“I want to give him credit for being Chris Sale,” Astros manager A.J. Hinch said before Game 1 of the ALDS. “I don’t want to give him credit for being able to get through our lineup very easily, so we’re going to make it tough on him.”
So Astros leadoff hitter George Springer greeted Boston’s ace by trying to ambush his first pitch of the game Thursday. The next batter, third baseman Alex Bregman, fouled off two pitches before cranking a slider over the left-field fence.
“I think he set the tone,” José Altuve said, “the way he got to the dugout and was really happy and excited, and then it was, ‘Hey, I want to hit one, too.’”
So he did. Altuve, the next batter up, arced a 96-mph 0-2 fastball over the Boston bullpen in left center. One first-inning home run was a speed bump. Two? That was a punch in the teeth.
“Any time [Sale] mislocated, particularly in the middle of the plate, they made him pay for it,” said Red Sox manager John Farrell.
It was the first of three solo home runs—one in the first, one in the fifth, and one in the seventh—for the smallest and longest-tenured Astro. On Thursday, Altuve and his teammates keelhauled one of the AL Cy Young frontrunners—Sale lasted five innings and 100 pitches and was charged with seven earned runs in his first playoff start—and put Houston in the driver’s seat in the ALDS with an 8-2 win.
“That was amazing to watch,” said Carlos Correa, who hit one spot behind Altuve in the order. “He made me feel like a leadoff hitter today. With homer after homer, I was hitting with nobody on base. I’m like, ‘I might be the leadoff hitter of this team.’”
After the third homer, Correa asked Altuve if he’d ever had a three in a game before. Altuve said he hadn’t.
“Then you had it at the right time,” Correa said.
Altuve became the first Astro to hit three home runs in any game since Carlos Lee did it in 2007, and just the third player in franchise history, after his teammates Correa and Carlos Beltran, to have a multiple-home run playoff game. It was the first three-homer game in the postseason since Pablo Sandoval hit three in Game 1 of the 2012 World Series.
“I told him the last time I saw three home runs in a game was Pablo Sandoval, and I gave up two of them, so I’m glad there’s somebody new that’s done it,” starting pitcher Justin Verlander said.
Altuve’s home runs didn’t win the game on their own: Seven of Houston’s starting position players recorded hits—four of them more than one—and Marwin González, who went just 1-for-4 but hit a two-out, two-run double in the fourth that broke a 2-2 tie and put Houston up for good, finished with a higher win probability added than Altuve.
But all three home runs were emotionally impactful. The first knocked Sale back on his heels. The second provided insurance against a second Boston counterattack. The third, off rookie reliever Austin Maddox, was the final exclamation point on an emphatic win.
“That’s what he’s done all year for us,” Bregman said. “He’s been a great leader for this team and I’m so proud of him. He deserves the MVP.”
The fans agreed: Through the muddled wall of sound generated by cheering, clapping, and pounding on seats, chants of “MVP! MVP!” rang out throughout the game, culminating with a curtain call after his seventh-inning homer off Maddox.
“Obviously, I was thinking that it feels really good, another run, supporting my team,” Altuve said, “But on the personal side, it’s kind of crazy. I’d never hit three homers, so what happened today is new for me and I’m really happy it happened in a playoff game.”
This game is also the latest exclamation point for a player who, in his first three seasons, was a novelty act, but in the past four has turned into one of the five best position players in the game. Since 2014 he’s won three batting titles, led the AL in stolen bases twice and hits four times, raised his career high in home runs from seven to 24, and produced 26.6 bWAR—third in baseball behind Mike Trout and Josh Donaldson. Altuve finished third in MVP voting last year and is the cofavorite, along with the Yankees’ Aaron Judge, to win it this year. And he’s still only 27.
“I think we can officially call him a run producer,” Hinch said after the game. “He’s the best hitter in the league, and that’s in a league of really, really good hitters.”
The Astros are in prime position to win this series not just because they’re up 1-0, but because they got there by beating Boston’s best pitcher. But they’re not there yet.
“[Bregman’s] homer and my homers don’t count for tomorrow,” Altuve said. “So we’ve got to go out there and try to win again.”
If you believe in momentum, it’s obvious who has it. If you don’t think the Astros have the momentum, no matter—they have Altuve.