USA Today, HOUSTON - Jose Altuve has led the American League in hits each of the last four seasons, his total adding up to 845. It’s likely none of them evoked the kind of animated display the Houston Astros second baseman let loose after his fifth-inning single Friday.
His fellow Astros hitters were nearly as pumped.
For five-plus games, the most prolific offense in the majors had been bottled up in the AL Championship Series, held to a mere nine runs and a .147 batting average by the New York Yankees pitching staff.
Friday’s do-or-die Game 6 was looking much the same until Brian McCann broke through with a fifth-inning double for the night’s first run, after Houston had gone 4-for-27 in its previous chances with runners in scoring position in the series.
But it wasn’t until Altuve followed three batters later with his two-RBI hit that Minute Maid Park truly exploded, as the sellout crowd of 43,179 sensed a decisive Game 7 would be in the offing.
Altuve did too, as he yelled, exulted and gesticulated. The Astros were ahead 3-0, and they would never trail on the way to a 7-1 victory that tied the ALCS at three wins apiece.
If the Astros were going to taste champagne again this October, they needed to uncork their offense just as much as Altuve had to release all his pent-up emotions.
"I’m not a guy that shows a lot of emotion while I’m playing," Altuve said almost sheepishly afterward. "I didn’t realize what I was doing. I was just so happy and just kind of, like, moments that are just — you let yourself go."
The three-run outburst in the fifth was more than Justin Verlander and the Houston bullpen would need, as the veteran right-hander once again shackled New York’s potent offense.
Verlander, a likely series MVP if Houston wins Saturday, was brilliant over the first five innings and worked out of jams in his last two to finish with another impressive line: seven innings pitched, five hits, zero runs and eight strikeouts. He improved to 4-1 with a 1.21 ERA in five elimination games in the postseason.
Verlander did get help from center fielder George Springer, who made a leaping catch at the fence on a Todd Frazier drive with two aboard in the seventh to escape unscathed. Verlander, who gave up one run in going the distance in a Game 2 victory, clearly left everything he had on the mound when he exited after 99 pitches.
"There’s no point in saving anything," said Verlander, who was so focused on every pitch that at times he would forget what inning it was. "It’s just kind of, I’m out there until I’m not out there any longer."
The Astros won’t have him out there on Saturday, when Charlie Morton will start for them opposite CC Sabathia, who threw six scoreless innings in Game 3 and will be making the 22nd postseason start of his career.
Morton, coming off his best season, gave up seven runs in 3⅔ innings Monday, with some bad luck contributing to that ugly line. He would benefit from the kind of offensive output the Astros finally put forth on Friday, all of it coming in the three-run fifth and a four-run eighth.
Yankees starter Luis Severino looked untouchable over the first four innings, yielding a Carlos Correa single and nothing else as he overpowered the Astros with 100-mph heat. But Severino suddenly lost the plate in the fifth, walking two of the first three batters to give Houston its first opportunity.
McCann was still seeking his first hit in 11 at-bats. He crushed a ground-rule double to right that broke the ice, and two batters later Altuve ripped his single to put Houston ahead 3-0.
In the eighth, Altuve led off with a home run off David Robertson, and the Astros pounced on the previously sharp reliever, who gave up four hits — Alex Bregman’s two-run double being the biggest blow — without retiring a batter.
One Houston player who did not see action may have contributed to the onslaught. After the Astros’ third loss at Yankee Stadium, where they were outscored 19-5, veteran Carlos Beltran told his teammates not to feel sorry for themselves and to instead remember they won 101 games and were undefeated at Minute Maid Park in the playoffs. In fact, the home team has won every game in this series.
"Soon after that last game in New York was over, Beltran shared some words with us and I think that was a real key," Yuli Gurriel said. "It kept us from leaving with those three losses in our mind. Any team can get unnerved in New York. But this is our team’s response tonight. It couldn’t have been any better."
Now the Astros hope to take that renewed confidence into Game 7 against Sabathia, who has had an outstanding postseason, pitching to a 2.30 ERA in three starts.
Correa, who singled and doubled after looking overanxious over the last three games, said seeing the lefty a second time in less than a week should help the Astros as long as they don’t fall into bad habits again.
"We were not sticking with our approach, especially when we went to New York," Correa said. "We were swinging at a lot of bad pitches. We just tried to be more selectively aggressive today and stay in the zone, and that worked out real well for us."
Follow Jorge L. Ortiz on Twitter @jorgelortiz.