Jose Altuve is a dominant MVP force for the Houston Astros.
Ethan Hawke really would love to see an Astros game at Minute Maid Park. (Photo by F. Carter Smith.)
Carlos Correa and Jose Altuve are in the center of everything for the Astros.
Alex Bregman delivered the biggest Astros blows against Red Sox ace Chris Sale and he took Clayton Kershaw deep too. Call him the ace crusher.
Jim Crane runs the Houston Astros with a strict business tycoon's supreme discipline. (Photo by Alex Bierens de Haan.)
Carlos Correa is hard on baseballs — and himself.
The Astros' supersized expectations have Jeff Luhnow experiencing life differently.
A bunch of grizzled New York baseball writers sit around the press room, showing off cellphone pictures of the Texas-shaped lazy river pool at the downtown Houston Marriott Marquis hotel. They gawk at the odd-shape — and marvel at the striking image, shaking their heads. This isn’t how New York reporters usually act. They’re supposed to have seen everything and be more jaded than a Trump appointee who’s left the administration.
Instead, these guys might as well be wide-eyed tourists from Kansas.
Then, the storied New York Yankees take the field for the American League Championship Series — and act much the same way. It’s the no-title Houston Astros who look like the poised, experienced, self-assured championship hunters. Jose Altuve and company are the ones who make all the big little plays that swing games.
They beat the Yankees 2-1 with the ultimate display of small ball, monster plays and unlikely strikeout pitching. Welcome to Bizarro World.
“We have pretty similar pitching styles,” Astros co-ace Dallas Keuchel cracks when someone tells him his 10-strikeout night makes him only the third pitcher in Astros history to record at double digit Ks in a playoff game, placing him alongside Mike Scott and Nolan Ryan. “So I would expect myself to be there in that company.”
Keuchel’s suddenly a K Machine, but the Astros have always loomed as the clear favorites in this series. It’s just taking the rest of America a little longer to catch on. The Yankees certainly seem to know the real score. Especially after Marwin Gonzalez, the Astros’ utility star, turns a rare Aaron Judge postseason hit into the loudest out of the night.
When Keuchel and Judge, the towering slugging giant who would rob Jose Altuve of the MVP Award if New York has its way, engage in an epic duel — and Judge sends a 3-2 pitch into left for a single, it looks like Joe Girardi’s team has broken through. Then, Gonzalez changes everything.
Scooping the ball off the outfield grass in a flash, Gonzalez unleashes a throw that comes in like an Aaron Rodgers dart, speeding and right on target. It easily beats Yankees first baseman Greg Bird to the plate, gives Astros catcher Brian McCann plenty of time to apply the tag that ends the inning — and renders Judge’s moment worthless. The throw takes Gonzalez off his feet (it’s clocked at 97.4 MPH) and he ends up watching Bird get punched out from the seat of his pants in the outfield grass. But it really topples the Yankees.
“Well, that’s their best moment in the game, probably to stop the momentum,” Gonzalez says later.
Instead, Marwin stops the Yankees like a tractor trailer stops a Kia. New York is still stuck on zero runs in the fifth — and all of Houston is feeling it. Gonzalez blows on his fingers in the outfield when he sees Bird get called out, from his perch about 250 feet away.
And why not? The utility star, the man who led the Astros in RBI during the regular season and never uttered a word of complaint when he found himself batting eighth in the playoff opener last week, should be feeling it too. Gonzalez does not really consider himself an outfielder. He just plays there more than he plays shortstop or third base, just because that’s where his team has needed him most this season. But that doesn’t stop him from making the biggest play an outfielder has made this entire postseason.
“It’s like having a shortstop in left field,” Astros manager A.J. Hinch says.
The Astros Way
It quickly becomes apparent this game will not be anything like the Red Sox Series. It takes the Astros four innings to get their first hit off Yankees starter Masahiro Tanaka — and Altuve must use his speed to beat out an infield single to do it. But once he’s on, Altuve creates more mischief than a Real Housewife who’s hit the wine too hard.
He steals second base by a step, leaving Yankees All-Star catcher Gary Sanchez shaking his head and muttering under his breath. Correa drives Altuve in with a sharp single to left and the Astros are suddenly on their way to a two-run inning, the only two runs they’ll need. Just like that.
Whether he’s hitting three home runs in Game 1 against the Red Sox in one of the greatest postseason performances of all time, or getting a hit on a ball that never leaves the infield to break Tanaka’s spell in Game 1 against the Yankees, Jose Altuve stands at the center of everything this Houston team does.
He makes the Yankees blink first. That’s what these Astros do. Wherever you have 27 World Championships or not, whether you have a Green Monster or not, Altuve and Company do not back down. These Astros have quietly considered themselves the favorites to win the whole thing all season. Now, they’re seven wins away from a world championship.
Marwin Gonzalez blows on his fingers in the outfield when he sees Bird get called out, from his perch about 250 feet away. And why not?
Every game of these playoffs, it seems like there’s a new starring man for the Astros. Altuve in Game 1 against Boston, Correa in Game 2, Alex Bregman in the first-round clincher at Fenway, Keuchel, Gonzalez and suddenly dominant closer Ken Giles in the ALCS opener.
Sometimes it’s a booming hit. But sometimes it’s a ball that doesn’t travel out of the infield from a man who wields a baseball bat like the world’s best surgeon wields a scalpel. And sometimes, it’s the perfect throw from the guy who still won’t call himself an outfielder.
“That’s the play of the game right there,” Astros shortstop Carlos Correa says.
“You can’t really say enough about the play of Marwin the whole season,” Keuchel says. “He’s literally the most undervalued player in the big leagues. And now that we got national attention, we’re seeing everybody’s worth.”
Meanwhile, the Yankees are shrinking in the spotlight. Most people consider this a “good” night from Judge because he only strikes out once. But where’s the impact? Where’s that pinstripe intimidation? It sure hasn’t made its way to Houston.
These Yankees sure look wide eyed. Only, the Astros are wearing the cold-blooded, taking-care-of-business stares.
But hey, that pool is cool. At least, some of the East Coast visitors will leave with some nice souvenir selfies.
It’s OK, New Yorkers. You can close your mouths now.