How much, how deeply does the rest of the world want to see the Astros suffer during baseball’s platform month?
Jose Altuve is unwittingly putting that question to a test.
The Astros’ roller-coaster 2020 campaign stands at the edge of the proverbial cliff, one loss away from its conclusion after an ugly, 5-2 defeat to the Rays in American League Championship Series Game 3 at Petco Park in San Diego. The ugliness emanated from the game-changing inning, the top of the sixth, when the Rays scored all of their runs to turn the tables once more on the club that ousted them in last year’s AL Division Series.
Now the Rays have jumped ahead to a 3-0 series lead and put themselves in the position to claim their second-ever World Series appearance with a win Wednesday in Game 4.
The key play of this game’s key inning? A throwing error by Altuve — just as an Altuve throwing error in Game 2 (the first of two by him in that contest) opened the door for the game-winning, three-run homer by Tampa Bay’s Manuel Margot. The bruised face of this tainted franchise, Altuve has committed three throwing errors in this series after making zero in the regular season plus the playoffs’ first two rounds.
It was Astros manager Dusty Baker, an open book always, who first threw out the Y word after Game 2. No, not “Yankees.”
“You hope he isn’t getting the yips, because invariably they come in bunches,” Baker said. “I told him to flush it. This guy has been awesome for us. You’ve got to flush it and move on or else it multiplies. I’m sure he’ll do that.”
He didn’t, despite signs of a successful flushing amid this season in which the Astros attempted to flush the memories of their massive sign-stealing scandal that rocked baseball before the pandemic hit. Altuve slugged a solo, first-inning homer off Rays starter Ryan Yarbrough to give his club a quick advantage, and then cleanly handled a Brandon Lowe grounder in the third inning. All seemed copacetic.
Then came the top of the sixth. Against Houston starter Jose Urquidy, who had registered 1-2-3 fourth and fifth innings after dancing with danger in the early going, super rookie Randy Arozarena led off with a base hit to left field. The lefty-swinging Lowe pulled the ball to a well-positioned Altuve, shaded to the right of his standard spot. Altuve turned and bounced his relay to Carlos Correa, who couldn’t prevent the ball from skipping into left, leaving everyone safe and setting off sirens around the game.
Anyone old enough to remember how the Dodgers’ Steve Sax and the Yankees’ Chuck Knoblauch struggled with yips will feel for Altuve, no matter how many stolen signs he received or, as per a conspiracy theory that emerged days after Rob Manfred formalized the sign-stealing scandal, whether he truly wore a buzzer that allowed him to hit a pennant-winning home run off the Yankees’ Aroldis Chapman in last year’s ALCS.
The Astros did the opposite of bailing out the 2017 AL Most Valuable Player. Enoli Paredes relieved Urquidy and permitted back-to-back singles to Yandy Diaz and Joey Wendle, the latter bringing home Arozarena and Lowe to catapult the Rays to a 2-1 lead. Following a Margot sacrifice bunt, Paredes hit the next two batters, Kevin Kiermaier and Willy Adames, the first loading the bases and the second forcing home a run; Kiermaier ultimately left the game to undergo X-rays on his left hand, which were negative, leaving him day to day.
Yup, it got ugly, more so when pinch-hitter Hunter Renfroe poked a two-run double to further pad Tampa Bay’s lead.
Renfroe stuck around to patrol right field and made two great catches amid another stellar defensive night for the Rays that juxtaposed their brilliant glovework (other stars were reliever John Curtiss and, before he departed, Kiermaier) against Altuve’s troubles. To boot, Altuve struck out against Diego Castillo as the potential tying run in the bottom of the ninth.
After staggering through a 29-31 regular season, the ’Stros upset both the Twins and the Athletics to make it this far. Now they could wind up in a lose-lose: Literally losing while walking away not with pride over an October rebound, but rather with concerns about the great Altuve.
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