HOUSTON (AP) — Jose Altuve hit three home runs in an unprecedented show of power for the diminutive major league batting champion as the Houston Astros roughed up Chris Sale and the Boston Red Sox 8-2 Thursday in Game 1 of the AL Division Series.
Buoyed by chants of “MVP” in each trip to the plate, the 5-foot-6 Altuve hit solo homers in the first and fifth innings off Sale. He connected again in the seventh off reliever Austin Maddox to give Houston a quick boost in the best-of-five series.
It was just the 10th time a player hit three homers in a postseason game, and first since Pablo Sandoval for the Giants in the 2012 World Series opener against Detroit. Babe Ruth did it twice.
After Altuve rounded the bases on his third solo homer, which landed on the train tracks atop left field, George Springer grabbed the All-Star second baseman’s right biceps and examined it as if searching for an explanation for his out of the ordinary pop.
Altuve’s teammates then goaded him into exiting the dugout for a curtain call. And as he tipped his hat to the crowd one fan near the dugout held a sign that proclaimed in blue block letters: “That Kid Can Hit.”
“As soon as I cross the white line, I feel the same size as everyone else,” Altuve said after the win.
Justin Verlander pitched six effective innings and improved to 6-0 since Houston got him in late trade with Detroit. Sale, the major league strikeout leader, was tagged for seven runs in five-plus innings of his postseason debut.
Game 2 is Friday, with Dallas Keuchel starting for the Astros against Drew Pomeranz.
Among the shortest players in the majors, Altuve couldn’t be a bigger leader for the Astros. He’s one of the few players remaining who languished through a rebuilding process that led to three straight 100-loss seasons from 2011-13, and is perhaps the biggest reason this team ran away with the AL West title this year.
Altuve hit .346 this year, his fourth straight 200-hit season. He had 24 home runs this year — this was his third career multihomer game, and the first time he’d hit three all at once.
Quite a comeback from his only previous postseason — in 2015, he batted just .154 (4 for 26) without an extra-base hit.
Alex Bregman and Altuve hit back-to-back homers in the first inning, making Sale look a bit rattled. The Red Sox tied it up by scoring a run each in the second and fourth innings before Marwin Gonzalez lined a two-run double in the fourth for a 4-2 lead.
There were two outs in the fifth inning when Altuve connected again to push the lead to 5-2 and make him the third player in franchise history with a multihomer game in the postseason, joining Carlos Correa and Carlos Beltran.
The crowd of 43,402, which included Hall of Famers Nolan Ryan, Jeff Bagwell and Craig Biggio, waved bright orange towels as Altuve trotted around the bases.
Sale never got into a rhythm and was chased after walking Josh Reddick with no outs in the sixth. The left-hander was tagged for nine hits and matched a season high for most runs allowed.
After fanning 308 in the regular season, he struck out six. But he allowed three homers and three doubles, marking just the second time in his career that he’s given up six extra-base hits.
Verlander, a playoff veteran who was starting his 17th postseason game, yielded six hits, struck out three and walked two to help the Astros take the early lead in the series.
Sandy Leon had two hits and drove in a run and Rafael Devers added an RBI for the AL East champs.
Red Sox designated hitter Eduardo Nunez was carried off the field in the first inning with a right knee injury and did not return. Nunez pulled up running to first base on a groundout in the first inning before falling to the ground. He writhed in pain as manager John Farrell and trainers ran to his aid. He remained on the ground for a couple of minutes before trying to walk off the field with their help. Nunez appeared to be unable to put any weight on his knee. Farrell and another Red Sox employee eventually picked him up and carried him off the field and into the dugout as he winced in pain.
Nunez missed 19 of Boston’s last 20 regular-season games with what the team called a sore knee, but the club thought he had recovered enough to contribute in the postseason. The Red Sox said he had re-aggravated his knee injury and he was replaced by Hanley Ramirez.
Red Sox: Pomeranz will make his first career postseason start after going 0-0 with a 4.91 ERA in two relief appearances in the playoffs.
Astros: Keuchel believes that the experience he got pitching — and winning — two games in the 2015 playoffs will help him in his second trip to the postseason. “I’m grateful that we got some experience in 2015 and hopefully that will carry us to the championship series,” he said.
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