Jose Altuve is still the straw that stirs the Houston Astros. (Photo by F. Carter Smith)
Yordan Alvarez's booming bat is creating baseball shock and awe. (Photo by F. Carter Smith)
George Springer is on the edge of the AL MVP race. (Photo by F. Carter Smith)
When Jose Altuve is flying around the bases, the Houston Astros are a different team. (Photo by F. Carter Smith)
Justin Verlander may be the smartest pitcher in baseball. (Photo by F. Carter Smith)
Michael Brantley is a hit machine. (Photo by F. Carter Smith)
Jose Altuve brings real joy to the Houston Astros lineup. (Photo by F. Carter Smith)
Yordan Alvarez collects RBIs the way kids used to collect baseball cards. (Photo by F. Carter Smith)
George Springer is a game changer who recognizes Jose Altuve's unique gift. (Photo by F. Carter Smith)
Alex Bregman is as hard on himself as Jose Altuve is. (Photo by F. Carter Smith)
Yuli Gurriel and Tony Kemp enjoy a dugout moment. (Photo by F. Carter Smith)
When the Houston Astros lineup is whole, everyone is having fun. (Photo by F. Carter Smith)
Michael Brantley's low-key excellance makes him one of the offseason's best signings. (Photo by F. Carter Smith)
Justin Verlander just keeps getting better with age, like baseball's Tom Brady. (Photo by F. Carter Smith)
Yordan Alvarez's home runs are often moon shots. (Photo by F. Carter Smith)
Josh Reddick only plays at one speed. (Photo by F. Carter Smith)
Gerrit Cole has been on a dominant roll for the Houston Astros. (Photo by F. Carter Smith)
Jose Altuve's powerful swing is a difference maker. (Photo by F. Carter Smith)
The Houston Astros beat the A's 11-1 on Apollo 11 night, getting the series off to a tone setting start. (Photo by F. Carter Smith)
Yordan Alvarez is The Assassin, the 22-year-old rookie sensation who does almost all of his talking with a booming long bat. George Springer is the revamped fire starter on the edge of the AL MVP conversation. Alex Bregman is the comet that just keeps rising. Carlos Correa is still the eternal promise.
Oh, these Houston Astros are full of stars. But through all the change, emergences, injuries and massage maladies, Jose Altuve remains the most important star of all. The Astros are still driven by Altuve, the most relentless bat in the American League. When the little giant is healthy and flying free, the Houston Astros’ entire lineup is transformed.
The World Series engine still starts with Jose.
“To see him the way he’s playing, the way he’s running the bases, you know he’s feeling good,” Astros catcher Robinson Chirinos says. “It’s huge.”
It’s turning the Astros into the next level juggernaut Houston general manager Jeff Luhnow always envisioned. With Altuve going off, the Astros have won seven of their last eight games, tying the New York Yankees for the most wins in the AL with 66.
The latest is a 4-2 win over the Oakland A’s that all but dooms the upstarts from the Bay Area to playing for a wildcard berth. Oakland arrived in Houston having won or tied their last nine series to put at least a little pressure on the Astros.
They leave closer to the fourth place Rangers than the first place Astros, the sound of Altuve’s 428-foot home run still likely ringing in their ears.
This is how you take over a season. When Altuve went 0-for-4 in first game back from the injured list after a 35-game absence, his batting average stood at .236. Now, it’s up to .287. And only rising.
That’s a 50 point swing in 28 games — and Altuve’s been pushing the Astros up with him.
“A good hitter’s going to hit and he’s a great hitter,” Springer says of Altuve. “I don’t think there was a guy in here that was concerned about him.”
When healthy Jose Altuve is as sure a thing as the Houston humidity. For the first time since the knee injury last season that robbed Altuve of his full power in the playoffs, the former MVP seems fully healed.
And that’s more vital to Houston’s World Series plans than almost anything Jeff Luhnow could do at the trade deadline.
There are a lot of would-be stars in baseball. But there is only one Altuve. In a clubhouse with Justin Verlander, Gerrit Cole, Brantley, Bregman and Springer, Altuve is the leader. He is the force who lifts up the Astros with his relentless will.
“He puts a lot of pressure on himself,” Springer says.
Altuve’s never-ending demands of himself, his push to always do more, carries over. It’s become an Astros’ way of life. There is Bregman after the game in the middle of the clubhouse vowing to his teammates that he will “contribute” more next series. As if anyone is worried about him.
But that’s the Altuve way.
Jose Altuve’s Unique Gifts
To Chirinos — who played with Altuve in Venezuela over the years and watched him wreck havoc on the rest of the AL West as a member of the Texas Rangers for six seasons — his fellow countryman is the ultimate trump card. The Astros have Jose Altuve and you don’t.
Good luck with that.
“He’s special,” Chirinos tells PaperCity. “He’s unique.”
Altuve likes talking about himself about as much as the Hawkins PD likes to discuss its town’s safety record. The man who plays with such joy isn’t into self praise. When Altuve is asked about his home run after the win over the A’s, he turns the question into a chance to heap more love on Verlander.
“It was special because it was two runs and the game was on the line, and we have Justin on the mound,” Altuve says. “And we all know everything we can give him. He’s going to take advantage and he proved it tonight.
“He’s the best pitcher in the Big Leagues and it’s really fun to play behind him.”
It’s extra fun to have Jose Altuve in your lineup. The Astros know. They aren’t close to the same team without him. They’re just not quite as dynamic. The Boston Red Sox took advantage of a hobbled Altuve on the way to winning it all last October.
It’s looking more and more like, Altuve will be his real self this postseason. That changes the entire playoff equation. Baseball is always looking for the next Mr. October. But Mr. Indispensable will do just fine.