Altuve poised to break out as Astros host Yankees in ALCS

HOUSTON (AP) — Jose Altuve, Houston’s diminutive superstar, has long been a postseason powerhouse.

But Altuve has been a non-factor at the plate since the playoffs began. The Astros hope he finds his stroke when they return to the AL Championship Series for a sixth straight year and host the New York Yankees in Game 1 Wednesday night.

The three-time batting champion and 2017 AL MVP went 0 for 16 in Houston’s three-game sweep of the Seattle Mariners in the AL Division Series. Altuve, the team’s leadoff hitter, was 0 for 8 in Game 3 before rookie Jeremy Pena’s homer in the 18th inning lifted the Astros to the 1-0 win.

Concerning, sure, but with a playoff resume as sparkling as Altuve’s, everyone is certain that his slump will be short-lived. The diminutive second baseman hit .300 with 28 homers and 57 RBIs in the regular season.

“This guy’s been good for a long time,” manager Dusty Baker said. “Sometimes it’s not always up. Sometimes, no matter how great you are, sometimes there are down times … but I’m expecting big things out of Altuve. Because he expects big things out of himself.”

While Altuve would certainly like to do more at the plate, he’s more focused on how the team is doing overall than his individual results.

“I’m always that kind of guy to stay positive, calm, no matter what the situation,” he said. “I like to go out there and play my game, regardless the result… (but) we won three games and we’re ready for the ALCS and that’s what we play for.”

The good news for the Astros is that they swept a series despite Altuve’s struggles. Yankees ace Gerrit Cole, who helped Houston to the 2019 World Series before signing a $324 million contract with the Yankees, knows better than most just how deep of a lineup the Astros have.

“They’re just really good and they find ways to win even if they’re not performing at their best,” he said. “I don’t know how many hits Jose (Altuve) got in that three-game series but all of sudden he showed up with the glove and he was making nasty defensive plays … it’s funny, when they’re all clicking they’re great. When they’re not all clicking, they’re great.”

In 17 playoff series over seven years, Altuve has hit .272 with 23 homers and 49 RBIs. He homered three times — twice off Chris Sale — to lead Houston to an 8-2 win over the Boston Red Sox in Game 1 of the ALDS in 2017.

But his biggest postseason home run, and perhaps one of the most memorable homers in playoff history, came against the Yankees. Game 6 of the 2019 ALCS was tied at 4 with two outs in the bottom of the ninth when Altuve connected off Aroldis Chapman on a two-run shot to send Houston to the World Series.

Altuve was chosen as the MVP for his heroics in that series where he finished with two homers, a double and three RBIs.

That was the second time the Astros beat the Yankees in the ALCS, with the first coming in 2017 when they went on to win their only World Series. It was a title that has since been tainted after the Astros were found to have illicitly stolen signs that season.

The Yankees head to Houston with no time to savor their ALDS win after beating Cleveland 5-1 in Game 5 Tuesday in a game that was delayed a day because of rain.

The series will feature the top two teams in the AL in the 106-win Astros and the 99-win Yankees which seemed to be on a collision course for this ALCS rematch all season. Houston won the regular-season series 5-2 but that will have little bearing on this matchup where the AL East champion Yankees will vie for their 28th title and first since 2009.

“The challenge is we’re facing a great team,” New York manager Aaron Boone said. “As far as the quick turnaround, we’ll be fine. That’s baseball. We do that all the time. We’ll walk in there with some confidence. We know they are great team and rested and ready. We look forward to the challenge.”

FOR STARTERS

Houston’s Justin Verlander will oppose Jameson Taillon in the series opener. Verlander, who is the favorite to win his third Cy Young Award this season, will look to bounce back after a terrible start in Game 1 of the division series.

The 39-year-old allowed a playoff career-high 10 hits with six earned runs, which tied his most for a postseason game, in just four innings before Yordan Alvarez’s three-run homer with two outs in the ninth allowed Houston to rally for an 8-7 win.

Verlander said he hasn’t felt as consistent as he did earlier this season since coming back from a calf injury that landed him on the injured list in early September. He said he’s been working hard to get back to where he was before the injury but wouldn’t provide many details on what that work entailed.

“Hopefully after the last one, I really think I identified some stuff that was kind of the key component,” he said. “It’s just kind of deep mechanical stuff that I really probably shouldn’t really go too far into.”

Baker has no doubt that Verlander will be much better Wednesday in what will be his 32nd career playoff start that he was last time out.

“This guy he knows what it takes,” Baker said. “So, we’re not worried about Justin. It can happen to anybody. I don’t care how great you are or what your track record says, that’s why you play the game. So, we anticipate Justin to come out and throw a great game.”

Taillon got the loss in Game 2 of the ALDS when he made his first big league relief appearance after 143 starts. He allowed three hits and two runs without getting an out in his playoff debut.

POWER SURGE

This series will feature two of the top home run hitters in the AL in New York’s Aaron Judge and Alvarez. Judge set the AL record by slugging 62 homers in the regular season.

Alvarez was quite a way behind Judge with a career-high 37 long balls in the regular season, which ranked third in the AL.

But the two are tied this postseason with two homers apiece.

Along with his huge swing in Game 1 of the ALDS, Alvarez added a two-run shot that put Houston on top in a 4-2 win in Game 2.

Judge had a two-run shot in New York’s loss in Game 3 and added a solo homer in Tuesday’s victory.

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