Altuve clubbed a three-run homer off Texas Rangers reliever Jose Leclerc in the top of the ninth inning, and after barely holding a lead through the bottom of the ninth, Houston -- which had lost the first two games of the American League Championship Series -- completed a sweep of three games here Friday night.
Houston needs only to win Game 6 or Game 7 to capture the best-of-seven series and advance to the World Series for the fifth time in the past seven seasons.
"That's one of the craziest games I ever played in," Altuve said on the field after the game, and he wasn't exaggerating. In the last three innings were two lead-changing homers, three ejections (one including Houston manager Dusty Baker), a brief delay as Baker refused to leave the Astros dugout, and a leaping catch in the bottom of the ninth inning by a fielder making his first-ever appearance on defense in a postseason game.
"That was a huge, huge victory," Baker said. "That will go down in history."
Added Rangers manager Bruce Bochy: "It's just a tough one, no getting around it. It's part of the game and what you have to deal with. And good clubs deal with it in the right way, and these guys, they'll put this behind them."
It had appeared the Rangers would win this emotional game, after coming back against a future Hall of Famer. The Astros took a 2-1 lead in the top of the sixth inning, and with ace Justin Verlander on the mound and the best Houston relievers fully rested, they were well-positioned to close out the game. But that lead evaporated in the span of three pitches: Corey Seager doubled, Evan Carter singled and Adolis Garcia attacked a fastball, blasting a three-run homer so far that Garcia stood at home plate to admire his work, before slowly moving up the first base line and slamming his bat in celebration.
Verlander bent over at the waist, stunned, and after the half-inning ended, he greeted catcher Martin Maldonado with a look of self-loathing and a sweep of his hand, imitating how his fastball had errantly cut inside when he meant for it to go outside.
The Rangers' lead was still 4-2 when Garcia came to the plate in the eighth inning; following a Carter walk, Bryan Abreu hit Garcia with a pitch; Garcia immediately turned and confronted Maldonado. According to Maldonado, Garcia said to him, "Why like that?"
"Like what?" Maldonado responded. Both benches emptied, with the Astros' Yordan Alvarez and others trying to hold Garcia. The umpires met and decided to eject Garcia and Abreu, and when Baker heard the news, he threw his hat, screaming incredulously, and he, too, was ejected. Briefly, Baker refused to leave the Houston bench. Crew chief James Hoye turned to home plate umpire Marvin Hudson and said, "He won't leave."
Baker did finally leave, after his hat was retrieved for him, and it was his bench coach, Joe Espada, who officially inserted two pinch-hitters, with both waiting near the on-deck circle as Leclerc warmed up for the ninth.
Leclerc had entered the game in the top of the eighth inning, to get one out. And he had to wait through the Garcia incident, through the umpires' meeting, through Baker's ejection and dugout sit-in. A lot of time had passed before Leclerc went out to throw the ninth, and later, Bochy spoke with frustration about how long it took to get action resumed.
"I was concerned about that delay," Bochy said. "I really was. It was a long one. It was taking too long, to be honest. The whole thing is a bunch of crap, to be honest, what happened there. Who knows what intentions are, but it's not the first time it's happened, and couldn't get the game going again."
Leclerc said later, "I'm not used to waiting around that long to pitch again, but it's no excuse. I needed to execute my pitches and do a better job."
Maldonado suggested after the game that perhaps the Astros had been alighted by the eighth-inning scrum. As Diaz and Singleton prepared to hit in the top of the ninth inning, Altuve grabbed an iPad to watch video of his previous plate appearances against Leclerc, just a reminder of Leclerc's delivery, how he released the ball, how he had pitched him in the past. In Altuve's 101st postseason game, there was no need for conversation, any prep.
But Diaz singled and then Singleton, batting for the first time in almost three weeks, calmly waited through six pitches, never swinging and taking a walk. Altuve watched this and said later that the composed plate appearances by the two bench players really helped to calm him, to settle him.
Before the game, Astros third baseman Alex Bregman had marveled at Altuve's strength, and his standing on some of the all-time postseason leaderships. In the team's testing, Altuve has the highest jump, the highest pound-for-pound leg press, and he focuses in the offseason on maintaining his core, partly through disciplined eating habits. Bregman confessed that he enjoys soda. Altuve? Never. Through that ethic, Altuve entered this game with 25 career homers in the postseason, second-most all-time to Manny Ramirez's 29 in the playoffs and World Series. When it comes to the postseason, 5-foot-6 Jose Altuve has a longstanding habit of attacking anything close to the strike zone.
"He's got a slow heartbeat, and he loves big moments. Number one, he wants to be up there. Number two, he's got a high concentration level, because that's what it takes in big moments like that ... I mean, this dude is one of the baddest dudes I've ever seen, and I've seen some great." Astros manager Dusty Baker on Jose Altuve
With an 0-1 count, Leclerc threw him a changeup that was low and inside, and Altuve swung. Leclerc wasn't sure if Altuve's fly to left field would be long enough to clear the fence, because he didn't think Altuve had hit the ball especially hard. But watching from second base, Diaz felt immediately that Altuve's drive to left would clear the fence, because of the relaxed way Altuve followed through, which told him: Altuve knew it was gone.
The second baseman bounced around the bases, as the Astros' dugout erupted in chaotic celebration. When he got back to the dugout, Altuve made eye contact with hitting coach Alex Cintron in the dugout. "Wow," Cintron said. "You are unbelievable."
During this postseason, Altuve has made a point of downplaying his own performance, deflecting inquiries about his hits and place in postseason history like a deft hockey goalie. But in the joyous Houston dugout, among the other players, Altuve's guard dropped in his response to Cintron.
"I've got 26 homers for a reason," Altuve said, a humblebrag reference to his postseason homers. "So clutch," said Bregman.
"He's got a slow heartbeat, and he loves big moments." Baker said, "Number one, he wants to be up there. Number two, he's got a high concentration level, because that's what it takes in big moments like that ... I mean, this dude is one of the baddest dudes I've ever seen, and I've seen some great."
The Astros had the lead, but in this game, a lead meant nothing. Texas opened the bottom of the ninth with a single, and another single. Marcus Semien smashed a line drive toward shortstop, and Grae Kessinger - who had made his first postseason appearance ever in the top of the ninth inning as a pinch-runner for Singleton and was playing shortstop -- leapt into the air and snared the ball.
That was all that was needed to bail out Ryan Pressly, who coaxed Seager into a fly out before striking out rooking Carter, and with that, the Astros collectively exhaled, tumbling out of the dugout. Near second base, Altuve embraced Kessinger, and as all of the Astros came off the field, there was Baker waiting to greet them, hatless, all of them one step closer to becoming the first team to win back-to-back championships since the 1998-2000 Yankees.