Big Little Kid on Astros’ Block

Justin Verlander was an eyewitness to the last time anyone hit three out in a single postseason game. Matter of fact, he was the victim twice, when he was a Tiger and Pablo Sandoval was a still-productive Giant. Kung Fu Panda's three bombs in Game 1 of the 2012 World Series launched the Giants to a Series sweep.

Verlander thinks it's far more fun to be just the eyewitness. Especially when he's the beneficiary, as he was in Game 1 of his Astros' American League division series against the Red Sox. And, perhaps even more, when it's Jose Altuve hitting the three.

"I told him the last time I've seen three home runs in a game was Pablo Sandoval and I gave up two of them," Verlander said after the 8-2 win, "so I'm glad there's somebody new that's done it."

Altuve, the Tom Thumb of the Show, blasted two onto the left field pavilion at Minute Maid Park off Red Sox starter Chris Sale in the first — right after teammate Alex Bregman hit one into the porch seats nearby — and the fifth. In the seventh, he met Red Sox reliever Austin Maddox and drove one so far above the pavilion you thought for a moment that only the closed retractable roof kept it from landing in the street behind the ballpark.

"Hey kids," tweeted former pitcher Ryan Dempster, who kept Altuve to 2-for-8 with a double and two runs batted in when facing him before he retired, "don't ever let anyone tell you that that you are too small to chase your dreams, not big enough to play with the big kids."

Right now Altuve's the biggest little kid on the Astros' block. He's too modest to say it and he insists it's no big deal. "As soon as I cross the white line," he said after the game, "I feel the same size as everyone else."

Tell that to teammate George Springer, who didn't seem to mind taking the three punch-out collar in Game 1 so long as he got to watch Altuve channel his inner Reggie Jackson. "He makes sure he stays on top of his gym routine," Springer crowed, "whatever it is. The dude is just a joke."

Incidentally, Verlander had a pretty decent day himself. He may not be the classic Verlander anymore, but he kept the Red Sox to a pair of runs on six hits with three punch-outs despite 2 walks in 6 innings' work. He hasn't lost as an Astro yet. But who the hell needed him? This was Altuve's postseason coming out party.

"I think we can officially call him a 'run producer'," Verlander deadpanned. "He gets so many hits that I think some of his run production gets cast aside a little bit. But he's the best hitter in the league, and that's in a league of really, really good hitters."

The last Astro to leave the yard three times in any game was Carlos Lee in 2007 ... during the regular season. Altuve may be calmly aware of his own talent, but the coding for hitting three out in a postseason game seemed not to have been programmed into his software.

He hardly seemed to mind that teammate Marwin (the Magician) Gonzalez put the Astros up for keeps with a two-run double that busted a two-all tie in the fourth.

"I hit one and I was like: 'Wow.' And the second one is like, 'Wow, what's going on here?'" he said.

So what about numero three-o, Jose? "I got to wake up," he grinned. Don't you dare, you could hear assorted Astros thinking to themselves.

Altuve is one of the few current Astros who has survived the franchise's arduous ground-up rebuild. Right now he's not just a survivor, he's close enough to a savior.

"How good is Jose Altuve?" asks manager A.J. Hinch. "It's incredible to watch him step up and be every bit the star that we needed today for sure. It's hard to describe in different ways."

It may be harder for the Red Sox to describe Altuve's mayhem after a day on which Chris Sale was lucky to pitch into the sixth inning and the Red Sox may have been lucky to pry a couple of runs out of Verlander, whose resurgence since his trade from the Tigers seems miraculous enough in its own right.

Sale's slider could have been slapped with away without leave charges, his fastball had its moments but not its movements, and the Astros got to the point where it looked as though they were using him for batting practice ahead of facing Drew Pomerantz in Game 2.

"Anytime he mislocated, particularly in the middle of the plate," said Red Sox manager John Farrell, "they made him pay for it. And then his slider was hit and miss today. Some were flat, some had good depth, but the inconsistency to the location pitch to pitch is a difference in this one against a team that makes you pay."

"I just never really gave my team a chance to win today," Sale lamented. "Put [us] in a hole early. They fought back and they fought back hard and I gave it right back to them. It happens, a terrible time for it to happen."

Things started disastrously right out of the chute for the Red Sox. Designated hitter Eduardo Nunez went down to his bothersome knee after running out a grounder and then out of the game. He came out of the game in favor of Hanley Ramirez, and the Red Sox said if the knee continues to bother Nunez they'll pull him from the roster in favour of Chris Young.

That might be easier for the Red Sox to solve than Altuve was in Game 1.

"The more you get to know him," said Game 2's scheduled Astros starter Dallas Keuchel, to Bleacher Report, "the greater you think he is. Because it's not just about his MVP-type talent. He's a leader in the clubhouse. He's a guy who can make you laugh at any point in time. He loves music; he's always singing and dancing."

For a guy who practically had to plead his way into an Astros tryout after several other teams turned him down because they didn't think he was big enough, Altuve just might be the biggest thing in an Astros uniform since ... your guess is as good as mine.

Three Hall of Famers — Jeff Bagwell, Craig Biggio, and Nolan Ryan — were in the audience for Altuve's version of "Three to Get Ready." All three could only be impressed. Altuve was almost the least impressed man in the house.

Ask around the Astros and you'll discover he's still the kid who sometimes can't grok that players might go three days without a hit when he frets that he's gone three at-bats without one. On Thursday, that was the least of the problems for the American League batting champion and the biggest of a pocketful of Red Sox headaches.

"To be honest with you," Altuve said, "I already forgot about my batting title. This is a new season for me." Long as he doesn't forget how to hit, the Astros are thrilled.

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