“But the guy, Jose, he’s an incredible baseball player. Against one of the toughest pitchers in all of baseball, he just finds a way to barrel baseballs. He’s not necessarily thinking, ‘Hit home runs,’ but he finds a way to hit the ball hard.”
Sandoval was indeed the last player to hit three homers in a postseason game, for the San Francisco Giants in the 2012 World Series. Albert Pujols, Adrian Beltre and George Brett are some of the others to have done it, and all appear on another list: 3,000 hits. Altuve is only 27, but if he keeps leading the A.L. in hits, as he has done the last four seasons, he may join them there, too.
“He barrels a lot of balls, and when he doesn’t, he puts the ball in an area where it’s hard to field,” said Charlie Morton, a veteran Astros starter. “And then when he doesn’t do that, he hits the ball on the ground, and he’s fast. I’m not saying he can hit the ball anywhere he wants to, but it looks like it sometimes.”
On Thursday, Altuve’s hits soared a combined 1,206 feet; the first two, off Sale, went over the fence in left center, and the last — off reliever Austin Maddox, as the fans chanted “M.V.P.” — flew up by the train tracks high above left.
Altuve, whose 24 homers this season matched a career high, said he had never hit three in a game at any level, even as a boy in Venezuela. He is 5 foot 6 and 165 pounds — hardly the typical slugger’s profile — and sounded amazed by the accomplishment.
Credit Ronald Martinez/Getty Images
“I couldn’t believe any of my homers,” said Altuve, who went 3 for 22 — all singles — when the Astros lost a division series two years ago. “I hit one and I was like, ‘Wow.’ And the second one is like, ‘Wow, what’s going on here?’ And it feels great.”
What did he tell himself after the third home run?
“Oh, I don’t know,” Altuve said, smiling. “I’ve got to wake up.”
Sale, who made his postseason debut after seven years of missing out with the Chicago White Sox, seemed trapped in a bad dream. He led the majors in strikeouts this season, with 308, the most by any pitcher in 15 years. But the Astros presented an exceedingly rare challenge.
Before this season, only two teams over the last century — the 1948 Yankees and the 1995 Cleveland Indians — had led the majors in slugging percentage while also recording the fewest strikeouts. The Astros did it this season, finding a way to do damage at the plate without swinging wildly.
Asked before the game how a strikeout pitcher like Sale would contend with a lineup like Houston’s, Red Sox Manager John Farrell said Sale would have to execute his pitches and work ahead in the count. Control was not a problem; Sale issued just one walk, to his last batter. But his command was disastrous.
“This one’s on me,” Sale said. “I take full responsibility for this one.”
One consequence of Sale’s regular-season dominance, perhaps, is a tendency to be less sharp late in the year. For his career, he is 25-29 with a 3.49 E.R.A. from August onward. Hitters can capitalize on flat sliders and elevated fastballs, as the Astros did in Game 1. They had hoped the playoff stage would rattle him.
“I hope it makes him nervous as can be and he’s a mess,” Manager A. J. Hinch said, to laughs, before the game. “I think with the adrenaline, there will be something to it, whether he can harness it. But these guys that are elite, these guys that are special, they find a way to settle in and be themselves.”
Part of Sale’s profile, though, has been giving up clusters of homers. He allowed multiple home runs in five starts over the last two months, winning none of those games. It took him three batters to do it on Thursday, when the Astros’ second hitter, Alex Bregman pulled a 2-2 slider for a homer before Altuve smoked an 0-2 fastball.
Sale worked five innings, allowing nine hits and seven runs with six strikeouts. He gave up six extra-base hits for just the second time in his career, and had rarely allowed nine hits and seven runs in the same game; it had happened just three times before.
But Sale had also rarely faced a lineup as deep and dangerous as Houston’s, or a hitter as complete as Altuve.
“He’s not the kind of hitter that’s gonna hit three homers in a game, but he did it today,” Gonzalez said. “He’s a special guy, the best hitter in the game.”