<
>

Altuve, Astros roar back to life behind Verlander to force Game 7

HOUSTON -- Jose Altuve came to the plate 13 times over a span of three games this week in New York. He struck out twice, drew three walks, grounded out once, flew out three times, reached on an error and two fielder's choices, and hit into a double play.

Total number of hits for Altuve: zero.

It was the most stunning aspect of three stunning nights for the Houston Astros. They lost back-to-back-to-back games for the first time in more than a month and moved to the brink of elimination against the New York Yankees in the best-of-seven American League Championship Series. Altuve was hardly the only Houston hitter who got muted by Yankees pitching, but as a three-time batting champion and the favorite to be named AL MVP, going 0-for-New York left even his teammates shocked.

"It's like, 'Wait, he didn't have any hits in New York? Wow, that's pretty crazy,'" outfielder Jake Marisnick said. "Obviously it's a hard game and everybody struggles at times, but for him, it's a lot less than most."

Leave it to Altuve, then, to bring the Astros back from the edge of the cliff.

Not only did the All-Star second baseman deliver a two-out, two-run single in the fifth inning of Game 6 here Friday night to open a three-run lead, but he answered Yankees slugger Aaron Judge's eighth-inning solo home run with one of his own. Led by Altuve, the mighty Astros finally broke out, scoring more runs than they had in the last three games combined to back lights-out ace Justin Verlander in a rousing, 7-1 victory at Minute Maid Park.

It all sets up a winner-take-all Game 7 on Saturday night for the right to go to Hollywood, where the Los Angeles Dodgers will be waiting in the World Series.

"I'm not going to lie to you. It's a lot of emotions in that clubhouse," Altuve said. "After this game, it was a crazy game. But personally, I really like the way we play in these kind of games with everybody up. I believe in my team."

Indeed, it seemed like only a matter of time before Altuve -- and the rest of the Astros' offense -- erupted. Midway through Game 6, though, their collective self-confidence was beginning to erode.

During the regular season, the slugging 'Stros scored more runs (896) than any team since the 2009 Yankees. In the division series, they piled on 24 runs in four games against the Boston Red Sox. Yet here they were, with only nine runs through 49 innings against the Yankees. Likewise, Altuve's longest hitless streak of the season lasted for only 10 at-bats, from Sept. 3-5. But when he stepped to the plate in the fifth inning, he was riding an 0-for-12.

"He stays confident the whole time," Marisnick said. "Most guys will go into a funk and not feel great. He's always, 'This at-bat I'm going to get him.' You're like, 'Jose, he's gotten you the last couple times,' and he's like, 'No, I'm going to get him this time.'"

Said Altuve: "As soon as we started playing, we forgot about the last three games in New York."

Except there was something different about Altuve's reaction Friday after jumping all over a first-pitch slider from hard-throwing Yankees starter Luis Severino and lining it into left field. Normally cool and reserved on the field, he flailed his arms, pointed to the dugout and hollered after reaching first base.

Altuve knew how much the Astros needed a big hit. And he knew they were counting on him.

"I'm not a guy that shows a lot of emotion while I'm playing," Altuve said. "But I didn't realize what I was doing. I was just happy and just kind of like ... moments that are [like that], you let yourself go. And I hope I didn't offend anybody. I was just happy because I was helping my team. And I think it's understandable because of the situation and the importance of the game that we are playing."

Even the Yankees would excuse Altuve's emotion. The Astros' three-run fifth inning was cathartic for an entire ballpark, to say nothing of a championship-starved city.

The rally-towel-waving fans who filled Minute Maid Park were waiting for something to cheer for when Alex Bregman drew a walk leading off the fifth, Evan Gattis worked a one-out walk and Brian McCann -- 0-for-11 in the series to that point -- notched perhaps the Astros' biggest hit of the season, lining a 97-mph fastball from Severino that hopped over the right-field fence for an RBI ground-rule double to break a scoreless stalemate.

"It was just nice to get a big hit. It didn't matter who it was," McCann said. "I came up in plenty of spots this postseason and didn't come through, so to get that hit was big."

But it was going to take more than one big hit, and Altuve was ripe to deliver it.

"He was guaranteed hits today, for sure," ace lefty Dallas Keuchel said. "I mean, he's going to win the MVP. It's more stunning when he goes multiple games without a hit than multiple games with multiple hits."

Said shortstop Carlos Correa: "[He's] the best hitter on the planet, and I think he had three days in New York without hitting. Whatever. I knew he was going to come back. He's the best hitter I've ever seen. He works really hard every single day and wants to be the best ever."

The Astros sealed the victory with a four-run eighth inning that provided a lead too large for even their bullpen to blow. Now, they will meet the Yankees in the first ALCS Game 7 since the Tampa Bay Rays outlasted the Red Sox in 2008.

"We're right where we want to be: at home for Game 7," Altuve said. "We've got to go out there and make it happen. I don't know what's going to happen, but one thing I can tell you is all my team, we're going to do everything we can to help our team win the game."

Win or lose, it will be stunning if Altuve doesn't do something special.