Culture / Sporting Life

Astros Prove They’re the Best Playoff Team of This Era With Jose Altuve’s Magic Slide, Yordan Alvarez’s October Might and Lance McCullers Jr.’s Relentless Fight

Sorry LA, October's Standard Bearers Call Houston Home

BY // 10.07.21

Only Jose Altuve could turn a slide into the play of the game. Only Yordan Alvarez could hit a home run so soaring that it threatens to pop the top of the Minute Maid Park — and show up on FAA radar. And only the Houston Astros can make the relentlessly unforgiving pressure cauldron of Major League Baseball’s playoffs look as easy as one, two, three.

The Best Playoff Franchise of this Era dating back to 2017 (and yes, that definitely includes the Los Angeles Dodgers — sorry, not sorry) is at it again, jumping all over the Chicago White Sox 6-1, taking a 1-0 lead in these frighteningly fast best-of-5 divisional series before the second team from The Second City can even imagine getting comfortable.

This is what these Astros do. They rip your heart out almost before you realize you’ve even sat down at the dinner table. Or stepped up to the plate.

That’s the fate of the 93 win, American League Central Champion White Sox in this Thursday playoff opener. They show up expecting an equal fight — and before Tony La Russa’s team even realizes it, it’s down 5-0. Welcome to The Juice Box. And Astros October baseball. This is the franchise’s 34th playoff win since 2017. October after October, this is what the Astros do. The Dodgers also have 34 playoff wins since 2017 — and one title like Houston does. LA has worse playoff losses than these Astros do, though.

“They’re just deep,” White Sox starter Lance Lynn says of the Astros lineup after one of the most frustrating starts of his life. “They don’t strikeout. They pick and choose times when they want to be aggressive. That’s why they’ve had the success they’ve had in recent years. From top to bottom, they don’t make it easy on you.”

Instead, the Astros are like a school of piranha, constantly just biting away at you. The chosen prey often does not even realize its bleeding out until it is too late. When the Houston Astros are healthy — and they look healthy this October — no lineup is better at gnawing a good pitcher to death.

While many will try to make this 2021 Astros playoff run all about the $350 million-plus man to be, Carlos Correa (yes, he’s likely gone after this October), Game 1 turns out to be about the young stars the Astros have locked up for years to come. It’s about 24-year-old Yordan Alvarez, who is not eligible for free agency until after the 2025 season, turning into the monster October bat that he and Astros always expected him to be. It’s about Lance McCullers Jr., who is signed through the 2026 season, showing he is every bit the No. 1 ace that any true World Series contender needs.

And it’s about Jose Altuve, the forever heartbeat of this championship era who should retire an Astro, going David Copperfield on a slide that should be sent to Cooperstown. Altuve somehow contorts his entire body as he’s sliding to tuck around White Sox catcher Yasmani Grandal’s extended foot that’s blocking home plate and tags the other side of home plate with his stretched out hand.

You’re not going to see anything any more unlikely in Squid Game. And yes, Jose Altuve would be one formidable foe in a game of Twister.

“That was tremendous,” Astros manager Dusty Baker says of the rare highlight slide.

So is Alvarez’s home run in the sixth inning. It officially measures in at 411 feet, landing in the Astros bullpen in right centerfield, carrying a 104.8 MPH exit velocity. But that does not even really begin to describe how majestic it is.

“That was one of the most crazy home runs I’ve seen this year,” McCullers says. “Just how high he hit it. That’s deep out there in right center.”

Just Yordan doing Yordan things. It is no great stretch to imagine Yordan Alvarez’s name being mentioned with Fernando Tatis Jr’s and Juan Soto’s among the great young hitters of the day in the near future. But for now, the Astros are just enjoying what a difference a healthy Yordan can make in October.

Alvarez hit .241 with only one home run and three RBI in 18 games in the 2019 postseason, his first dip into October. He missed the strange 2020 playoffs entirely with a knee injury. But he’s already making up for lost time with this Game 1 to remember.

“Well, that’s a huge bat,” Baker says of Alvarez. “I thought about it many times over the winter — what it would have been like to have Yordan in there (last October). . . He is in the middle of our lineup. You don’t know when he is going to leave the yard. And you know he’s going to drive in some big runs.

“So yeah, life wasn’t too pleasant last year without Yordan. . . I’m very thankful to have him back.”

Spending the 2020 COVID season recovering from surgery on both knees left Alvarez feeling isolated. With the pandemic, he really could not be around the team. And no matter how often his teammates texted him and tried to make him feel like part of it, it was not close to the same.

“It means a lot to me,” Alvarez says of being back. “I felt bad being away from the team all of last year. I tried to do my best to be as into it as possible watching on TV and supporting from a distance. But to be able to be back with the team — and to be able to help it out — is really special.”

Alvarez puts on a simple black nylon jacket after the game and almost discretely walks into the interview room with veteran Michael Brantley. Yordan Alvarez never makes it about himself. But to his teammates, he may as well be wearing a cape.

Still, the Astros do not depend on the long ball. Or any one Yordan bomb. Yes, Alvarez rockets one off the bright yellow Papa John’s sign for a double and a 3-0 lead. And the big man adds that monster bomb into the centerfield bullpen in the fifth inning to make it 6-0. But Houston scores its first run on simple Jake Meyers ground ball single, its second run on an Alex Bregman groundout (on that Altuve miracle slide) and its fourth and fifth runs on a Michael Brantley single.

Yes, Jose Altuve would be one formidable foe in a game of Twister.

What the Astros do best is keep the pressure on. Batter after batter after batter. Getting any of the Astros out in October is a fight. Even new Astros like Meyers quickly pick up this mantra — and its shows in almost every at-bat. Baseball’s postseason is pressure packed enough (just ask the New York Yankees). But there the Astros are, gleefully turning it up several more notches to 11 on the dial.

Minute Maid Magic

The playoff noise returns to Minute Maid Park for the first time since the 2019 World Series, both familiar and exhilarating at the same time. There are people packed in, shoulder to shoulder, screaming. Jim Crane sits next to Hall of Famer Reggie Jackson, the Astros’ still relatively new special advisor. Jeff Bagwell and Craig Biggio and their families are one row apart. Mattress Mack throws out the first pitch.

Many of these are the same happy beats we’ve seen before, but there is a new excitement too. For the Astros have never had this version of Yordan Alvarez in the playoffs. Or this version of No.1 starter Lance McCullers Jr. either.

The Houston Astros defeated the Chicago White Sox 6-1 behind the pitching of Lance McCullers with a home runs from Yordan Alvarez during the opening game of the American League Division Series
Lance McCullers Jr. just pounded the zone — and pitched like a true Astros ace. (Photo by F. Carter Smith)

McCullers puts up 6 and 2/3 innings of no run ball. He does not just take on the weight of the Astros No. 1 starter role that Dallas Keuchel, Justin Verlander and Gerrit Cole so ably held before him. He does it seemingly without even flinching.

Instead, McCullers attacks from the first pitch just as ferociously as the Astros hitters do.

“You get the ball in Game 1, and your team is expecting this from you,” McCullers says. “They’re expecting you to come out, have energy, attack the zone, give them a chance to win.”

The Astros are like a school of piranha, constantly just biting away at you. When Houston is healthy — and it looks healthy this October — no lineup is better at gnawing a good pitcher to death.

The Astros come into this game with a plan — a carefully thought out plan with plenty of aggression and urgency around it. The White Sox come into this game. . . and let Lance Lynn, the former Texas Ranger,  throw fastballs for 74 of his 76 pitches. Against the best fastball hitting lineup in all of baseball. Smacking themselves on the forehead repeatedly Homer Simpson style would be appropriate about now.

Meanwhile, McCullers, veteran Astros catcher Martin Maldonado and pitching guru Brent Strom’s gameplan is more precise and targeted than a drone missile strike.

“I’m much more of a pitcher now than I was in the past,” McCullers says.

Altuve’s slide. Alvarez’s October power flex. McCullers’ eager taking on of the mantle of being a No. 1.

Only, the Best Postseason Team of This Era could make it look this easy. This efficient. This ruthlessly entertaining.

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