ARLINGTON, Texas — The igniter isn’t imposing. He stands 5-foot-6, is a shade over 165 pounds and still can place an entire franchise on his shoulders. Jose Altuve can carry the Houston Astros however far they need to go, be it back atop the American League West or to a second consecutive World Series championship.
“He goes, we go,” utilityman Mauricio Dubón said. “That’s how we’ve been. Every time he does it, we’re not surprised, really, but at the same time, it’s unreal what he does. If he goes, we go.”
On Tuesday night, Altuve went. He entered an echelon even he had not yet reached, recording the first three-homer regular-season game of his career. He collected all of them across the first three innings of Houston’s 14-1 annihilation of the Rangers, authoring the sort of awe-inspiring performance this franchise has almost come to expect.
“Our guys knew how big this series was and he carried us — that guy, it seems like there’s never a big moment for him,” veteran catcher Martín Maldonado said. “We were like ‘Oh my God, this guy has three homers before a couple of their guys have an at-bat. What’s going on?’ He’s our main guy. If he goes, we go as a team. That guy is going to be a Hall of Famer and everything you do, you feel like he’s getting better and better, just like the wine.”
Altuve hit three different pitches from two different pitchers, first demonstrating patience during two five-pitch plate appearances against starter Nathan Eovaldi before ambushing a second-pitch cutter from Dane Dunning during the third inning. The baseball traveled 426 feet to straightaway center field, sending Houston’s dugout into a state of delirium.
“He can hit anything. He can hit standing upside down,” third baseman Alex Bregman said. “He can hit. He can flat-out hit.”
Manager Dusty Baker, a man with more than 50 years of service in the sport, could not recall witnessing something similar.
“On PlayStation,” he quipped.
Baker finally mused that “maybe Barry Bonds” had matched Altuve’s exploits. But, no, not even baseball’s home run king accomplished what Altuve did during these two games. According to ESPN, Altuve is the fourth player in major league history to hit three home runs in the first three innings of a game, joining Manny Machado, Mike Cameron and Carl Reynolds.
“That was unbelievable,” Baker said. “He was on the ball. He was on the ball all night.”
Altuve’s was the 17th three-homer regular-season game in Astros history and the first of his career. Altuve did tally three home runs during Game 1 of the 2017 American League Division Series against the Red Sox.
Altuve struck two home runs during Monday’s 13-6 massacre, too, making him the first Astro to ever hit five home runs across a two-game span. His second home run on Monday night arrived in the ninth inning, meaning he homered in four consecutive plate appearances.
“It obviously doesn’t happen very often, but I’m happy it happened, especially in the last month of the season when we’re trying to get to first place (and) stay there,” Altuve said. “Good timing.”
Milestones are piling up for a man trying to make up for lost time. August delivered Altuve’s 2,000th career hit and first career cycle, but the start of September signals the sort of urgency in which Altuve thrives. His 70-game absence earlier this season threatened to set Houston’s season askew.
Houston is averaging 6.26 runs per game since Altuve returned from the injured list on July 26. He is slashing .367/.436/.633 with 21 extra-base hits in those 38 games, propelling the club back to a place it never intends to leave. The Astros exited Tuesday night in sole possession of first place in the American League West for the first time all season.
“Nothing is done yet. Nothing is over,” Altuve said. “We’re competing against really good teams.”
Altuve is making one look miserable all by himself. He now has 10 hits against Texas this season. Seven are home runs. He lifted the fifth pitch of Tuesday’s game into the left field seats. Two months ago, in this same ballpark, Altuve swatted the first pitch of that four-game series into the left field seats. Houston won that game and then two others, loosening Texas’ stranglehold of the American League West.
The Rangers are 26-27 since, slipping from playoff shoo-in to the precipice of an epic collapse. Toronto’s victory against Oakland on Tuesday night pushed the Rangers out of the American League playoff picture entirely. Texas has lost 14 of its past 18 games, succumbing under the weight of a wretched bullpen, a top-heavy lineup regressing to its mean and, this week, a Houston offense executing at a level few can comprehend.
Domination does not begin to describe what Altuve and the Astros have demonstrated here across two days. Their lineup scored 27 runs and launched 11 homers. Altuve has five of them. In the Rangers’ 63-season history, not once had they ever surrendered 11 home runs in a two-game span.
Houston’s nine-hole hitters — Dubón on Monday and Maldonado on Tuesday — each struck two home runs apiece. Texas asked backup catcher Austin Hedges to pitch the ninth inning of both games. Both of his outings were scoreless, something none of his teammates paid to pitch could produce on either night.
“It’s obviously amazing,” Altuve said of his performance and the outcomes. “It’s a good thing to do, especially in the situation we are (in) right now, trying to get (into) first place, trying to win the division. It’s good.”
Texas demonstrated its desperation to dethrone its in-state rival with Tuesday’s pitching decision. Eovaldi ended his 33-game stint on the injured list without a minor-league rehab assignment and with a task to tame Houston’s offense.
Eovaldi collected four outs. Houston’s lineup whiffed once on the 16 swings it took against him. Just two of his pitches touched 95 mph. Altuve saw both of them during his first at-bat. The second sailed in the strike zone, bringing the count to 3-1. Eovaldi returned with another, this time at 94.9 mph. Altuve sent it 406 feet away into the left-field seats.
“He’s our igniter,” Baker said. “He ignites our offense.”
And off it went.
(Top photo: Ron Jenkins / Getty Images)