HOUSTON – Jose Altuve’s third home run of the afternoon was a majestic shot, one of those balls that refuses to stop climbing until it can fight gravity no longer. It went over the infield at Minute Maid Park, over Boston Red Sox left fielder Andrew Benintendi, who just stood there in awe, a feeling Altuve inspires in great volume. It went over the Crawford Boxes in left field and over the train tracks above them and landed at the back of the ballpark, the point on the exclamation the Houston Astros made in Game 1 of the American League Division Series on Thursday.
Altuve became the ninth player in major league history to hit a record three home runs in a playoff game, and the headlining act – a Justin Verlander-versus-Chris Sale matchup – played second fiddle to the littlest major leaguer in decades evermore coming up big. The Astros’ 8-2 victory was a team effort in the way every eight-run performance takes a full complement of players. And yet this will be remembered as the Altuve Game, and rightfully so.
The first two home runs came off Sale did enough to turn the 43,102 who filled the stadium giddy, especially as both snuck just above the C&D Scrap Metal sign in left-center field. The third, on a belt-high 83-mph changeup by Austin Maddox that bisected the plate, unglued the place, which showered Altuve with M-V-P chants and even prompted a curtain call.
In Altuve’s only previous postseason, he had managed just three hits, all singles, in a division series loss. He anticipated a better showing this time. Joining Babe Ruth, Reggie Jackson, George Brett and Albert Pujols on the list of those with three-homer games in the postseason? That may have been a bit much to ask.
And yet there he was, all 5-foot-5 of him, crossing the plate, delivering on his end of an elaborate handshake with Carlos Correa, who along with George Springer were the only hitless Astros. The rest of the deepest lineup in baseball made up for it. No. 2 hitter Alex Bregman’s first-inning home run opened the scoring and left Altuve to go back to back. No. 8 hitter Marwin Gonzalez doubled in a pair of runs to open up a two-run lead in the fourth. Following Altuve’s second homer in the fifth, No. 9 hitter Brian McCann plated a pair on a single. And then to keep the metronomic scoring up, Altuve hit a third solo home run in the seventh.
By then, Sale was long gone, taking one of the worst starts of his career with him in the first postseason appearance of his career. Only once before had he allowed at least six extra-base hits. Houston scored seven runs off him on nine hits in just five innings. Verlander, meanwhile, wasn’t his extra-sharp September self but was good enough, allowing a pair of runs in six innings. The Astros’ bullpen did what the Astros’ bullpen does: put up zeroes. Chris Devenski, Will Harris, Francisco Liriano and Joe Musgrove shut down Boston, which didn’t score for the final five innings.
Altuve by himself outdid the Red Sox, outdid almost all others who have played baseball in October. Because it was Game 1 of a division series, and because nobody stood on base for any of his home runs, and because it came in a bandbox of a ballpark, it won’t get the acclaim of previous three-homer games. And that is all well and good. Jose Altuve – batting champion, MVP favorite and now, finally, postseason hero – is used to being underappreciated.
Better to leave the world awestruck that way.