SAN DIEGO — Jose Altuve, one of the game’s greatest players, stood alone on the infield dirt Tuesday night, staring vacantly to the outfield in utter disbelief.
Here he is, a former MVP, six-time All-Star, five-time Silver Slugger, three-time batting champion, and Gold Glove winner, melting down for all of the world to see in this American League Championship Series.
The Houston Astros are one defeat away from going home for the winter, losing again to the Tampa Bay Rays, 5-2, and Altuve’s arm is largely responsible for two of the defeats.
“It’s tough to see this happening to such a great player and such a great guy …’’ Astros manager Dusty Baker said. “It hurts us all to see him hurting.’’
Altuve didn’t make a throwing error in the regular season but in a span 24 hours, made three, leading to five runs, with the Rays now leading the best-of-seven series, 3-0.
There has been only one team in baseball history to recover from a 3-0 deficit, but the 2020 Astros are not the 2004 Boston Red Sox.
“It’s a steep mountain to climb,’’ Baker said, “but it’s not impossible. We got to tighten our belts, put on our big-boy pants, and come out fighting.’’
Realistically, this series is all over, and Altuve – who hit the walk-off homer to send the Astros to the World Series a year ago – will now have to a long winter to process what happened. He declined to be interviewed after the game.
“Nobody feels worse than Jose,’’ Baker said, “because he takes it very seriously, and he takes it to heart. We’re giving him all of the support we can. He’s one of ours.’’
The Astros were in control of this game after Altuve’s homer in the first inning, but along came the sixth, and the error that will haunt him until spring training, maybe longer.
Randy Arozarena led off the sixth inning with a single, and the Astros went into their normal shift for left-handed hitter Brandon Lowe. It looked like it worked to perfection. Lowe hit a routine ground ball to Altuve that was a tailor-made double play.
Altuve fielded it cleanly, flipped it towards shortstop Carlos Correa, only for the throw to skip two feet in front of Correa, and into left field. Two out and nobody on became two on and no outs.
Astros manager Dusty Baker went to the mound to remove shaken Jose Urquidy, who had been pitching a gem, and the entire infield went to the mound – except for one man.
Altuve stood alone, unable to watch. His teammates came over during reliever Enoli Paredes’ warmup pitches, trying to console him.
“Keep your head up, we’ve still got a lot of game left,’’ Correa told him. “We’re going to win this game.’’
Altuve didn’t say a word, simply nodded his head.
“I blame myself for that error as well,’’ Correa said, “because I feel like I make that pick nine times out of 10, and I wasn’t able to pick my team up on that one.’’
The Rays, smelling blood, took full advantage, and by the time the inning ended, had scored five runs, breaking the game open, and the series.
“Boy,’’ Baker said, “just a nightmare inning.’’
Altuve had a chance to redeem himself in the ninth, representing the tying run with two on and one out, only to strike out swinging against Diego Castillo.
Even before the game, Baker feared that Altuve was in his own head.
“You’re just hoping he isn’t getting the yips,’’ Baker said. “Invariably, they come in bunches. Everything comes in bunches – errors, hits, homers, everything. I just told him to flush it.”
If the loss wasn’t painful enough for the Astros, they had to watch the Rays put on another defensive showcase of their own.
The highlights began in the first inning when Rays center fielder Kevin Kiermaier robbed Alex Bregman at the wall.
In the t inning, the Astros had two runners on, two outs, when Carlos Correa lined a ball to right-center field. Kiermaier sprinted 52 feet, dove, and with his glove stretched out in front of him, caught the ball as he hit the ground, saving at least a run – if not two.
Left fielder Randy Arozarena, shortstop Wily Adames, Joey Wendle, Hunter Renfroe and pitcher John Curtiss all got in into the act before the night was over.
“They play the game the right way,’’ Correa said. “They hustle. They play hard. And they play great defense. That’s a recipe to win games.’’