just before World Series Game 2 became a story about their literal and figurative intersection.
“He is right there with him,” Astros hitting coach Alex Cintrón says about Altuve. “He has passed everybody.
“It’s crazy. Amazing.”
With five early runs, the Astros climbed back into the series with a 7–2 matching bookend win to the 6–2 Game 1 win by Atlanta. It was yet another postseason game that howled with laughter at how we think baseball in this Age of Information can be hacked like a computer code to figure out what’s going to happen. Break down all the percentages and matchups you want. Script your bullpen use. Pull defensive charts from your back pocket.
These games turn on the margins, and the margins are where the powers of experience and observation work their unscripted magic.
The organic beauty of the game is there when Houston catcher Martín Maldonado called time out in the first inning with the series in danger of going up in flames for his team. The Braves had two on with two outs when Astros pitcher José Urquidy fell behind Jorge Soler 2-and-0, the same count on which Soler smashed a leadoff homer in Game 1. Maldonado marched slowly to the mound, like a principal stepping to the rostrum at a school assembly.
“I used a mound visit because I know how important it has been to score first,” Maldonado says. The team that scores first is 26–7 this postseason. “I also wanted him to know that he was throwing his slider too hard; at 84 [mph], it’s not a good pitch. I wanted him to trust it.”
Three pitches later—changeup, slider (at 81) and fastball—and Soler was struck out. The game turned. The stage was set for Altuve to be Reggie—or at least follow his advice.
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To know this story, you first must know the preface. And it was an ugly one. In Game 1, Altuve went 0-for-5 with three strikeouts for only the second time in 1,511 career games. He had two hits in his past 26 at-bats. In the rare times he hit the ball reasonably well, it was invariably a foul ball to the pull side.
Just before batting practice before Game 2, Jackson approached Cintrón.
“Can I talk to him?”
“Sure. Please do.”
Says Cintrón, “We have no egos here. Another voice is always good.”
Jackson has long considered Altuve one of his favorite players. He has said that among his blessings in his role as a special advisor for the Yankees and now for the Astros are to be around Derek Jeter and Altuve. Jackson on occasion had talked with Altuve about confidence and feel at the plate, but this was the first time he spoke in specifics to him about hitting.
“He’s always talking about confidence,” Altuve says. “But this was actually the first time he told me to do something.”
Jackson gave him an idea. Having noticed how Altuve kept swinging too early, he advised him to spend batting practice hitting all pitches up the middle and to the opposite field.
“He came to me with some things before BP that definitely worked during the game,” Altuve says. “I think my swing is a little quick right now and I’m hitting a lot of foul balls. He said, ‘Just let it get a little deeper and work on it in BP and try to hit it to the middle.’ And that’s what I did.”
While Altuve took batting practice, Cintrón and Astros utility player Marwin Gonzalez noticed a flaw in his setup. Altuve’s right foot, his back foot, was at the wrong angle. The foot was pointed perpendicular to the plate. When he is right, Altuve has the foot flared slightly so that the toes of his right foot point more toward the catcher than the plate.
Cintrón and Gonzalez checked video after BP. They saw the same flaw. Sometimes Altuve would initially set his foot properly, but anxiety caused him to turn the foot perpendicular to the plate just as the pitcher readied to throw. The flaw created a weaker base. When Altuve flares his back foot, he creates more stability on his back leg as he loads.
Cintrón and Gonzalez approached Altuve in the clubhouse after BP. They told him what they saw. Then they showed him. Cintrón briefly debated whether to even bring it to his attention—more advice on top of Jackson’s advice. But he knew Altuve is open to information and especially trusts Gonzalez.
“That was big, too,” Altuve says. “Some things you do, you don’t even notice. You need someone to come to you and tell you what you’re doing. It was like a combination of [Gonzalez], the hitting coaches, we all put pieces together.”
At 6:35 p.m. before each game, Altuve goes to the indoor batting cage to hit off a pitching machine for one final tune-up. He typically takes about 15 to 20 swings. This was different. Altuve stayed in the cage for about 40 swings.
“I felt way better,” he says.
The advice from Jackson about letting the ball get deeper and the advice from Cintrón and Gonzalez about flaring his back foot created line drive after line drive. Altuve could feel the difference, but he also could see it on the faces of Cintrón and Troy Snitker, the other Houston hitting coach.
“Actually, I can see Alex Cintrón’s and Troy Snitker’s faces when I’m hitting,” he says. “When I see this [smile], I think, ok, this is going good. So I’ll keep doing what I’m doing. If I don’t see any reaction, I keep working, keep working. Actually, I took more swings than normal today at 6:35 because I wanted to feel really good for that first at-bat.”
Soon, it was time for the game. Altuve grabbed two bats from the bin outside the clubhouse and carried them to the dugout. He stood them side by side against the back of the bench. One was a light beige color—the bat he used to go 0-for-5 in Game 1. The other was a wine-colored bat similar to the one that he had used in the LCS. Altuve had switched bats for the World Series because he wasn’t happy with the wine-colored one.
“When each series starts I decide,” he explains. “If I’m going well, I won’t change. I hit a couple of home runs [in the ALCS], but I wasn’t swinging it that good. So I changed. The bats are the same size: 34/31.
“I have to weigh them before I use them. They must be exactly 31 ounces. Sometimes if they have been around for a long time, they pick up weight. Some go up to as much as 34 if they’ve been around all year. Those are no good.”
Altuve is the Astros’ leadoff hitter.
“As he goes, we go,” Cintrón says.
After Urquidy, with Maldonado’s navigation, escaped the top of the first, now it was Altuve’s turn to hit. He put on his batting gloves and stood in front of the two bats standing against the back of the bench. He reached for the light beige one. Then he suddenly pulled his hand back and reached for the wine-colored one.
“I feel like every player is a little superstitious, no matter what,” he says. “I try not to be. But I took a really good BP with the wine-colored one, and then I was, ‘Alright. No reason to change [from BP]. Let’s go with it.’”
Batting against Braves lefthander Max Fried, Altuve pulled the first two pitches foul. Uh-oh. The swings looked much like the ones from Game 1.
“The first two swings of the game were that way,” Altuve says. “I was like, ‘Okay, remember the cage. Trust your hands.”
With the count 1-and-2, Altuve ripped a fastball down the left field line for a double. He pulled it but had corrected enough of his swing to keep it fair.
“The last swing was a different one,” Cintrón says. “Marwin and I looked at each other and said, ‘Hey, that was a different one.’”
Altuve moved to third on one fly ball and scored on another. It was more than textbook baseball. It was Astros baseball. In this postseason Altuve has scored 16 times and hit four homers in their eight wins. He has one run and no hits in their four losses.
“As he goes, we go,” Cintrón repeats.
Altuve wasn’t done. In the seventh, he whacked a first-pitch fastball from Drew Smyly just inside the left field foul pole.
It was his 22nd postseason home run. Only Manny Ramirez hit more.
“And he’s a small guy,” Cintrón says of Altuve.
Altuve is listed at 5-foot-6. Only one player at such a small height ever slugged better in his career than Altuve (.462), and that player, Hack Wilson, was born in 1900. In the postseason, Altuve slugs .534. His latest Octoberfest of power was due in part to Mr. October himself.
“I would like to say to him, ‘thank you,’’’ Altuve says. “It was helpful, and it went from foul to getting hits. I’m glad he came to me and I’m glad I listened to him.”
Maybe the idea of Reggie and Altuve in the same conversation when it comes to postseason performers is not so crazy after all—especially when you consider their career batting numbers:
Reggie has five World Series championship rings and Altuve has one. So there is that. Reggie also has a cool Astros hat with “Mr. October” embroidered on it. And he has golf balls with “44” and “Mr. October” stamped on them. Such the legend is Jackson that he is synonymous with baseball’s most pressure-packed month.
But consider someone like Cintrón, who was born in December of 1978, and has no memory of watching Jackson play.
“Only old films,” he says.
To this generation, Altuve is the embodiment of October.
“Reggie was in the moment, and [Altuve] lives for the moment as well,” Cintrón says. “Big time. All the hits and homers that he has … you can see all the tying and go-ahead homers he does … It’s unbelievable.”
If Altuve is not the next Mr. October, he is Little Mr. October.
“No, no,” Altuve says. “Not yet.”
The series is tied. Altuve is fixed. There is more history to write.
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