Culture / Sporting Life

Jose Altuve Admits He’s An Amateur Swiftie and the Astros Are Still the Class of the West — Surprise Yankees Sweep Can’t Hide the Winning Truth

An Unexpected Martian Encounter Will Not Faze Alex Bregman, Yordan Alvarez and Friends

BY // 09.04.23

Just how out of sync are the always dependable Houston Astros? When Alex Bregman goes to grab a hat at his locker, seeing a TV camera coming, he realizes it is Kyle Tucker’s hat. “This is Kyle’s hat,” Bregman says, before tossing the lid in the direction it needs to go and grabbing the right one.

Yes, things are not in the right place for Dusty Baker’s team at the moment. Getting swept by the New York Yankees at home in the middle of the closest division/playoff race the Astros have been in since the pre-dynasty days of 2016 is not the reality any of the Astros expected to be living in. The longest season in professional sports is suddenly growing short.

Twenty four games short to be precise. Twelve at home where the Astros are remarkably only one game over .500 this season. And 12 on the road, starting with this epic final three games series with the Texas Rangers’ in Arlington’s spaceship of a ballpark that begins this Labor Day afternoon.

The Astros and Rangers are both currently in playoff position, tied for the final two wildcard berths in the American League, one and half games up on the Toronto Blue Jays. It’s not a comfortable existence for the defending World Series champions. But it’s hardly a dire one.

Betting against the Astros in this scenario is like betting that Warren Buffett will suddenly forget how to invest wisely. Jose Altuve, Alex Bregman, Yordan Alvarez, Kyle Tucker, Justin Verlander and Co. win pressure games. Again and again. It’s what they do.

“We’re confident every single time we take the field,” Bregman says when I ask him about this experience edge. “I think we just need to execute. We didn’t execute at all this series. And it’s time to turn the page to the next series and execute a lot better.”

If the Astros take care of the Rangers, this Yankees sweep will be forgotten by everyone but the pinstripe devotees deluding themselves into thinking that they’ve finally turned a corner against Houston. Yankees wonder rookie Jasson Domínguez, aka The Martian, won’t even be a footnote on the Astros’ way to a seventh straight postseason.

The stage is set. Three days of high-intensity games in a packed ballpark. A probable Justin Verlander v. Max Scherzer showdown in the Wednesday finale as the kicker.

This is what the Astros do.

“They’re going to feel like playoff games every game,” Astros catcher Martin Maldonado says. “So it’s a lot of staying focused. Don’t try to do too much and execute pitches. . . We’ve got to focus on what we do best. Don’t try and do too much. The fans are going to be crazy there. There’s going to be a lot of fans from Houston too.

“So executing pitches. It doesn’t matter what team you play, executing pitches is the bottom line of pitching. Swing at good pitches is the bottom line of hitting.”

Astros star Jose Altuve usually makes others go whooh. (Photo by F. Carter Smith)
Astros star Jose Altuve usually makes others go whooh. (Photo by F. Carter Smith)

In many ways, the Astros do make these pressure games so simple. That comes from experience. From knowing that they’ve come through in the biggest moments in baseball again and again.

This team isn’t playing well. It didn’t look like itself this weekend at Minute Maid. The 2023 Houston Astros are not the Atlanta Braves sauntering into Dodgers Stadium and letting the world know that LA is playing for second best in the National League.

But being part of this Astros group still means something. The Astros are still the surest thing in baseball and arguably all of professional sports. The Rangers, spiraling at 6-13 in their last 19 games, have no such track record to fall back on. The Seattle Mariners, spectacular August and all, have never proven it either. The Astros have. They are the only team in this AL West division race that truly understands what winning the most pressurized games takes.

Jim Crane’s franchise may not have enough elite starting pitching to repeat as world champs this season, but it’s still hard to imagine Altuve and Co. not getting to October to give it a shot. The most likely scenario is still all three AL West making the playoffs.

“It is a big one,” Astros manager Dusty Baker says of this Rangers series. “But it’s their last shot at us too.”

Betting against the Astros in this scenario is like betting that Warren Buffett will suddenly forget how to invest wisely. Jose Altuve, Alex Bregman, Yordan Alvarez, Kyle Tucker, Justin Verlander and Co. win pressure games. Again and again. It’s what they do.

A New York Blip?

Suddenly, the Yankees — a team that’s been absolutely haunted by these Astros in this golden era of Houston baseball — are enjoying their time at Minute Maid Park. The Martian is debuting in style, sending souvenirs screaming into the right field stands. Aaron Judge is homering regularly, building on his own myth. Yankees second baseman Gleyber Torres hits a home run so high and deep in the top of the ninth inning that Yordan Alvarez doesn’t even bother to turn and look in right field.

That sound you hear in Minute Maid Park is. . . uncertainty? The Astros’ magic, long taken for granted, is certainly missing this weekend.

When Houston finally gets some baserunners on in the bottom of the eighth inning, Altuve eventually weakly grounds into an inning ending double play. Nothing seems to be working. All the old givens are failing this proud team. But it’s just three games. If the Astros show up and show out in Arlington — and they always seem to show out against the suddenly mouthy Rangers — this Yankees series will be forgotten.

Cristian Javier looking as close to Cristian Javier on Sunday night as he has his months is encouraging despite the eventual 6-1 loss to the Yankees. Having the real Cristian Javier for September and the October that should be still to come for these Astros would be significant.

And maybe so is Jose Altuve revealing that his two daughters have turned him into something of a Taylor Swift appreciator in an ESPN Sunday Night Baseball miked up in-the-field segment. Even if he doesn’t quite completely know the lyrics. When one considers the power of the Internet, there is a good chance that Altuve being an amateur Swiftie could long outlast this Yankees sweep.

Especially if the Astros do what they always seem to do in the biggest games of all. The stage is here — and the Altuve, Bregman and Friends are stepping up to the plate. Are you really betting against them?

“We have to go out there and do what we can do,” Maldonado says.

It’s what these Astros do.

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