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José Altuve Has Found The Range

José Altuve celebrates after a home run.
Photo by Ron Jenkins/Getty Images

Vile skittering gremlin José Altuve of the Houston Astros is suddenly the hottest player in baseball. Jokes about cheating are welcome here. I am old enough to remember a late summer Astros run when a hot-hitting Altuve was so elated after socking a game-winning dinger that his first thought as he approached home plate was to warn his celebrating teammates not to remove his jersey for any reason. The most that I am willing to say in Altuve's defense during this ongoing torrid stretch is that so far none of it appears to be aided by any illicitly repurposed dugout equipment. Probably Altuve is just the rare 5-foot-6 second baseman who experiences a totally natural power surge during the nail-biter of a second-half divisional race in his age-33 season, and hits one-third of his season total for home runs inside a streak of six plate-appearances, starting one week after his team falls to third place for the first time since mid-June.

The Astros are in Arlington for three games against the Rangers, with whom they were tied in the standings at the start of the series. Altuve, who entered the game having amassed just one hit in 15 plate appearances over Houston's last four games, put the Astros on the board in the fifth inning when he came around following an infield single. In the sixth, immediate following a game-tying Mauricio Dubón dinger, Altuve smoked a hanging slider to left for a big 429-foot go-ahead solo home run. The Rangers tied it up in the bottom of the inning, but the flood gates opened in the seventh, and by the time Altuve came up to bat in the ninth the Astros were up 12–5. Dubón had just ripped a ball the other way for his second solo homer of the night. Altuve took a mighty rip at a 2–1 fastball and smoked it out to center, over the wall in the deepest part of the park. He finished the game 4–6 with the pair of dingers, and his batting average jumped nine points, and the Astros won, 13–6.

Tuesday Altuve was mauling from the first inning. He crushed Nathan Eovaldi's fifth pitch of the game into the stands in left, and then in the second inning he crushed Eovaldi's 35th and final pitch over the wall in left center, to put the Astros up 4–0. Dane Dunning came on to pitch, the Astros kept hitting, and when Altuve came up again in the third inning Houston was already up eight runs. Dunning had just given up a two-run dinger to Martín Maldonado. His 0–1 pitch to Altuve was a cutter up and away, and Altuve clobbered it to straightaway center for his third home run of the game, fourth in four consecutive at-bats, and fifth in six plate appearances. He became the first professional player since 1894 to hit home runs in four consecutive team innings.

Last week, in the last game before his brief four-game slump, Altuve became the fifth player this season and the first Astros player in a decade to hit for the cycle, in a four-hit series-opener against the Boston Red Sox. Asked after that historic outing whether he considered hitting for the cycle to be "the hardest thing to do as a hitter in a game," Altuve answered that he was pretty sure it would be harder to hit three home runs in a game. Seven games later, he now has a very fresh point of comparison. Meanwhile, his Astros have won the first two games of this crucial series by a combined score of 27–7.

The juiciest division race left in this baseball season is in the American League West, where three of the junior circuit's best teams—the Astros, the Rangers, and the Seattle Mariners—are now separated in the standings by just two games. There's a good chance two of these teams will advance beyond the regular season; the third, no matter how vastly superior it is to the gloomy Minnesota Twins of the galactically shitty AL Central, will be eliminated. The Astros have spent much of this season looking up at someone else in the divisional standings; it wasn't until the final two days of August that they held a share of first place for the first time all year. But then they haven't enjoyed the usual benefits of a healthy Altuve this summer, after their second-baseman missed the first month plus with a broken thumb and then most of July with an oblique injury. It took him a while to rev up—Altuve was batting just .245 in mid-June—but he is now at top speed. With the Astros in a tight race with a pair of fellow would-be contenders inside the final month of the season, Altuve sure picked the right time to come alive.

The Astros usually do! That's all I'm saying!

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