Not ever ything is big­ger in Texas ... LET’S KICK ASTRO!

The Yan­kees are stand­ing tall as they head into Game 1 of the Amer­i­can League Cham­pi­onship Se­ries against the Hous­ton Astros tonight at 8.

New York Post - - FRONT PAGE - By KEN DAVIDOFF kdavid­off@ny­

HOUS­TON — Of course the height strikes you first. It’s the price you pay for be­ing a 5-foot-6 pro­fes­sional ath­lete in a sport that is not horse rac­ing. The more you learn about Jose Al­tuve, how­ever, the more an­other qual­ity strikes you: His speed. Not his ac­tual run­ning speed, although he does have 231 reg­u­lar-sea­son stolen bases at age 27. Rather, the likely Amer­i­can League Most Valu­able Player has dis­played an alacrity in ad­just­ing to the ma­jor leagues. In ex­celling at the game’s high­est level. In es­tab­lish­ing him­self as one of the young stars head­lin­ing com­mis­sioner Rob Man­fred’s ini­tia­tive to rope mil­len­nial fans. Now we’ll see if he can quickly as­sim­i­late him­self into baseball’s semi­fi­nals. On the heels of an out­stand­ing AL Di­vi­sion Se­ries against the Red Sox, Al­tuve will make his AL Cham­pi­onship Se­ries de­but Fri­day when his Astros play host to the Yan­kees and their phys­i­cally op­po­site AL MVP can­di­date Aaron Judge at Minute Maid Park. “I know what’s high on his list is get­ting to and win­ning the World Se­ries,” Astros man­ager A.J. Hinch said Thurs­day. “So for me to be able — the last three years — to watch him grow, de­velop a re­la­tion­ship with him, see how he’s im­pacted his team­mates, hope­fully he can add an MVP to that tro­phy case here this sea­son. “But he’s ex­cep­tional in ev­ery way, and a lot of the rea­sons be­hind why we have been able to el­e­vate things is how he goes about it and how he im­pacts this city.” “He’s an ex­cit­ing player,” the Yan­kees’ Brett Gard­ner said. “He’s a guy that con­trib­utes on both sides of the ball. A hun­dred miles an hour the whole game, for nine in­nings. I can ap­pre­ci­ate that. He plays with a l ot of in­ten­sity. He’s a b ig cat­a­lyst for that team over there.”

Al­tuve, who worked out with his team­mates Thurs­day and then blew off re­porters, put up a mon­ster 2017 sea­son, ar­guably the best of his impressive ca­reer. He led the AL with 204 hits and a .346 bat­ting av­er­age, and he posted an ex­cel­lent ra­tio of 84 strike­outs to 58 walks. He made the AL All-Star team for the fifth time. If he pre­vails over Judge in the MVP vote, it will most likely be due to his con­sis­tency; whereas Judge reg­is­tered mas­sive peaks and val­leys, putting up a lowly .680 OPS in Au­gust, Al­tuve ex­celled through the sea­son, post­ing a re­spectable .832 OPS in his worst month, Septem­ber.

From his physique to his strong con­tact skills, Al­tuve serves as a Bizarro Judge. Here’s an­other way in which the two top MVP can­di­dates dif­fer dra­mat­i­cally: their ori­gin sto­ries.

Judge didn’t fully es­tab­lish him­self un­til this, his age-25 sea­son, af­ter de­lib­er­ately climb­ing the Yan­kees’ or­ga­ni­za­tional chain.

Al­tuve ar­rived at age 21, in 2011. He took, to use the ver­nac­u­lar of Astros of­fi­cials at the time, the “Ex­press Lane.”

Re­mem­ber how Judge got his first shot af­ter the 2016 Yan­kees traded Car­los Bel­tran to Texas? What Bel­tran (now Al­tuve’s team­mate with the Astros) was to Judge — the vet­eran de­part­ing to clear a spot — Jeff Kep­pinger was to Al­tuve.

The 2011 Astros, a dread­ful 31-65 as they ap­proached the non-waivers trade dead­line and fac­ing a sale of the team from Dray­ton McLane to Jim Crane, went into full tear­down mode. On July 19, they dealt the for­mer Met Kep­pinger, a sec­ond base­man, to the con­tend­ing Gi­ants, one of sev­eral deals they made that month.

To fill the va­cated spots, the Astros’ baseball op­er­a­tions depart­ment met and brain­stormed. That was when ad­viser Matt Galante, a baseball lifer who had pre­vi­ously coached with the Mets un­der Art Howe, came up with the idea of the “Ex­press Lane” — rush­ing guys with­out ex­ten­sive ex­pe­ri­ence at the top mi­nor league lev­els. At the time of the Kep­pinger trade, Al­tuve had played in just 35 games for Dou­ble-A Cor­pus Christi, slash­ing a great .361/.388/.569, and hadn’t sniffed Triple-A.

“We were con­cerned not so much about how they would han­dle mov­ing up as we were about how they would deal with get­ting moved back down if things didn’t work out,” Ed Wade, then the Astros’ gen­eral man­ager, said Thurs­day in a tele­phone in­ter­view. “Jose had the makeup and de­sire to make us think he was some­one we could chal­lenge.”

So on July 20, the day af­ter Kep­pinger got shipped out, Al­tuve made his bigleague de­but. He pro­ceeded to slash an in­ter­est­ing .276/.297/.357 while play­ing solid de­fense and run­ning the bases well.

On the Ex­press Lane, “We only had to buy a one-way ticket for him,” Wade said, laugh­ing.

He has im­proved steadily, his height be­com­ing less of a con­ver­sa­tion item along the way.

“I’ve been able to have a front-row seat to his growth and his evo­lu­tion [from] a re­ally good player on some rough teams to an ex­cep­tional player on a great team,” Hinch said. “To watch him grow and ma­ture, I’ve seen him be­come a fa­ther for the first time, I’ve seen him speak out in meet­ings for the first time and be a leader vo­cally.

“And prob­a­bly most im­por­tantly, I’ve just seen him be the most con­sis­tent player in baseball at his craft, at be­ing a good hitter, good de­fender, Gold Glove, Sil­ver Slug­ger, All-Star, hits leader, bat­ting ti­tles. You name it, he’s done it.”

“Oh, he’s a great player, and he’s been [one] for a num­ber of years here,” Joe Gi­rardi said Thurs­day. “Ob­vi­ously, he plays the game the right way. He plays ex­tremely hard.”

Judge, who didn’t blow off the me­dia on Thurs­day, said he spent some time with Al­tuve at the All-Star Game in Mi­ami.

“Man, what a great guy,” Judge said. “We see what he does on the baseball field, but the type of per­son he is, we see the pas­sion he has for the game, it’s pretty fun to watch.”

Be­fore the Astros opened the ALDS with the Red Sox, Al­tuve said, “I’m com­ing from a team that lost a hun­dred games in a row three straight years [2011 through 2013]. We made the play­offs in 2015, we didn’t make it last year and af­ter last year we were a lit­tle un­com­fort­able be­cause we were watch­ing the play­off games from home and we were like, ‘OK, we’re good enough to be in the play­offs.’”

Then Al­tuve hit three homers in ALDS Game 1 to beat the Red Sox, and he slashed a ridicu­lous .533/.632/1.133 over­all. Once again, he got go­ing im­me­di­ately.

It falls on the Yan­kees now to slow down this guy. Ev­ery­thing in Al­tuve’s his­tory shows that won’t be easy. For the diminu­tive Al­tuve, Wade said, “stands head and shoul­ders above ev­ery­body else in baseball.”

Jose Al­tuve 5'6" Aaron Judge 6'7"

Jose Al­tuve

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