Jose Altuve helps lift Astros to World Series Game 2 win


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HOUSTON — When whatever tortured souls spend their futures memorializing baseball history look back at this era of Houston Astros dominance, they will be unable to do so without contemplating the complicated legacy of Jose Altuve. He has been the face of their success and the effigy for their perceived moral failures, all the while serving as one of the most internally respected members of a clubhouse that has seen all-time greats come and go.

His manager, Dusty Baker, has said many times that the jeers and the boos and the expletive-riddled chants that come Altuve’s way everywhere but here would stop, that people would look at him — learn from him, even. His teammates praise him, laugh at his ability to control the bat, wonder at his ability to control emotions.

But to this point in the postseason, Altuve was not exactly providing an offensive education. The Astros got themselves to a one-game deficit against the Philadelphia Phillies in this World Series without Altuve’s bat. They erased that deficit with a 5-2 win Saturday in Game 2 in large part because of it.

Altuve doubled on the first pitch Zack Wheeler threw the Astros on Saturday night, the first of three consecutive hits that would give the Astros a sudden lead and signaled to everyone at Minute Maid Park that any momentum the Phillies accumulated in their dramatic Game 1 win need not last for long.

“I feel like that one swing of the bat to start off the game got the crowd into it, got our dugout into it, got our offense going,” Alex Bregman, who hit a two-run homer in the fifth, said later. Jeremy Peña doubled on the first pitch after that. Yordan Alvarez doubled on the second pitch he saw. Four pitches into the game, the Astros led 2-0. By the end of the first inning, it was 3-0.

That flurry of swings that followed Altuve’s was so frenetic that it wasn’t until Bregman, batting fourth, took the second pitch he saw for a ball that an Astro didn’t swing at one of Wheeler’s offerings. It was also calculated: The Astros’ advance scouting crew had a suggestion against Phillies starter Wheeler: Attack pitches in the zone, particularly fastballs, early.

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“That’s the first time a lot of our guys have seen him,” Baker said. “But we watch a lot of video and our hitting guys, coaching staff tries to get them as familiar as possible with who they’re facing that day.”

That inning was positive for the Astros for all the obvious reasons, but also because Altuve showed his teammates, and Wheeler, that the plan was a good one. But at this point, any hit at all from Altuve qualified as a step in the right direction. Among the many remarkable aspects of the Astros’ playoff run, particularly their sweep of the New York Yankees in the American League Championship Series, is his relative offensive truancy this October.

He started this postseason hitless in his first 25 at-bats, the second-longest streak in postseason history. And since Alvarez homered to help Houston over the Seattle Mariners in the first two games of their division series matchup, he was 3 for 25 in the six other games entering Game 2 on Saturday night. Alvarez finished second in the majors in OPS this season. Altuve finished fourth. The Astros had won seven consecutive postseason games and made it to the World Series without two of the cornerstones of their lineup — two of the five best hitters in baseball by that measure — hitting much at all. They needed Altuve to win the eighth.

“There’s a lot of guys in our clubhouse who lead us and there are a lot of guys in our clubhouse who are vocal and things of that nature,” Game 3 starter Lance McCullers said. “But Altuve is the heart of this team. He has been since I’ve been an Astro. When he goes, our team feels very confident.”

Altuve said that when he initially struggled early in October, he watched a lot of video. He hit more than usual. Then he stopped.

“I think that lately,” he said. “The less I get on my mind it’s going to be better.”

In his second at-bat, Altuve saw another first-pitch fastball and didn’t hesitate. He popped it up. But when Wheeler, clearly cognizant of the Astros’ plan, started Altuve with a slider in the fifth, he laid off it, then redirected a curveball up the middle for a base hit. Altuve entered Saturday with four hits in eight postseason games. He went 3 for 4. That base hit put a runner on ahead of Bregman, who delivered his clear-cut homer to deep left center shortly thereafter.

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Bregman is one of the primary reasons this team has been able to sustain such success without two key hitters producing anywhere near expected levels. He produced identical lines in the ALDS and ALCS: 5 for 15 with a double and a homer. Last year, it was Bregman who disappeared in the postseason, in part because of a wrist injury, in part because of lingering mechanical malfunctions he struggled to fix because of it. But thanks to his big swing Saturday, the Astros had a five-run lead — just like they did before the Phillies stormed back in Game 1.

And lefty Framber Valdez was dominant again, throwing 6⅓ innings and allowing a run when the one man he left on base scored after his departure. By the time Valdez left the game, Astros pitchers not named Justin Verlander had allowed 11 earned runs in nine games, another reason Altuve and Alvarez could struggle while the Astros thrived.

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But to win a World Series, Houston would probably need both of them, especially the man at the top of the order who has been an Astro so long even his phone case has pops of orange on it. The World Series breaks for travel Sunday, so maybe Altuve will sit too long to turn one good game into two.

Or perhaps he has reemerged, just in time to hear a raucous Philadelphia crowd greet him with the usual disdain — the constant reminder of the very thing no one outside of Houston seems willing to grant him, the very thing everyone here says he simply doesn’t need.

“I don’t think about redemption for him at all,” veteran Michael Brantley, who is sidelined for these playoffs because of injury, said Saturday. “I think about how special of a teammate he is to me, day in and day out. Since I’ve been here for the last four years, he’s been nothing but phenomenal to me and my family, to every guy that walks in this locker room.”

Either way, when someone contemplates these Astros years from now — whether Altuve’s 2017 MVP award is forever discredited following the Astros’ sign-stealing scandal or his career in whole offers validation, whether they follow that tainted 2017 World Series title with a less controversial one this year, whether he breaks out and helps them get it — that someone will have to think about Jose Altuve. And it seems the Phillies will now have to think about him a little more now, too.

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