HOUSTON — He is well aware of what game-wrecking hits sound like in this stadium, so Aroldis Chapman acted accordingly. He rolled his eyes, craned his neck and tracked the baseball Alex Bregman bludgeoned to left center field. Jose Altuve slowed his trot from first to second as the sellout crowd came to a crescendo absent for so much of this miserable night.
Bregman struck a thigh-high slider 365 feet toward the short porch he so often visits. Statcast assigned the fly ball a .560 expected batting average, but with a 21-year-old rookie patrolling one of the sport’s most confusing outfields, those probabilities skyrocketed.
“I thought he hit it well,” utilityman Mauricio Dubón said. “I thought it was going to sneak in the Crawford Boxes, and just went to the right side a little bit.”
Added catcher Martín Maldonado: “Everybody thought that ball was going to hit the wall.”
When it didn’t, the Houston Astros could not recover. Evan Carter prolonged his playoff star turn with a stunning play, navigating around the 19-foot high Crawford Boxes before making a leaping catch against the chain-linked fence that protected the Texas Rangers bullpen.
“I thought the ball was over his head,” Altuve said. “I didn’t think he was going to make the play he made — it was a great play. You just try to come back to first base (and) that’s what I did.”
Altuve never re-touched second base en route, ruining a chance for Houston’s most dangerous hitter to represent the tying run. The next four outs arrived without much resistance, finishing Houston’s frustrating 2-0 loss in Game 1 of the American League Championship Series.
Altuve’s gaffe will generate most of the attention, a byproduct of his paycheck, prominence and postseason prowess. That he made a major league-leading 16 outs on the bases last season only furthers the fury. Altuve is amazing at almost everything. Base running is the lone exception.
Carter deserves far more credit than Altuve does blame, but seven innings’ worth of wasted at-bats magnified his mental mistake.
“I think obviously we can go back to one inning, but we didn’t get the job done over the course of nine innings today,” Bregman said. “I think we just have to string together better at-bats from the first pitch and create some innings.”
Houston struck five singles against four Texas pitchers. One runner reached third base in nine innings. Texas southpaw Jordan Montgomery muzzled a lineup that lit up left-handed pitching throughout the regular season. Altuve gave away the chance Houston had against Chapman, another lefty.
During the regular season, only the Atlanta Braves had a higher OPS against southpaws than the Astros’ .809 clip. Boasting two of baseball’s best left-on-left hitters in the middle of the order aided the Astros’ assault.
Montgomery manhandled both of them. Yordan Alvarez and Kyle Tucker finished 0-for-6 against him. José Abreu, the right-handed slugger slotted between them for some balance in Sunday’s batting order, struck out twice against Montgomery, too. Tucker is 2-for-18 in the team’s first five postseason games.
Alvarez struck out thrice in six of the 113 regular-season games he played. Montgomery punched him out three times Sunday, all against his curveball. Texas had a clear plan to pepper Alvarez with pitches on the inner half before finishing with breaking balls below the zone.
“Obviously he’s a really good hitter, so you kind of have to do a little bit of everything to him,” Montgomery said. “But we kind of worked the fastball in and out and threw some curveballs for strikes and expanded and made some big pitches when we needed to.”
Houston took 17 swings against Montgomery’s curveball. Six were foul balls and six more were swings-and-misses. Montgomery landed the breaking pitch for early-count called strikes before returning with two types of fastballs — a sinking two-seamer and an elevated four-seamer.
If Houston’s lineup is susceptible to one pitch, it is the sinker. The team hit .281 against sinkers during the regular season. Only 11 teams had a lower batting average. Houston’s .342 wOBA against sinkers ranked 21st of 30 teams.
Still, with such a right-handed heavy lineup, seizing advantage of a southpaw starter felt mandatory. Houston had the leadoff man on in the second, two runners aboard during the third and the bases loaded with two outs in the fourth.
The lineup mustered nothing. Alvarez’s second strikeout stranded both runners in the third inning. Maldonado waved over an elevated fastball to leave the bases loaded in the fourth. Montgomery retired the next seven Houston hitters he saw.
“We hit some balls hard, but right at people,” Maldonado said. “He was mixing the (two-seam) and (four-seam fastball) with the curveball for a strike to keep us off balance. When we squared him up, I felt like it was right at people.”
Maldonado is not mistaken. The Astros averaged a 91 mph exit velocity on the 18 balls they struck in play. Carter robbed Bregman of another hit with a wonderful leaping grab on a first-inning line drive. Dubón hit Montgomery’s final pitch of the game at 104.6 mph — straight to Leody Taveras in center field.
The loud contact prompted Rangers manager Bruce Bochy to summon one of baseball’s worst bullpens. It blew 33 of 63 save opportunities during the regular season. Houston had eight outs to exploit its biggest advantage of this series. Josh Sborz secured two of them to finish the seventh, generating a popout from Jeremy Peña and a first-pitch groundout from pinch hitter Yainer Diaz. Sborz started the eighth inning by walking Altuve, prompting Bochy to tempt fate.
Chapman’s history here is catastrophic. He possessed a 7.53 ERA in 14 1/3 career innings pitched inside Minute Maid Park. Altuve won the 2019 American League pennant with a walk-off home run against one of his hanging sliders.
Chapman served another Sunday but survived to tell the tale. Altuve’s brutal base running assisted him but didn’t allow him total escape. Alvarez can alter an entire game with one swing. He still loomed for a look at Chapman.
After Alvarez got ahead of him 2-1, Chapman spun another slider. Alvarez offered. The baseball exited his bat at 63.1 mph, traveled six feet and barely reached first base, a befitting ending to a frame that once seemed so fortuitous.
“They say good pitching beats good hitting, but when you don’t hit, everybody wants to know what’s wrong,” manager Dusty Baker lamented. “There’s not a whole bunch to say.”
(Top photo of Jose Altuve sliding back to first base before he was called out for not re-touching second base: Bob Levey / Getty Images)