How Jose Altuve went from playoff tears in 2015 to a record three home runs in 2017

·MLB columnist

HOUSTON – After his last postseason game, Jose Altuve walked into his manager’s office and started to cry. He had lived through a 106-loss season, then a 107-loss season, then a 111-loss season, all to get to this point, in 2015, where the Houston Astros were finally winners. And over five playoff games against Kansas City, he managed three hits, all of them singles, and he told Astros manger A.J. Hinch: This is my fault. It wasn’t. Baseball doesn’t work that way. Altuve couldn’t be convinced otherwise.

It was funny, then, to hear Altuve on Thursday after he celebrated his return to the postseason with three hits, all of them home runs. Someone asked about 2015, and he said, “I forgot about those playoffs already,” which amused those who know him well, because Jose Altuve does a lot of things. Forget is not one of them.

He wears every failure, banks every slight and transmogrifies what he isn’t into what he wants to be. And those tears and those apologies and those moments and those losses each led to Game 1 of the American League Division Series, to a 96-mph fastball just below the letters and a 95-mph fastball at the belt and an 83-mph changeup so center-cut and fat it might as well have been called wagyu, to 1,206 feet of home runs, to an 8-2 Astros victory over the Boston Red Sox and their ace, Chris Sale.

Jose Altuve joined Babe Ruth, Reggie Jackson, George Brett, Albert Pujols and a handful of others as the only players to hit three home runs in a postseason game. (AP)
Jose Altuve joined Babe Ruth, Reggie Jackson, George Brett, Albert Pujols and a handful of others as the only players to hit three home runs in a postseason game. (AP)

Altuve’s first two home runs came against Sale. “I hit one and I was like, ‘Wow,’ ” Altuve said. “And the second one is like, ‘Wow, what’s going on here?’ ” And then, with Sale departed after the Astros tattooed him for seven runs and six extra-base hits, with rookie Austin Maddox on the mound, Altuve joined Babe Ruth, Reggie Jackson, George Brett, Albert Pujols and a handful of others as the only players ever to hit three home runs in a postseason game, parking the last one atop the train tracks in left field, a majestic shot that fought gravity as long as it could.

Following that one, Altuve thought to himself: “I got to wake up.” Never had he hit three home runs in a game. He didn’t hit more than three home runs in a season his first three years in the minor leagues.

“Honestly, it was like he hadn’t hit puberty yet,” said Dallas Keuchel, the Astros’ Game 2 starter, who played with Altuve in short-season A ball that third year in 2009. “He sounded like a girl. But you could tell he was still a ballplayer.”

The Astros saw enough in Altuve to overlook his size – he is listed at 5-foot-6 but in reality an inch shorter – and sign him for $15,000 as a 16-year-old. And no matter how much scouts liked him and his bat-to-ball skills and his ability to make size seem like a non-issue, never did any imagine that over the next 11 years he would blossom into a three-time AL batting champion or MVP frontrunner or the sort of player who ruins the postseason debut of one of the world’s best pitchers.

“He’s a joke,” Astros center fielder George Springer said, and he wanted to emphasize: Those are the words he used after Altuve’s third home run. Springer has seen 200 hits a year for the past four seasons, and he has seen Altuve jump from seven home runs to 15 to 24 each of the last two years, and he has seen so much that he knows he shouldn’t be surprised anymore. “He’s a guy that can do whatever he wants,” Springer said. “He says he’s going to do something, and he does it. We just expect him to get a hit every time. That’s what he does. When he doesn’t get a hit, you’re like, ‘Let’s fix Altuve.’”

And yet for everything Springer and the rest of the Astros know about Altuve, the world still doesn’t understand the obsessiveness with which he approaches his craft. Every year, Altuve enters the season looking to check off another weakness, to take whatever piece of him remains the slightest bit oblong and round it out. This year, it was breaking balls. For his career, Altuve wasn’t hitting .300 against breaking balls, and sliders in particular vexed him, even as he grew into one of the game’s best hitters. “He will obsess about it,” Hinch said. “He’s never satisfied with his production.”

This season, according to Brooks Baseball, Altuve hit .331 against sliders and .413 against curveballs. Scroll through his season splits for an endless supply of raised eyebrows. Here’s a beaut: If Altuve puts a ball in play before the pitcher gets to two strikes, he’s hitting .446/.497/.739. Well over half of his plate appearances ended before the second strike.

“The times of him being called a good hitter or talking about his size or him being some underdog story are over,” Hinch said. “This is one of the most productive hitters in the big leagues. He’s doing things you just don’t see.”

Games like Thursday’s only bolster the notion that at 27 years old, Altuve is fast-tracking himself into Hall of Fame consideration. Justin Verlander, the Astros starter who outpitched Sale in Game 1, offered what he believed to be the ultimate compliment a little more than a month after joining Houston in a trade: “Playing against him I knew how great he was, but playing with him he’s even better.” He sees everything: the training, the preparation, the studying. Even what Altuve does when he could be celebrating himself.

Following a curtain call during which M-V-P chants deluged him, Altuve slipped back into the dugout and started chatting up Hinch. It’s 8-2, Altuve said. How are you planning on using the bullpen? And if this hypothetical happens to materialize, what’s the right move? And on and on went Jose Altuve, who had just hit his third home run in a playoff game, uttering not a single word about any of those home runs.

“My homers,” he would later say, “don’t count for tomorrow.”

No they don’t. They get locked in the box of the past and saved for those who care to look back. Altuve’s myopia goes in only one direction, and it’s to what’s next, to Game 2 of the division series on Friday, then to Game 3, then hopefully to another Game 1, wherever it may be, and then to a third Game 1, he trusts, and then to him going into his manager’s office with tears in his eyes again, this time born of something different altogether. The Astros won 101 games this season and feel like they’ve got 11 more October victories in them, and whatever they do, Altuve will find himself right in the middle, deflecting the glory or absorbing the blame, and never, ever forgetting.