Altuve's home run hat trick rocks Sox, Sale as Astros take Game 1

HOUSTON -- Before he answered any questions about the Houston Astros' series-opening victory here Thursday, Justin Verlander asked one of his own.

"First off," the ace pitcher said, "how good is Jose Altuve?"

After everything Altuve has done this season -- and particularly after what he did in an 8-2 pounding of the Boston Red Sox in Game 1 of their American League Division Series -- even his Astros teammates are running out of ways to put his feats into context. For the past six months, they saw him hit .346 en route to his third career batting title. And now, as the playoffs began, they watched the 5-foot-6 dynamo bash three home runs, two against Red Sox ace Chris Sale.

It was a performance that would have made even Aaron Judge and Giancarlo Stanton blush. It put Altuve in a class with George Brett, Reggie Jackson, Babe Ruth and future Hall of Famers Albert Pujols and Adrian Beltre as players who have homered three times in a postseason game.

Quite simply, it was a breathtaking power display from the best hitter in the American League's most powerful offense.

Altuve blasted a 97-mph fastball from Sale into a standing-room-only section above the left-center field fence in the first inning. He hit a 96-mph fastball from Sale to nearly the same spot in the fifth. And he greeted rookie reliever Austin Maddox, a surprise addition to the Red Sox's playoff roster, in the seventh inning by launching a changeup into the Crawford Boxes in left field.

"I couldn't believe any of my homers," Altuve said. "I hit one and I was like, 'Wow.' And the second one is like, 'Wow, what's going on here?'"

And the third?

"I don't know," Altuve said. "I've got to wake up."

After that third homer, after the sellout crowd chanted "M-V-P! M-V-P!" and received the curtain call that it demanded, Altuve got a bear hug from center fielder George Springer, who grabbed his biceps and screamed in his face.

The message: "That he's a joke," Springer said. "You want me to say what I said to him. He's a joke. The dude, he said he never hit three homers in a game in his life. Well, it's a great day to hit three."

Altuve became the first Astros player ever with a three-homer game in the playoffs and the first since Carlos Lee in 2007 to homer three times in any game. He also joined Adam Kennedy of the Anaheim Angels (in the 2002 American League Championship Series) as the only second basemen with a three-homer game in the postseason.

And just to rub dirt in the Red Sox's eye, Altuve is the first player with a three-homer playoff game since Pablo Sandoval in the 2012 World Series. But the pain Altuve inflicted on the Red Sox in the opener of the best-of-five series far outweighs the $42.2 million Boston owes free-agent bust Sandoval over the next two years.

"He's just one of the greatest hitters from what I have seen," Red Sox right fielder Mookie Betts said. "I'm not exactly sure what a game plan for him is. Good luck, I guess."

It's going to take more than that for the Red Sox to subdue either Altuve or the Astros, a 101-win offensive machine that was favored to advance to the ALCS even before getting the early lead.

And there was something fitting about Altuve being the Game 1 hero. He suffered through back-to-back-to-back 100-loss seasons with the Astros, from 2011-13, and endured the disappointments of losing to the Kansas City Royals in the 2015 ALCS and missing the playoffs last season.

Now, Altuve is the face of Houston's baseball renaissance.

"Nothing he does surprises me anymore," Houston outfielder Josh Reddick said. "The guy is going to hit a ball 5 feet and get a single out of it, and then he can hit it 450 feet and do some pretty special things. I don't think anything that that man over there does surprises anyone anymore."

Said catcher Brian McCann: "He can cover every pitch in every quadrant. Even if you make your pitches, he’s still going to get you. That’s why he’s an MVP."

Next month, Altuve might be crowned MVP, assuming he edges out Judge in the voting that ended after the regular season. In the meantime, it's safe to say he is -- pound for pound, at least -- the best hitter in the league, a doubles machine with 25-homer power.

Verlander saw it from a distance for years. But after being traded to the Astros on Aug. 31, he has a new appreciation for Altuve.

"It's hard to describe in different ways," Verlander said. "The local media here is probably bored with how I talk about him. But he's exceptional and he's prepared, and he went out today and kept a really calm heartbeat and got pitches to hit and did incredible damage."

So, how good is Altuve?

"I think we can officially call him a 'run producer,'" Verlander said, settling on a description. "He gets so many hits that I think some of his run production gets cast aside a little bit.

"But he's the best hitter in the league, and that's in a league of really, really good hitters."