Passan: Self-doubt? There’s still no stopping Jose Altuve in October

HOUSTON — First basemen across the American League couldn’t believe what they were hearing this summer as the Houston Astros cruised toward the MLB playoffs. Jose Altuve, one of the great hitters of his generation — of any generation — would rap a single and cruise around the bag. As the ball made its way back to the pitcher, Altuve would strike up a conversation that left myriad first basemen incredulous.

“It’s really good to be here,” he told one.

“I’m getting old, papi,” he told another.

Altuve, 29, wasn’t sandbagging. This is how he thinks. Perpetually pessimistic, professionally defeatist, Altuve believed — truly, honestly, earnestly believed — that even in the midst of another brilliant year, he was ever teetering, on the cusp of losing his swing.

He wasn’t. Altuve is an expert Weeble: prone to a wobble, never falling down. He reinforced this reality Friday in Game 1 of the American League Division Series, hammering a two-run home run on a chest-high, 98 mph fastball from Tampa Bay Rays starter Tyler Glasnow and igniting the Astros’ offense in a 6-2 victory in the best-of-five series.

Every player develops a process to cope with the vagaries of a game in which failure is omnipresent, circling like a vulture, though Altuve’s verges on excessive. Years of excellence, of 200-hit seasons and batting titles and ownership of pitchers around the game, disappear as though the sum of his experience is a Thanos finger snap away from being replaced by doubt, worry, fear, a witch’s brew of ruin.

“Especially this year,” Altuve told ESPN following Game 1. “We all know how I started the season. Every time I got on base, I told the first baseman I’m really happy I’m here and that I got a hit.”

The first basemen rolled their eyes, shook their heads and thought to themselves: If Jose Altuve thinks he’s awful, I’d hate to know what he thinks of me. Of course, they’re used to it. The first-base bag is baseball’s psychologist’s couch, a place where one’s deepest and darkest feelings of self-doubt reveal themselves. Manny Ramirez, one of the most talented right-handed hitters ever, constantly unburdened himself there. Once, a longtime first baseman said, Ramirez arrived at the bag and let out a deep breath.

“I thought I lost my hands,” Ramirez said.

Later in the game, he made his way to first again.

“I think I found ’em,” Ramirez said.

Another single later, he was certain.

“I found ’em,” Ramirez said. “They were in Australia.”

Wherever Altuve thought he left his swing, he has found it at the right time. It’s not that the Astros need him to be classic Jose Altuve to win, of course; their lineup is as deep as it is dangerous. Still, Glasnow had twirled four delightful innings, vacillating between his frightening fastball and hammer curve to great effect.

Altuve feebly flied out to right in his first at-bat and popped out to shortstop in his second. In the bottom of the fifth, with Astros starter Justin Verlander matching Glasnow zero for zero, Altuve fouled off a first-pitch fastball and took a second for a ball. Glasnow went back to the fastball a third time and executed the exact pitch he wanted: top of the strike zone, 98 with cut, the sort of pitch through which lesser hitters swing.

“But it’s Jose Altuve,” Rays manager Kevin Cash said.

It was, Altuve said, “the only good swing of the game I had.” He picked the right time to unleash it and send the crowd of 43,360 at Minute Maid Park into a tizzy. The ball skied toward the Crawford Boxes in left field for his ninth career playoff home run and third in ALDS Game 1s, following three in 2017 and another last year. Whatever Altuve’s doubts were midseason, he came into Game 1 feeling better about himself, telling shortstop Carlos Correa that he expected to homer Friday because he always does in the first game of the postseason.

This herculean version of Altuve isn’t exactly shocking. Coming off right-knee surgery in the offseason, Altuve struggled to find a rhythm through the season’s first six weeks and hit the injured list with a straight left hamstring. Lower-body weakness plagued him and sidelined Altuve for more than five weeks. Upon his return, he looked like classic Altuve, and after the All-Star break he morphed into something entirely different: a dangerous power hitter again, with 21 home runs in 68 games and a .622 slugging percentage.

“My confidence is back right now,” he said. “I finished the second half strong. I played the way I play.”

Which includes the requisite insecurity. In a lineup with MVP candidate Alex Bregman and arguably the best hitter in the AL this year, Yordan Alvarez, not to mention George Springer and Michael Brantley and Yuli Gurriel and Carlos Correa, it’s easy to engage in a bit of comparative self-loathing.

“Every day,” Astros outfielder Josh Reddick said. “He could be Player of the Week, 10 for his last 12, go 0-for-3 in a game, get an infield single in the eighth and look at me and go, ‘Papi, I needed that.’ No, you didn’t. You didn’t need that. I mean, we need every one of ’em, but you? You don’t need that.”

Both Altuve and the Astros needed it in Game 1. The home run chased Glasnow and gave Verlander, who threw seven one-hit innings, enough of a cushion until the rest of the lineup woke up. It served as a reminder, too, that for all of the depth in the Astros’ lineup, Altuve — who wound up hitting .298/.353/.550 with a career-best 31 home runs — remains an integral cog in their offensive machine.

“It’s hard for Jose Altuve to be underrated, given that he’s got hardware,” Astros manager AJ Hinch said. “He’s got an MVP. He’s got batting titles. He’s got a ring. He’s got Silver Sluggers for every family member. He’s got a Gold Glove. He’s done almost everything you can in the game. But he had an underrated year.”

He’ll take that. What makes these Astros so great, Altuve said, is that amid their individual brilliance, the focus is on the team making its 2017 championship the beginning of something dynastic and not just a one-off. Altuve will forever be at the apex of that season’s highlight reel, scooping up a ground ball and firing to first for the final out of the World Series. It was poetic, the guy who weathered three 100-plus-loss seasons putting the bow on a rebuild gone so right.

Altuve is still here, still one of the Astros’ key players, still their heartbeat. Someday, he’s going to slow down. The hits will come less frequently. The triumphs will be fewer and farther between. For now, though, any talk of that isn’t just premature but laughable. Sorry, pitchers: Jose Altuve has found his hands. They weren’t in Australia, either. They were there the whole time.

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