Sports

The Astros, and Their Star Player, Get Back on Track

HOUSTON — When Jose Altuve stepped to the plate to start the bottom of the first inning in Game 2 of the World Series on Wednesday night, he was 3 for 29 since the start of the American League Championship Series. That included an 0-for-5 performance in the World Series opener against Atlanta on Tuesday.

There was no hiding the ugliness, not that Altuve would have tried. As the leadoff hitter for a Houston Astros franchise stained by its 2017-2018 cheating scandal, Altuve has learned this season, with fans back in stadiums, that he cannot hide. He has been the primary target of rival fans all year. He can do nothing but keep his head down, take it and keep plowing forward.

So when he plastered a Max Fried fastball into left field for a double in Game 2, and followed that by sending a Drew Smyly fastball over the left-field wall in the seventh inning to punctuate Houston’s 7-2 series-evening win, it was as if the Astros were welcoming back an old friend.

“That’s what professionals do,” Houston manager Dusty Baker said. “When you know you can play, you have to. I mean, you have no choice.

“My dad used to tell me it’s OK to get down. Just don’t stay down. So he didn’t stay down.”

This is Altuve’s sixth postseason, and his third World Series. He is a former winner of the A.L. Most Valuable Player Award (2017) and a seven-time All-Star. He has been an A.L.C.S. M.V.P. (2019) and he has won three batting titles. Altuve knows how to do this.

So when he did regain his balance, it might put his team more at ease than himself.

Altuve and Jose Siri were in a celebratory mood on Wednesday night. Credit…Doug Mills/The New York Times

“He sets a really good example as a teammate,” Houston’s starting pitcher, Jose Urquidy, said through the translator Andrew Dunn-Bauman. “Even when he speaks to us or just watching him play, he sets a really good example and he transmits really great energy and leadership to the team.

“So we just try to absorb as much of that as we can from him.”

Altuve, 31, has been doing this long enough now at this time of year that the seventh-inning homer, his 22nd in the postseason, tied the former Yankee Bernie Williams for second-most in major league history. Only Manny Ramirez (29) has hit more.

“Great hitter, obviously,” Altuve said of Williams. “To hit 22 homers in the playoffs and tie him, always, every time my name is mentioned next to — before it was Derek Jeter, now it is Bernie Williams — it means a lot to me. It makes me keep going out there, hitting homers to help my team, to keep accomplishing things like this.

“As long as we win, everything’s good.”

The Astros certainly do their share of winning, even if their only World Series triumph remains the tarnished one from 2017. In tying the series at 1-1 as it swings to Atlanta for Game 3 on Friday night, the Astros remain in prime position to add another trophy to their display case.

It was a beautiful night in Houston after a vicious thunderstorm accompanied by a tornado warning blew through town Wednesday morning. By the time Altuve banged his leadoff double in the first, it was 73 degrees and the roof at Minute Maid Park was open. The last time that happened in the postseason was in Games 3 and 4 in the 2005 World Series against the Chicago White Sox.

The Astros prefer the roof closed because doing so amplifies the noise its fans generate. But this time, they acquiesced to M.L.B.’s request.

It was different. It was pleasant. And for Altuve and the Astros, it worked.

“We didn’t want to go to Atlanta down by two,” he said. “So we left everything we had in there tonight.”

On a podium for their news conference, Altuve’s teammate, Jose Siri, made a show of removing two gaudy rings and placing them on Altuve’s fingers as the two Astros laughed.

When someone asked what was up, Altuve grinned and said, “He’s just giving me his ring so I can flash, a little flash, bling.”

His evening started with a flash at the plate and ended that way, too. Finally, things felt mostly back to normal in Houston.

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