HOUSTON (AP) – Jose Altuve, Houston’s little superstar, has long been a powerhouse in the postseason.
But Altuve hasn’t been a factor at the plate since the playoffs began. The Astros hope he can find his swing when they return to the AL Championship Series for the sixth straight year and host the New York Yankees in Game 1 on Wednesday night.
The three-time champion and 2017 AL MVP went 0 for 16 in Houston’s three-game sweep against the Seattle Mariners in the AL Division Series. Altuve, the team’s leadoff hitter, was 0 for 8 in Game 3 before rookie Jeremy Pena’s 18th-inning homer lifted the Astros to a 1-0 victory.
As for, of course, but with a playoff resume as dazzling as Altuve’s, everyone is certain his decline will be short-lived. The diminutive second baseman hit .300 with 28 homers and 57 RBI in the regular season.
“This guy has been good for a long time,” manager Dusty Baker said. “Sometimes it’s not always right. Sometimes, no matter how great you are, sometimes there are downs… but I expect big things from Altuve. Because he expects great things from himself.”
While Altuve would certainly like to do more in the game, he is more focused on how the team is doing as a whole than individual results.
“I’m always the type to stay positive, stay calm, no matter the situation,” he said. “I like to go out there and play my game, no matter the score … (but) we’ve won three games and we’re ready for the ALCS and that’s what we’re playing for.”
The good news for the Astros is that they swept the series despite Altuve’s struggles. Yankees ace Gerrit Cole, who helped Houston to the 2019 World Series before signing a $324 million deal with the Yankees, knows better than most how deep the Astros have.
“They’re really good and they find ways to win even if they’re not at their best,” he said. “I don’t know how many hits Jose (Altuve) got in that three-game streak, but all of a sudden he showed up with the glove and made some nasty defensive plays … it’s funny, when everybody clicks they’re great. When not everyone clicks, they’re great.”
In 17 playoff series over seven years, Altuve hit .272 with 23 homers and 49 RBIs. He had a three-hitter — twice against Chris Sale — to lead Houston to an 8-2 victory over the Boston Red Sox in Game 1 of the 2017 ALDS.
But his biggest postseason home run, and perhaps one of the most memorable homers in playoff history, came against the Yankees. Game 6 of the 2019 ALCS was tied at 4 with two outs in the bottom of the ninth when Altuve singled off Aroldis Chapman for a two-run shot to send Houston to the World Series.
Altuve was voted MVP for his heroics in that series in which he finished with two homers, a double and three RBIs.
It was the second time the Astros beat the Yankees in the ALCS, the first coming in 2017 when they won their only World Series. It was a title that has since been tarnished after it was discovered that the Astros had illegally stolen signs that season.
The Yankees head to Houston with no time to savor their ALDS victory after beating Cleveland 5-1 in Game 5 on Tuesday in a rain-delayed game.
The series will feature the two best teams in the AL in the 106-win Astros and the 99-win Yankees who have seemingly been on a collision course for this ALCS rematch all season. Houston went 5-2 in the regular season, but that will have little bearing on this matchup in which the AL East champion Yankees will be seeking their 28th title and first since 2009.
“The challenge is we’re facing a great team,” New York manager Aaron Boone said. “As far as a quick turnaround, we’ll be fine. It’s baseball. We do that all the time. We’ll go in there with a little bit of confidence. We know they are a great team, rested and ready. We look forward to the challenge.”
Houston’s Justin Verlander will face Jameson Taillon in the series opener. Verlander, who is the favorite to win his third Cy Young Award this season, will look to rebound after a terrible start in Game 1 of the division series.
The 39-year-old allowed a playoff career-high 10 hits with six earned runs, tied for the most in a postseason game, in just four innings before Yordan Alvarez’s three-run homer with two outs in the ninth allowed Houston to rally for an 8-7 win.
Verlander said he hasn’t felt as consistent as he did earlier this season since returning from a calf injury that landed him on the injured list in early September. He said he’s been working hard to get back to where he was before the injury, but wouldn’t go into too much detail about what that job entailed.
“Hopefully after the last one I really identified some things that were a key component,” he said. “It’s just some deep mechanical stuff that I really probably shouldn’t go too far into.”
Baker has no doubt that Verlander will be much better Wednesday in his 32nd career playoff start in the last timeout.
“This guy knows what it takes,” Baker said. “So we’re not worried about Justin. It can happen to anyone. I don’t care how great you are or what your record says, that’s why you play the game. So we expect Justin to come out and play a great game.”
Taillon took the loss in Game 2 of the ALDS in his first big league appearance in 143 starts. He allowed three hits and two earned runs in his playoff debut.
This series will feature two of the best home run hitters in the AL, Aaron Judge and New York’s Alvarez. Judge set an AL record with 62 homers in a regular season.
Alvarez was well behind Judge with a regular-season record 37 long balls, which was third in the AL.
But the two are tied this postseason with two home runs each.
Along with his huge swing in Game 1 of the ALDS, Alvarez added a two-run shot that put Houston on top in a 4-2 victory in Game 2.
Judge had a two-run shot in New York’s Game 3 loss and added a solo homer in Tuesday’s win.
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