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How a routine groundball makes Jose Altuve's MVP case

Jose Altuve points his bat toward center field, lets it linger for three seconds, then four. Houstonians haven't started their weekend yet, and a sea of empty green seats lords over Altuve's left shoulder on this Friday evening in late August. He swings his hips, a subtle dance in the batter's box -- one, two, cha cha cha -- and as the 2-2 pitch makes its slow descent toward home plate, he kicks his striding left foot and swings.

The Astros already have two men on -- Alex Bregman holds court at first; George Springer, 90 feet from home -- so when Altuve sends a chopper to third, Tampa's Evan Longoria fields it cleanly, then launches it to second base. Springer sprints home for the run, Bregman is out. Altuve jokes sheepishly that he "used to" have world-class speed when he was 16, but 10 years later, he's still an orange blur on the base path. So when Tampa's second baseman attempts to turn two, he's close, but not that close.
Altuve is safe at first.

This play -- a mostly unremarkable groundball that skipped to third base in game No. 128 of 162 -- is the one Jose Altuve circles in red. Not the high fastball he hammered to left field for his 1,000th hit nine games earlier, a milestone he reached faster than any current major leaguer, save Ichiro Suzuki. Not the single he poked through shortstop and third, five games before that, when he recorded his eighth four-hitter of the year, the most for any player in a single season this decade. No, this groundout, along with the chain of events that ensue -- a sequence that starts with this fielder's choice and ends with Altuve jogging across home plate -- make up the moment Altuve says he's proudest of all year. And it's here, in this trip around the base paths, that the surprise and inevitability of his 2016 MVP candidacy come to light.

There was a time, this summer, when Altuve looked to have the award all but locked up. But as Mookie Betts' Red Sox and Josh Donaldson's Blue Jays make a beeline for the playoffs, Altuve's Astros have played .500 baseball in September. Still, he remains in the conversation. As doesMike Trout, whose Angels have been a season-long non-factor. What sustains Altuve's hopes down the stretch? Plays like this one.

"If he was not on our team, we'd probably be last in our division right now," says Carlos Correa, Altuve's double-play partner at shortstop. "If you take Josh Donaldson out of the Blue Jays, I think the Blue Jays would be fine. If you take Mookie out of the Red Sox, they're gonna be fine. They're gonna still win. If you take Altuve out of the Houston Astros? We have no chance.

"MVP. Most. Valuable. Player."

For Correa, and for his teammates, Altuve's impact on the team is unmatched. He is still just 26 years old and in his fifth full season in the league, but he is one of the veterans in this clubhouse. Altuve played through the dark years and Houston's barely-concealed tank, when the 100-loss campaigns piled up like festering garbage in a trash heap. He is one of just a handful of Astros who made it to the other side: He won a batting title in 2014 and, now, with him in the mix for a second, Altuve's teammates whisper his accolades with a reverence and gravitas and, yes, hyperbole that would make even Chuck Norris blush.

"It's crazy that he's never had a five-hit game before because he's had about 30 four-hit games since he's been here," starting pitcherCollin McHugh says. (This one's only a moderate embellishment. He has had 20.)

"Thank god I hit behind him," Correa says. "He's always on base." (Altuve's.396 on-base percentage is the league's fourth-best clip.)

"He just somehow, some way, hits it where the D is not. I just think he can actually put the ball where he wants to," Springer says. "A slump for him is 0-for-4." Springer is not far off: Altuve has 22 more multi-hit outings (59) than no-hit performances (37) this year. The baseball is a grapefruit for him most days; his heat map, a bright red, pick-your-poison array of good-to-great batting averages in some zones, other-worldly batting averages in others.

Altuve, himself, artfully dodges the notion that he's baseball's best hitter. He's batting .338, third best in MLB, and boasts 157 in OPS+, good for fifth, but he persists.

"We got Miguel Cabrera. Donaldson. A bunch of hitters. And then I'm behind them."

Modesty, feigned or otherwise, tempers Altuve's self-reflection. Perhaps that same impulse compels him to name an innocuous grounder as the best moment of an MVP campaign laden with bigger, splashier hits. It stands to reason ... until Correa points to this same moment as his favorite Altuve play of 2016. McHugh and Colby Rasmus do the same. And Craig Biggio, Houston's Hall of Fame second baseman, echoes them, too. One man's innocuous grounder is another man's gem, proof of how he uniquely elevates his team.

Like much of Altuve's journey, it starts with an unforeseen bounce.

Altuve's just a few feet off the bag when Drew Smyly, on the mound for Tampa, throws to Brad Miller at first base to keep the speedy second baseman in check; he has swiped 27 bases this year. It looks like Altuve has been picked off, but -- oh! -- Smyly's toss ricochets off Miller's glove, skips to the warning track, and Altuve runs ahead, uncontested.

Altuve is safe at second.

Before he was their surest playmaker, Altuve was the Astros' most confounding puzzle.

Go ahead: Comb the archives for 5-foot-6 dynamos who can hit the ball with relentlessly consistent abandon. You'll find a sepia-toned Hack Wilson, who stood at Altuve's height and went yard 20-plus times in six different seasons ... mostly in the Roaring '20s. Beyond him, the cupboard is awfully bare. So when Omar Lopez, the Astros' Venezuelan scout and hitting instructor, traveled to Barquisimeto and watched Altuve play for the first time on a tropical day in August 2006, he hoped Altuve only looked that small from his far-off vantage point in the stadium's nosebleeds. Lopez went down to field level after the game, angling to get a better look, hoping to get confirmation Altuve wasn't that short. He couldn't be, right?

He was.

"Wow, he's little," Lopez muttered to himself. "He's real little."

Lopez hadn't even come to Barquisimeto to see Altuve; rather, he'd dropped by to check out a shortstop on the team's radar. But it was Altuve, from Maracay, who caught his eye, not on one play alone, but on the countless times he sprayed the ball to right and center field, bat hitting ball on an endless loop; in the contact he made and the sound of his bat when he made it.

Lopez invited Altuve to a mini-camp at the Astro's Venezuelan academy in Valencia a few weeks later, after which Al Pedrique, the Astros' special assistant, offered him a contract and a $15,000 signing bonus. Pedrique, like Lopez, was taken with Altuve's bat, the quickness of his hands and the power he showed despite his frame. "He's not going to embarrass anybody," Pedrique promised the Astros.

Pedrique liked Altuve. So did Lopez. The duo, along with Ricky Bennett, the Astros' farm director, vouched for Altuve and attached their names and reputations to a short, skinny, sneaky-talented Venezuelan. They still bet low. Lopez saw him reaching Double-A, maybe even Triple-A ball. Pedrique thought he'd hit .270 or .280, then leave his footprint as an average major leaguer with a host of stolen bases to his name.

"I just never thought he'd be a superstar."

Altuve is quiet, almost introspective on the matter. He's less resentful than simply aware of the fact of his height's past prejudices. The sky is blue. The grass is green. Altuve is short, and the world still spins.

"I put myself in their position," he says. "I know it's really hard to believe in a guy my size."

Still, even old slights can keep their sting. Back in Maracay, that same undersized teen didn't make the invitation cut for a friend's quinceañera. The crime? His unforgivable, irredeemable social gaffe? Altuve wore the same shirt and the same shoes all the time, no matter the event.

"Now, what about now?!" he hollered, just last month, blood boiling over a 10-year-old indignity. "I've got plenty of shoes in my closet! I've got plenty of T-shirts! What's she going to say now?"

Correa loves that story. He couldn't get enough when he heard Altuve relive his past shame on a road trip to Minnesota. "I was just dying."

Correa simply cannot reconcile his All-Star second baseman with the sad-sack teenager who fell on the low rung of Maracay's social food chain. Correa is 6-foot-4, so Altuve barely clears his shoulders, but Correa looks up to him. The two share a complex handshake ritual: right hand forward, right hand back, two taps, JUMP. They face off in FIFA with the kind of vigor that incites religious wars. And they stand shoulder to shoulder in the dugout, trading questions, swapping wisdom. Tuve, what are looking for in that pitcher's delivery? What pitches are you gonna sit on? Why this? Why that? Why?

Correa picks his brain incessantly, a 6-foot gnat buzzing forever in Altuve's orbit. Jason Castro and Marwin Gonzalez do the same. McHugh and Cy Young winner Dallas Keuchel do too, eager to add another weapon to their arsenal: a view from the other side, courtesy of one of the game's most prolific hitters. Altuve's MVP case is made on more than his batting average, OPS or the newfound pop in his bat, his teammates say: Altuve's truest value to this Astros club is in the insight he lends, the peek-behind-the-curtain of his stock room of baseball acumen.

"If we didn't have him," Keuchel says, "we wouldn't be right in the thick of things."

And so when they all say their favorite Altuve play transpires after the Rays' first baseman lobs a lazy dribbler back to the pitcher, it makes a perfect kind of sense. What happens next? Altuve takes off, like he has before, when no one expects him to. When, perhaps, no one else would have.

Altuve stands at second for just a heartbeat, when Brad Miller tosses the ball back to the mound casually. A little too casually because -- oh! -- Altuve pauses for a split second, hops, gathering momentum, and then bolts.

"Now he's going to third!" the Astros' play-by-play man screams giddily, breathlessly. "Jose Altuve is running wild!"

He dives headfirst into a cloud of dust and rubber; the Rays' throw to third comes in just behind him. Altuve raises a hand toward the umpire to make sure he beat the throw, and gets his confirmation.

Altuve is safe at third.

Baseball is a game of failure. Jose Altuve doesn't care.

Last October, in the minutes after Kansas City closer Wade Davis finished off the Astros in order -- first Preston Tucker, then Altuve, then Springer -- to take the 2015 American League Division Series, Altuve walked into Houston manager A.J. Hinch's office.

Altuve was still in his uniform. His eyes were wet. And he apologized. He felt personally at fault, he said, for the team's early exit from the postseason.

"This has nothing to do with you," Hinch reassured Altuve. "You had a great year. We had a great year. Be proud."

In truth, Altuve posted very un-Altuvian numbers in the Astros' five games against the eventual World Series champions. He went just 3-for-22, came up with no extra-base hits and collected only one RBI. Altuve wants, and expects, to be the difference for his club, and in the ALDS, he felt, he fell short.

He needed an offseason palate cleanser.

Altuve spent his first four years in the league as one of its best bad-ball hitters, long finding ways to succeed when, by all rights, he should not. He jumped to swat at pitches flying over his 5-6 frame. He lunged for a ball clear in the other batter's box. Usually he made contact. Then in a well-documented about-face, Altuve decided heading into 2016 that this was the year he'd improve his plate discipline.

A couple of days after Houston's pitchers and catchers reported to Kissimmee, Florida, in the spring, Altuve left the clubhouse after practice and spotted a few of his old minor league mates, Omar Lopez, from the Astros' Venezuelan summer league team, and Rodney Linares, his High Class-A manager in Greeneville. The two were heading back to the Astros' minor league complex, but Altuve asked them to make a pit stop at the batting cage.

"Flick me the ball here, here, and here," he told them.

"Middle in."

"Now middle away."

He wanted to work on his approach at the plate, he said. They did, that afternoon, and for the next two afternoons, 20 or so extra minutes after team workouts. Altuve took his reps -- 30 to 40 swings in all each day -- honing his discipline, forcing himself to be exactly what he had never been before: picky at the plate.

It's practically Tiger Woodsian, this biological imperative to, if not overhaul, then obsessively fine-tune an approach that is so far from broken. The net result of that tinkering: his lowest O-swing rate in four years (32.5 percent), the highest walk rate of his career (8.3 percent), a productivity surge that dwarfs his previous best (94 RBIs; 66 last year) and a power boost (24 home runs) that has already eclipsed his combined output from 2013 and 2014.

"I'm trying to drive the ball, not just slap the ball and get hits or put it in play," he says. "My strikeouts are going up, but I don't care. My other numbers are going up, too."

He is Jose Altuve, next generation: all of the perks of the old model, now on turbo-drive.

Altuve wipes the dirt off his pant leg and waits.

He's a whirl of movement most days, stopping and starting in the base paths, watching his teammates take batting practice in the field, his quick, short stutter steps a giveaway he's swaying to a beat only he can hear. In the clubhouse, he's something of an early 2000's pop connoisseur, dancing to the Backstreet Boys or NSYNC or the Jonas Brothers. He's so rarely still, which is really how he got here, at third base, in the first place.

With Altuve looking on from third, Carlos Correa draws a walk, so Evan Gattis steps up to the plate. He looks at a few pitches before looping a single that glides over second and hops into center field. Altuve trots leisurely -- no need to rush this time -- slows up, and taps his foot on the plate. The Astros grab the 2-0 lead. Altuve is safe at home.

When he scored from third on the grounder-turned-extra-base-bonanza, Altuve gave the Astros a classically Altuve-like boost. "Other guys would've gotten to second, put their head down, let the guy lob it, and then ... whatever," Craig Biggio says.

The single run turned out to be the difference that night in Houston, and the Astros would skate by the Rays 5-4. His wasn't the game winner -- that honor would go to Gattis, with his walk-off homer to left in the bottom of the ninth. But once again, Altuve found a way to be the pivot point.

It's possible, even probable, that Altuve's margin of victory just won't be enough by season's end. After steamrolling through August, he has come back to Earth in September. Time is running out for the 2016 Houston Astros. The division has long been out of reach; for now, they're outside the wild-card spots, too. If their season does end on Oct. 2 -- if the only kind of accolade Altuve can hope for this year is individual -- then he might have made his strongest argument on that night in late August, with that sea of green seats looming over his shoulder.

Watching Altuve run the bases -- blazing to first, sprinting to second, sneaking into third -- Astros broadcaster Alan Ashby posed a question.

"What does an MVP look like?" he asked.

"Look at this play."

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