Bobby Thomson. Bill Mazeroski. Chris Chambliss. Joe Carter. Aaron Boone. Magglio Ordóñez. Travis Ishikawa. Before Saturday night, only those seven men had reached or won a World Series with a walkoff home run, so each name immediately conjures a memory or vision of a specific swing of the bat. Mazeroski lofted a high, black-and-white fly ball to left. Chambliss tomahawked a homer and met a mob on the basepaths. Carter golfed a line drive and danced all the way home. Such is the material of baseball lore and eternal highlight reels.
An eighth player now belongs on that list, and in the future, if the name “José Altuve” doesn’t immediately inspire the thought of his perfect, pennant-winning swing—bat coiling through the zone, legs pivoting to the pull side, hung slider caroming toward the Minute Maid Park train tracks or, more accurately, the heavens above Houston’s roaring crowd—it will only be because the Astros second baseman is already a franchise legend with copious playoff memories to his name.
Let’s set the stage for Saturday’s heroics. Leading the ALCS 3-2, back home with two chances to reach their second World Series in three seasons, the Astros struck early and seemed set to advance on their first attempt. In the first inning, Yuli Gurriel lasered an up-and-in Chad Green fastball into the Crawford Boxes to give Houston a 3-0 lead, and the Astros maintained the advantage for the next four hours. But in the top of the ninth inning, at the end of a 10-pitch at-bat, DJ LeMahieu snuck a Roberto Osuna cutter into the stands to tie the score at four runs apiece.
Viewed from a wide angle, Houston still retained the series advantage, up a game with ace Gerrit Cole prepared to pitch Game 7 if necessary. But in the moment, there’s not much worse for a home crowd than to lose a pennant-winning lead with two outs to go, and Houston had already exhausted all its best relief options. If Yankees closer Aroldis Chapman could merely prevent Houston from scoring in the bottom of the ninth inning, then the Yankees would gain the upper hand in extras. Chapman retired the first two batters he faced but lost the strike zone against George Springer, who drew a walk. Enter Altuve.
Even before facing a single Chapman pitch on Saturday—even before starting this season, or last—Altuve already held a special place in franchise history. He’s the longest-tenured current Astro, the lone remnant of the pre-tank period when the team was terrible not because of an intentional roster-building strategy, but because it was just bad in run-of-the-mill baseball fashion.
After four seasons in the minor leagues, during which time he was never ranked as one of the Astros’ top 10 prospects, Altuve debuted in the majors in 2011. He’s been in Houston long enough to bridge multiple generations of the team; he batted second in the lineup, ahead of Hunter Pence and Carlos Lee, and took his first MLB swings against Liván Hernández. And though he was young and fast and could handle a bat, he was also famously, and generously, 5-foot-6, and possessed little power accordingly.
Altuve was an All-Star by 2012 and a downballot MVP candidate by 2014, but even as he won his first batting average title, nobody would have imagined he could possibly hit a walkoff home run one day. It wasn’t until the next season that Altuve reached double-digit home runs, and it wasn’t until 2017, when he was named AL MVP, that he bashed one in the playoffs.
Once the dam opened, though, a flood swept through the Astros’ home field. Altuve homered three times in Game 1 of the 2017 ALDS—two off Chris Sale—and followed that effort with crucial homers in Games 6 and 7 of the Astros’ first ALCS romp against New York. He also tore a path around the bases to score the game-winning run on Carlos Correa’s double in Game 2. Against the Dodgers in that season’s World Series, he found two more clutch spots to go yard: first, to break a tie in the 10th inning of Game 2, and second, to tie the score in the fifth inning of the rollercoaster Game 5. That latter blast, a three-run job off Kenta Maeda, headed toward almost the same spot as his homer against Chapman Saturday.
But we’re not at Saturday yet—Altuve had more postseason homers to come. In this year’s ALDS, most notably, he hit the go-ahead homer against Tyler Glasnow in Game 1, plus another home run apiece in Games 3 and 5, and in the ALCS against New York, he opened the scoring in a Game 3 win with yet another homer. Overall, entering Saturday’s Game 6, he had homered 12 times in his postseason career, one behind teammate Springer for the franchise record, and it’s difficult to say which came to mind first upon encountering the phrase “José Altuve playoff homer.” So many were memorable for their moment and majestic for their flight pattern; so many came at home, with the same camera shot toward the brickwork in left field and advertisement facades in left center, with the same heightened hollers reverberating inside the roofed stadium.
The Astros win the pennant! The Astros win the pennant! pic.twitter.com/iNRu1Eai89— MLB (@MLB) October 20, 2019
Altuve’s pennant-winning home run stands out, even though the swing to connect with the 2-1 pitch was the same as ever, the diminutive infielder generating extraordinary power with his crouched legs and quick hands. The atmosphere was the same, as was the blasé trot around the bases after the ball met brick 407 feet away, as were the cannon blasts that soundtracked his approach toward home plate. But this time, Joe Buck’s voice rose into atypical crescendo—“ALTUVE … HAS JUST SENT THE ASTROS … TO THE WORLD SERIES”—and this time, confetti streamed from the rafters, obscuring the cameras as he rounded the bases. This time, the other Astros welcomed the conquering hero as he reached the plate, disappearing into the crowd of titans he calls teammates.
The smallest of the bunch emerged, eventually, from the mob, jersey jostled free from his belt, finally allowing a beaming smile to spread from ear to ear. Manager A.J. Hinch came over for a hug, then Correa, then Springer. Justin Verlander lifted Altuve in his arms, and the home run hitter raised his right arm toward the sky. He could have been tracing the trajectory of his most recent batted ball—in which case, he needn’t have bothered. Nobody present will ever forget just how that homer soared. A pennant-winning walkoff home run is not just an Astros memory; it’s a part of MLB lore forevermore.