No slow­ing hum­ble Al­tuve

AL MVP can­di­date’s ap­proach to game is all about win­ning.

Austin American-Statesman - - SPORTS - By Brian T. Smith Hous­ton Chron­i­cle

They won’t win this one. A 3-1 lead has sud­denly be­come 5-3 Rays, and fans wait­ing to see the Astros’ 70th win in early Au­gust are stream­ing out of Minute Maid Park and head­ing out into the hot Hous­ton night.

The bullpen is shaky. Carlos Cor­rea and Ge­orge Springer are miss­ing. It’s the af­ter­math of the trade dead­line and ev­ery­one’s fo­cus­ing on what the Astros didn’t add, in­stead of what the owner of the Amer­i­can League West has.

Jose Al­tuve an­swers it all by study­ing. It has been a while since he faced Ser­gio Romo. He knows the 10th-year right-han­der re­lies on a slider.

But how large is the sweep and how of­ten is Romo turn­ing to the pitch in 2017? Video rolls and Al­tuve’s eyes lock in be­fore the bot­tom of the sev­enth ar­rives.

“I can see what he was do­ing,” Al­tuve said. “His slider is big. So I was like, ‘OK, if you pull this guy, you’re not go­ing to be able to get a hit.’ So I was try­ing to hit the ball to right field.”

I stand near the top of Minute Maid and watch Al­tuve walk to the plate. A.J. Reed has struck out. Jake Maris­nick just grounded out. The sta­dium’s half empty and Twit­ter is still pick­ing apart the Astros’ pen.

Romo goes up 0-1 on an 85 mph fast­ball. He misses on a low-and-away slider. The third pitch is al­most the same. Still out of the strike zone, but a lit­tle closer to the plate and within Al­tuve’s zone. He stretches his body out­ward, ex­tends his hands and arms, and makes smooth con­tact.

Romo’s 75 mph slider be­comes a soft liner that ends up in the out­field.

“I was try­ing to hit the ball to right field and I still hit it to cen­ter field be­cause of the good spin he has on the slider,” Al­tuve said.

His 151st hit of the sea­son soon has him stand­ing on third base after Alex Breg­man sin­gles and Al­tuve steals third. The best player on the best AL team is wait­ing for his team­mates to drive him in, light­ing up the score­board and bring­ing the Astros closer to win No. 70.

It doesn’t hap­pen this night. But it’s clas­sic Al­tuve — beau­ti­ful base­ball, gor­geous hit — and a trade­mark of the five-time Al­lS­tar, who has be­come one of the great­est over­all play­ers in the ma­jors.

“It’s the mind­set of get­ting on base. It doesn’t mat­ter how I get it . ... It’s al­ways go­ing to feel good,” said Al­tuve, who en­tered Satur­day lead­ing the sport in bat­ting av­er­age (.365) and hits, top­ping the AL in to­tal bases (238) and rank­ing fifth among all hit­ters in OPS (1.000).

Ris­ing to the top

At first, he was a good but lim­ited player on a hor­ri­ble team. In 2014, he won his first bat­ting ti­tle (.341) on the 70-92 Astros and be­gan to dis­play the all-around evo­lu­tion that dom­i­nates his game. Three sea­sons later, Al­tuve ri­vals Yan­kees rookie Aaron Judge as the lead­ing can­di­date for AL MVP and is the Astros’ ver­sion of James Harden and J.J. Watt.

He’s an ab­so­lute must­see, worth pay­ing big money to sit as close as pos­si­ble for. He’s also an ab­so­lute joy, play­ing the sport with child­like joy and tak­ing pride in be­ing cov­ered in dirt.

“Al­tuve! Al­tuve! Al­tuve!!!” kids called out Thurs­day, beg­ging for sim­ple recog­ni­tion and a last­ing au­to­graph.

Al­tuve reg­u­larly made eye con­tact with his young ad­mir­ers — be­hind the bat­ting cage, walk­ing from the dugout to the in­field — and en­gaged in three sep­a­rate, ex­tended sign­ing ses­sions.

Base­ball play­ers aren’t like they used to be in the good ol’ days? Watch Al­tuve. “He feels like he can get bet­ter ev­ery year,” Astros veteran Carlos Bel­tran said. “That’s a great men­tal­ity to have in this game. This game, you’ve got to stay hum­ble. No mat­ter how well you do, you’ve got to be hum­ble.”

The past month marked one of the high­est points of Al­tuve’s seven-year ca­reer and the peak of the Astros’ re­build thus far.

A year ago, I wrote Al­tuve was un­der­rated na­tion­ally and lo­cally. On July 11, he was the AL’s start­ing sec­ond base­man on an in­ter­na­tional stage and one of MLB’s top vote-get­ters in the an­nual All-Star Game. With the Astros sec­ond to only the Dodgers in World Se­ries pre­dic­tions, Al­tuve put up huge July num­bers: .485 av­er­age, 48 hits, 22 runs, 21 RBIs, 1.251 OPS, four home runs, eight steals and 72 to­tal bases in 99 at-bats.

“The thing about him that’s so im­pres­sive is that he won the bat­ting ti­tle last year and he told Bel­tran when they (first) went out to eat, ‘How do I get bet­ter?’ ” Springer said. “It’s hard to tell some­body who just led all of (the league) in hit­ting how you get bet­ter.

“His de­sire to get bet­ter and his de­sire to im­prove in all as­pects of his game ... he’s a team player. He wants to be suc­cess­ful for the team and it’s not ever about him. It’s im­pres­sive and it’s very, very hon­or­able and very ad­mirable as a team­mate to see him do what he does.”

Al­tuve watches three mod­ern hit­ters the most: Miguel Cabr­era, Mike Trout and Robin­son Cano. As his plate ap­proach has evolved in re­cent years, Al­tuve has added as­pects of Cabr­era’s inside-out at­tack.

Ap­proach to hit­ting

When he makes his way to the plate, Al­tuve’s adamant that his pri­mary thought each time is find­ing some way to get on base. But how much of his suc­cess — daily, weekly, monthly, an­nu­ally — can be at­trib­uted to prepa­ra­tion and what part comes down to in­nate, pure in­stinct?

“It’s a com­bi­na­tion,” Al­tuve said. “Some­times you have to believe in your in­stincts and what you think they’re go­ing to do to you. But some­times you re­ally have to fol­low what the coaches say. It’s re­ally hard to pick: Should I go with my in­stincts or should I go with them? I don’t know if it’s 50-50, but it just de­pends.”

Tech­ni­cally, he was never even sup­posed to make the ma­jors. When did one of the big­gest bar­gains in mod­ern base­ball — Al­tuve is mak­ing a base salary of $4.5 mil­lion this sea­son, which is less than ev­ery­one from Yuli Gur­riel and Bel­tran to Dal­las Keuchel and Josh Red­dick — re­al­ize he could do what no one ex­pected him to?

“It’s go­ing to sound crazy. But since I signed with the Astros, I knew that I just needed an op­por­tu­nity to be up here,” said Al­tuve, who signed with the fran­chise in 2007 as an un­drafted free agent out of Venezuela for a $15,000 bonus. “I didn’t know that I was go­ing to be hit­ting .365 ... and I got a cou­ple bat­ting ti­tles. But I al­ways knew that I was go­ing to be able to play hard. And I’m a firm believer that when you play hard, good things are go­ing to be hap­pen­ing.”

BOB LEVEY / GETTY IMAGES

The Astros’ Jose Al­tuve has one thought ev­ery time he comes to the plate — how can he reach base? “It doesn’t mat­ter how I get it,” he says.

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