HOUSTON -- Adjacent to the smoky, boozy hazmat area that was the Houston Astros' clubhouse is a dining room of a culinarian's dreams. Walls of food, drink, anything to sate a player's appetite surround wooden tables. There are freshly prepared meals, too, sitting in chafing dishes, the contents of which are written on a dry-erase board. Just past midnight early Sunday morning, an addendum joined that night's menu. The lower left-hand corner of the board featured the most delicious three words imaginable:
Amid the partying, only one person sat in the room. He wore a commemorative hat announcing the Astros as champions of the American League and snow goggles to shield his eyes from the showers his teammates had tried to give him. Jose Altuve was all alone, which is how he likes to spend the aftermath of such celebrations. A man can take only so many hugs, backslaps and congratulations in the MLB playoffs before he seeks a moment of solitude.
So, Altuve slipped into the dining area and kept to himself for a few minutes of peace and quiet. An hour earlier, he had launched a home run epic even for him. Bottom of the ninth inning, Game 6 of the American League Championship Series, the indomitable Aroldis Chapman on the mound, the New York Yankees in the field and elated by a game-tying home run a half-inning earlier that threatened to send the series to a win-or-go-home seventh game.
Chapman offered a slider that slid too little. Altuve swung. The rest was, literally, history: a pennant-winning home run launched deep in the heart of Texas, a 6-4 victory that sent the Astros to a World Series showdown against the Washington Nationals, a crowd of 43,357 at Minute Maid Park screaming in ecstasy yet rendered speechless by the game's most anomalous player.
Altuve's achievements are reliably viewed through the prism of his height of 5-foot-6, a narrative he dutifully flips on its head. By now, greatness is old hat, Altuve stepping onto the October stage and doing magical things. This, however, wasn't something different so much as it was him one-upping himself, as if being a generationally great player isn't enough.
"People ask me about him, and I say he's a giant in every sense of the word except for his height," Astros teammate Justin Verlander said. "In everything else, he's 7-foot tall. Teammate. Baseball player. Everything."
Nobody defines the Astros quite like Altuve. He endured three consecutive 100-plus-loss seasons, now bookended by three straight 100-plus-win campaigns. He did it having signed for $15,000, having done nothing but hit until he was summoned to the major leagues at age 21, having grown from a contact-oriented sort into a menace.
"To be honest," said Yankees infielder DJ LeMahieu, who had tied the game only to see Altuve untie it, "I never feel good when we're on defense and he comes to the plate. But it's not just us, the Yankees. I think every team feels like that."
They feel that way because they've seen it too many times now -- Altuve and the Astros ruining their season and others' in search of something audacious and achievable, simultaneously.
"We're just a group of guys," Astros third baseman Alex Bregman said, "ready to make a dynasty in Houston."
The day Houston clinched the pennant started with a nap. The Astros returned from the Bronx weary and groggy and in need of sleep. The Yankees had won Game 5, ambushing Verlander in the first inning. The rainout of Game 4 had wiped away a planned off day. Both teams would use only bullpen arms on Saturday, a game theorist's dream, tactics paramount. Before they boarded the plane home, right-hander Brad Peacock learned he would be starting for Houston, becoming the first pitcher in nearly 100 years to pitch the final inning of one postseason game and start the next day. Even if his arm was going on zero days of rest, his body needed some, so he decided to sleep at Minute Maid in the Astros' designated nap room.
"It's quiet, dark, cold," Peacock said. "It was freezing. I could've gone home, but I've got two kids at home, and I wanted to get some sleep."
He went to bed at 5:30 a.m. and awoke at 10:30. Soon thereafter, his teammates started to file in. The Game 5 loss hadn't addled their psyches. Calmness defined the Astros throughout their 107-win season. No team possessed the talent they do -- not in their rotation, with Verlander, Gerrit Cole and Zack Greinke, and not in a lineup that features Altuve and Bregman and George Springer and Michael Brantley and Yuli Gurriel and Carlos Correa and Yordan Alvarez, a wrecking crew of the highest order.
An hour before first pitch, Peacock sat at a table with Verlander, reliever Joe Smith and outfielder Jake Marisnick deep into a session of pluck, a card game. Outfielder Josh Reddick sat at his locker playing Fortnite. Like Altuve, a been-here, done-this vibe pervaded the Astros' clubhouse. Their World Series ring from 2017 was their receipt.
The first inning did nothing to dissuade that notion. Peacock mowed through the Yankees' top three hitters in seven pitches. Altuve doubled, Bregman walked and Gurriel yanked a three-run home run off the Yankees' opener, Chad Green. Throughout the series, Houston had rope-a-doped New York's bullpen, taxing it and wearing it down and hoping eventually it would offer mistakes on which they would pounce. It did. They did. After a series of sputtering offense, the Astros reminded the Yankees who they were with urgency and immediacy.
"If I'm not back in Houston, I won't be back in the AL," said Wade Miley, the Astros pitcher who will be a free agent this offseason. "Because I don't ever want to have to face this lineup. I'm out."
What makes Houston so fearsome isn't simply the offense or the starting pitching or a bullpen deep enough for AJ Hinch to call upon seven pitchers and never once believe he was at a distinct matchup disadvantage, even against a Yankees lineup formidable in its own right. The Astros play a gorgeous brand of baseball. Twice earlier in the series, the Yankees cut down Astros runners trying to score at the plate. Rather than walk into a tag and easy out, the runners goaded Yankees fielders into pickles, allowing the two other runners on base to advance to second and third. It's not the little things with the Astros; it's the minuscule ones.
It's Reddick diving in the sixth inning to steal a Brett Gardner liner with runners on first and second, preserving a 4-2 lead. It's Brantley an inning later laying out in left field to rob Aaron Hicks, gathering himself and firing a strike to double Aaron Judge off first base. It's a double play an inning after that in which Altuve flipped to shortstop Correa, who fired a 95 mph strike to first base. It's doing everything right so that when things go wrong they're not catastrophic.
Granted, the Astros weren't exactly elated when, with only two outs separating them from the pennant, LeMahieu capped a brilliant 10-pitch at-bat against Astros closer Roberto Osuna with an opposite-field home run just past the outstretched arm of Springer in right field. The Yankees, the savages in the box, had tied the game at 4 and had Chapman, their closer, ready to send the game into extra innings.
Chapman struck out Martin Maldonado and popped up Reddick, his fastball kissing 101 mph. Then, with Springer at the plate, he lost his fastball. He missed one badly, then another to walk Springer. He sailed two more high and outside against Altuve, before spinning a get-me-over slider. Altuve anticipated another. The ball bounced off the facade in left field, over the yellow line of delineation for a home run.
"You make sure the ball is gone before you celebrate," Altuve said. "Then I'm thinking, 'We're going to the World Series.'"
The crowd couldn't contain itself. How giddy were they? A few minutes after the home run, Houston Rockets stars Russell Westbrook and James Harden walked through a lobby full of people. Nobody stopped them. Fans were too busy celebrating. Three men sloppily shouted and hugged and moved toward a bank of cushioned benches arranged in a circle. One reclined, assuming the benches were backed. They weren't. The man fell into the middle. As he peeled himself off the floor, not a care in the universe, he slurred the same thing Altuve said: "We're going to the World Series."
Two pieces of rectangular, silver confetti had attached themselves to Jose Altuve, one on his forehead, the other in his beard. Even when he tries to avoid it, the celebration has a way of finding him.
Altuve was on the field as family members of Astros players arrived to revel. He looked toward the tunnel from which they were coming. Then he looked right and left. Finally, there she was, right in front of him: his daughter, Melanie, who will turn 3 soon, running into her daddy's arms. He hugged her and beamed and now could enjoy the moment properly, his girl a far greater prize than his ALCS MVP trophy.
"It's not easy to deliver the way he does," Hinch said. "The playoff version of him is spectacular. We talk about his division series homers and then his attention to detail in every facet of the game. He's turned himself into a star in his career here, and yet he's remained humble, he's remained hungry. He's driven. He's engaging with his teammates.
"It's the same old quote of: Everything that's right about the Astros is Jose Altuve. He's been here the longest and seen this organization grow from the ground up. I'm so proud of him. I'm so fortunate to be his manager."
All the talk about Altuve makes him uncomfortable. The humility is real. As the summer waned and Altuve started putting up MVP-quality numbers again, he would tell opposing first basemen that he felt like he was slipping and that he was just happy to still be here. Altuve is 29 years old. He is more than halfway to 3,000 hits already. He finished with a career-high 31 home runs this year. If this is a bad version of himself, it's frightening to think what he would look like when he's good.
Actually, the answer is ... this. This is exactly what the best version of Altuve looks like. It is his embrace of the big moments -- the hunger for them. It is the fifth walk-off home run in LCS history, joining those of Chris Chambliss, Magglio Ordonez, Travis Ishikawa and the manager in the opposing dugout Saturday night, Aaron Boone. Amid the party in the clubhouse, Bregman and Cole were talking about the wonder of Altuve looking for a slider from Chapman, who throws his fastball nearly 70% of the time. "Two-one?" said Cole, one of the game's foremost pitch sequencers. "I'm looking fastball down and in."
"That's why he's special," Bregman said.
Bregman couldn't stop marveling at Altuve, at the entire scene. After getting dismantled by the Boston Red Sox in the ALCS last year -- a series in which Altuve played hurt and after which he required knee surgery -- Houston returned reinvigorated and reloaded. That dynasty talk? It's not just talk, something at which Bregman is as good as anyone. It's warranted.
First, the Astros need to take care of the Nationals, whose starting pitching goes toe-to-toe with Houston's better than any team in baseball. Max Scherzer will oppose Cole in Game 1. Stephen Strasburg will match up against Verlander in Game 2. Patrick Corbin will counter Zack Greinke in Game 3.
After its dynamic regular season and division series win against a dangerous Tampa Bay Rays team and proof of its mettle against the Yankees, Houston is banking on dispatching the Nationals in tidy fashion.
With the clubhouse nearly cleared out, the bottles empty and the cigars burning to nubs, Bregman approached Verlander with a question.
"How many games you gonna win in the World Series?" Bregman asked.
"I'll take just one," Verlander said.