Second baseman becomes 9th player with 3 homers in postseason contest
By Richard Justice
HOUSTON -- This is what the great ones do. They step into certain moments and make them their own. In those most basic of ways, this is how the Astros see Jose Altuve.
Even on a day like this one, a day when the Astros' superstar second baseman became the ninth player in history to hit three home runs in a postseason game, the people who know him best are not shocked.
They've seen enough to be past that. They've seen him collect 200-hit seasons and batting titles and MVP votes as if they were trinkets. They've seen his relentless work ethic and laser-like focus as well. They know there's a burning desire to be great. Some guys are like that. They're just different. More talented. More driven.
As Altuve's best friend, teammate Marwin Gonzalez said, "You can try to learn from him, but no one can do all the things he does."
That is, Altuve's quick hands and his ability to get the barrel of the bat into the hitting zone separate him from almost every other player. Or as reliever Luke Gregerson said, "His ability to get the barrel of the bat on the ball so consistently is just amazing."
And yet, this performance was huge for a team that won 101 times during the regular season and entered these playoffs hoping for a reset and a jump start. That's what the Astros got in an 8-2 victory over the Red Sox in Game 1 of the American League Division Series presented by Doosan on Thursday at Minute Maid Park.
Astros third baseman Alex Bregman hit Red Sox starter Chris Sale's 12th pitch of the game into the left-field seats, and the Astros were off and running.
In the end, it was a nearly perfect afternoon, from a packed, emotional crowd to Justin Verlander's six strong innings to baseball's highest-scoring offense collecting 12 hits and hitting Sale for seven runs in five-plus innings.
As Bregman was circling the bases in the bottom of the first inning, Altuve said he thought, "Hey, I want one of those."
He was greeted with cheers of "MVP! MVP! MVP!" each time he stepped to home plate, and he does not duck such talk. He said every player wants to win, but that every player appreciates individual recognition as well.
What his teammates remember is that when the Astros were meeting before this series began, Altuve kept saying, "I just want to win. Whatever we have to do to win."
Moments after Bregman's home run, Altuve hit a 97.3 mph Sale fastball over the wall in left-center, and his day had begun. He got Sale again in the fifth inning, this time on a 95.6 mph pitch. His third was off rookie Austin Maddox to lead off the bottom of the seventh.
Statcast™ measured the three home runs at 1,206 feet. Altuve was a little less precise than that. He said he'd never hit three home runs at any level of baseball, at least as far back as he could remember.
"I was surprised. I couldn't believe it," Altuve said. "But like I said, if I'm doing something to help my team, in a game like this one, it's big."
He recounted the three homers, saying, "I hit one, and I was like, `Wow.' And the second one is like, `Wow, what's going on here?'"
And after the third one?
"Oh, I don't know," he said. "I got to wake up."
As his teammates mobbed him after the third one, shortstop Carlos Correa asked, "Have you ever hit three home runs in a game?"
"Never!" Altuve said.
"Obviously, he's the best hitter in the game," Correa said. "Everybody knows that. But coming up big for the team like he did today, that's huge."
Altuve led the AL with 204 hits and a .346 batting average during the regular season. His 845 hits the last four seasons are 98 more than any other player in baseball.
"Nothing he does surprises me anymore," Astros outfielder Josh Reddick said. "The guy's going to hit a ball five feet and get a single out of it and then he's going to hit it 450 feet and do some pretty special things. I don't think anything that man over there does surprises anyone anymore."
No one has been more impressed than Astros manager A.J. Hinch.
"He wants to win," Hinch said. "These awards are great, the batting titles are great, the potential MVP is great, and I think it will mean even more if he can do it on a championship team.
"That mindset, that approach, is so cool to have when you're the manager and you have one of your best players be one of your best examples. That's a dream come true."
Altuve then had one of those games that players dream of. For the Astros, bigger dreams await.
"I had the pleasure of playing with Miguel Cabrera for a long time," Verlander said, "and it never failed [that] when we got new teammates, after a couple weeks, somebody would be like, `Wow, playing against him, I knew how great he was, but playing with him he's even better.' And that's like the ultimate compliment, and that's the compliment I can give to Altuve, because since I've been here, man, it's been a lot of fun to watch and he's a very special ballplayer."
Richard Justice has been a reporter for MLB.com since 2011. Read his columns and follow him on Twitter at @RichardJustice. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.