ARLINGTON, Texas – The run didn’t matter at all. How often can you say that? And in the postseason, no less!
Because while racking up runs is nice, the objective is just to win the game. And by the time Jose Altuve stepped to the plate in the top of the eighth inning Thursday, the Houston Astros had already won Game 3 of the ALCS — pretty much, anyway. It was 9-3, the Rangers’ limited supply of overpowering starters had been exposed by the longer series, and the bullpen’s regular-season woes were starting to catch up to them.
Either that, or the Astros in October are simply inevitable.
So while we waited for the outs on the other side to run out, Altuve batted. On the first pitch of the inning, the veteran — who was limited by injuries to 90 games this season and was held hitless in the first two games of this series — smacked a curveball toward the left-field wall. At 109.5 mph off the bat, it traveled 371 feet. In 24 of the 30 major-league ballparks, it would’ve been a home run. In Globe Life Field, it was initially called a home run. 10-3 Astros.
“It was close,” his teammate of eight years, Alex Bregman, said afterward. “Definitely hoping for it.”
On review, the call was overturned, the Astros’ lead cut back down to six runs. Altuve returned to second base with merely a double to add to what was ultimately a 3-for-4 night.
But it would’ve been pretty cool if it had been a home run because the game was Altuve’s 100th in the postseason. Earlier this month, he moved into the top-10 all-time list. He’s currently seventh; sixth place is just four games away. There are no other active players in the top 10.
This is a testament to how unstoppable, how almost automatic, the Astros have been in recent years.
When Altuve debuted in 2011, the team lost 106 games. When he was named to his first All-Star Game the following year, they lost 107. A year after that, 111 losses. It took a little while for the most successful tank-to-rebuild in sports to come to full fruition. Then, in 2017, Altuve won MVP, and the Astros won the World Series, and though we didn’t know it yet, that success only served to cement their future status as villains of the sport.
Now, Altuve and the Astros have made seven straight ALCS appearances, covering four pennants and two championships. And he has played in 100 highest-stakes games along the way. There are so many benchmarks and records and unprecedented accomplishments that better capture the true talent of a particular player. As an industry, we can quantify holistic value and assign it an easily ranked number. But those are all means to an end. Altuve has what every other major-league player wants. Ask all of them on Opening Day: They don’t want to be the best. They want to play in the postseason.
To say Altuve and the Astros have a symbiotic relationship is a tautology. He has played so much in October because Houston has been so good; the team is better when he is productive. And so, the 100 games are both the cause and the effect of another neat, little note: Altuve is second to only Manny Ramirez in career postseason home runs. Ramirez has 29, Altuve 25. So you see, another one to his name would’ve made Thursday’s game even more memorable.
If the ball had gone out, Altuve might have wanted it back as a keepsake. Instead, he said he might pull the jersey out of rotation, make it a memento — well, the jersey and the wisdom that comes with having more postseason experience than anyone the Astros will go up against.
The Rangers had rolled through the postseason without a loss when they arrived in Houston to face the division rivals who forced them out of the top spot on the final day of the regular season. Through the first two games of the ALCS, it looked like Houston had simply run into a team too talented — or at least too hot — to succumb to the Astros’ pennant expectations. But maybe all those years of being hated have taught the Houston players to thrive in hostile environments. They had a better record on the road than at home in the regular season, and nowhere do they hit like they have in Arlington.
Here is another moment in the game that is both exposition and metaphor, substance and simile: Dane Dunning walked nine-hole hitter Martín Maldonado to lead off the fourth. In the version of the story that centers the Rangers’ failures, this is a big one. Next, Altuve walked, and Mauricio Dubón singled. Even after Bregman struck out, that meant the bases were loaded for Yordan Alvarez. Cue the ominous music.
The Astros had chased starter Andrew Heaney in the first inning, scoring three runs on the first 10 pitches of the game. But by the fourth, the Rangers had tied it up, a whole new ballgame. Alvarez was just the man to change that. His 1.148 slugging percentage coming into the game is an all-time high for a single postseason. He has already homered six times this October. And with the bases loaded, there was nowhere to put him. The new pitcher, Cody Bradford, would have to go after him.
Naturally, Alvarez hit a ball 110.7 mph and 401 feet. A home run in 17 ballparks, but Globe Life Field is not one of them. It was caught on the warning track, a 401-foot sac fly. When you’re facing Yordan Alvarez with the bases loaded, one run surrendered counts as a success, a chance to exhale.
The next batter, José Abreu, hit a three-run home run.
The Houston Astros, folks: Just when you think you’ve gotten the better of them … no, you haven’t.
That must be how the Rangers are feeling right now. After going up 2-0 in the series, they suddenly find themselves facing what is effectively a best-of-three situation with only one game at home. Historically, teams that win the first two games of a seven-game series win the series 84% of the time. In other words, there was just a 16% chance for the Astros when they arrived in Arlington.
Altuve was unequivocal that his perspective at that point would’ve been different if not for all his postseason experience.
“Yeah, absolutely,” he said. The past 100 postseason games have taught him a valuable lesson about life in October: “That in the playoffs, a lot of things can happen.”
OK, maybe that’s not the most earth-shattering insight. But what sounds like a cliche when given as a quote could make all the difference if the player and the team can truly embody it.
Back in the eighth inning, Altuve stood at second base after his homer was reversed. Two batters later, Alvarez drove him in with a single. Final score on the night: 10-3 Astros.
It wasn’t a home run for his ledger, but it counted the same for the team.