All season long, Jose Altuve has played like a most valuable player. He led the major leagues in Wins Above Replacement.
But for much of the season, the headlines centered around Yankees right fielder Aaron Judge standing tall as the best player in baseball (even when he was slumping).
On Thursday, Altuve validated his season. He became the ninth player (Babe Ruth did it twice) and first Astros player to hit three home runs in a postseason game.
What was most notable about this performance?
At 5-foot-6, Altuve is the shortest player with a three-homer game in the postseason.
He’s the first Astros second baseman to hit three home runs in any game -- regular season or postseason.
Altuve had three hits, all solo home runs. He entered the day 4-for-26 with no extra-base hits and two RBIs in his previous six career postseason games.
In fact, he totaled three home runs in all of September.
The past four players with a three-homer postseason game were born outside the U.S. after the first five were born in the U.S. The past two (Sandoval and Altuve) were born in Venezuela and the previous two (Pujols and Beltre) were born in the Dominican Republic.
Altuve crushing the Red Sox is nothing new. He hit .417 against them this season. How good a year was it for him? That was his seventh-best batting average against any team, fourth-best against an American League team.
Coincidence of the night: The past two three-homer games in postseason came in games started by Justin Verlander. Pablo Sandoval hit three home runs (two versus Verlander) in Game 1 of the 2012 World Series.
Among those who didn't total three home runs in their postseason careers are Jim Rice, Wade Boggs, Sammy Sosa, Jeff Bagwell and baseball legend Willie Mays.
How he did it
Altuve got his best results this season on pitches that were thrown in the lower half of his strike zone.
And the payoff came in the form of two of his three home runs.
Altuve swung less often at those pitches than ever before (45 percent of the time) and missed more often than he had in any season other than his rookie year (22 percent of the time).
But in at-bats ending in those pitches during the regular season, he did plenty of damage, hitting .355 BA, which beat his previous career-high by 27 points.
In the previous two seasons, he hit .284 and .292 against them. His .525 slugging percentage beat his previous career high by 79 points.
It’s part of a progression. He slugged .389 against those pitches in 2015 and .446 in 2016.
Altuve saw eight lower-half pitches in Game 1. He swung at five and hit two out of the park.