If you look at the box score for last night’s Rays win over the Astros—a 5-2 victory that put them a win away from the World Series—it says that all but one of the runs allowed by Houston’s pitchers were earned. But despite technically not making a difference in the final result, it was yet another error by star second baseman Jose Altuve that loomed over the Astros’ loss and their ensuing 3-0 series deficit.
With Randy Arozarena on first in the top of the sixth and the Rays down 1-0, Brandon Lowe hit what under most circumstances would be a textbook double-play ball. Altuve ably fielded it and quickly turned to throw to shortstop Carlos Correa at the bag and … the ball bounced awkwardly, missed his glove, and traveled into left field. That play—which, if we buck the official scorer’s tradition and assume the double play, put two on with nobody out instead of emptying the bases with two gone—chased starter Jose Urquidy from the game and led to a five-run inning for the Rays. Those runs were all Tampa got and all they needed.
If this were an isolated incident from the six-time all-star, former MVP, and playoff hero, it could easily be dismissed as a split-second mental lapse or a bit of bad luck, but Altuve has now screwed up seemingly simple throws on four occasions in this postseason. Worse, he’s done it now three times in the past two games alone, after making zero throwing errors all regular season and just one in 47 playoff games before this year.
The Astros have plenty of other problems, too—as you would expect from a team that went 29-31 in this shortened season. But in addition to the cold bats and the unreliable bullpen, manager Dusty Baker was also forced to answer postgame questions about, essentially, the mental health of one of his team’s leaders.
“We’re giving him all the support that we can,” Baker said. “Nobody feels worse than Jose. He takes it very seriously, and he takes it to heart. He’s one of ours, and we’ve all been through this before. Maybe not in the spotlight like this. It hurts us all to see him hurting.”
“It is tough to see this happening to such a great player and such a great guy. I don’t know what it is called. But you can go in a defensive slump the same way you go in an offensive slump, and then the physical turns mental.”
Part of the reason Altuve’s yips have felt so magnified in these past two games is that the Rays, by contrast, are just vacuuming up any ball that comes their way. They have, officially, fielded the baseball flawlessly since Game 4 against the Yankees, and MLB notes that in this ALCS they’ve converted into outs 13 Astros’ balls with expected batting averages of .500 or higher. (Houston has done the same to Rays’ balls in play just three times.)
In Game 3, Tampa’s work with the glove felt particularly suited for the highlight reel. In half a game, Kevin Kiermaier made a couple of center-field grabs, including a five-star in the third where he covered 64 feet in 3.8 seconds. Hunter Renfroe, playing right in a very familiar ballpark, made a dramatic sprawled-out catch of his own in the seventh that had George Springer furiously spiking his helmet, and then did it again on a bloop hit in the eighth. And in the infield—even on the pitching mound!—the Rays were everything Altuve is currently not, putting on a masterful display of positioning, quick reactions, and athleticism.
To chalk up the enormous gap between the two teams’ defenses to some nebulous kind of “karma”—saying, in effect, that Altuve’s struggles in the midst of the Rays’ ascension is some sort of cosmic payback for the Astros’ cheating scandal—is insufficient. That’s what’s so scary about the yips. They don’t only affect bad people, or cheaters, or someone who has tempted fate by disrespecting the so-called baseball gods. They can come for anyone, at any time, without any rhyme or reason, until otherwise superheroic athletes are left questioning if they ever knew how to play their sport in the first place. Barring some kind of miraculous comeback, Jose Altuve is about to have an entire winter to try to figure out a solution for his problem.