SAN DIEGO — Jose Altuve stood alone a few feet to the right of second base, looking down at the infield dirt.
Four of his Houston Astros teammates and manager Dusty Baker were at the mound for a pitching change, but Altuve held back, alone with his thoughts in the middle of an empty ballpark.
A ground ball had just come his way, a chance to start a double play in a taut Game 3 of the American League Championship Series on Tuesday night. But what should have been a routine throw to second base bounced into left field for Altuve’s third error of the series.
It led to the Rays scoring five runs in the inning, and a 5-2 victory that gave them a 3-0 lead in the best-of-seven series.
“It was a nightmare inning,” Baker said.
The Rays are 8-2 in the postseason and have won 17 of 21 going back to the regular season. They’re a deep, well-prepared team playing extremely well. Their defensive alignments are so precise that it feels like there are extra players on the field stealing hits away from the Astros.
But it’s also hard to escape the feeling that the sport has somehow found a way to do what commissioner Rob Manfred should have in January, and is punishing the Astros for their sign-stealing, trashcan-banging chicanery en route to a championship in 2017.
Major League Baseball found the Astros guilty of widespread cheating. But only general manager Jeff Luhnow, manager A.J. Hinch, and bench coach Alex Cora were suspended and then subsequently fired.
Altuve and the other players were granted immunity for testifying against the bosses. Then they deflected responsibility when reporters descended on spring training.
The Astros further escaped punishment when fans weren’t allowed in ballparks for the pandemic-shortened season, saving them from 30 days of jeering. Houston even qualified for the playoffs with a losing record and made it through the first two rounds.
But justice, karma, or whatever you choose to label it has chased the Astros down and landed squarely on the shoulders of their longest-tenured player.
Altuve, who didn’t have a throwing error all season, suddenly can’t throw. He also failed to tag up on a sinking fly ball in the eighth inning, costing the Astros a run.
Altuve then came up in the ninth inning with two runners on and struck out on a called check swing that home plate umpire Jeff Nelson didn’t ask for help on. Altuve’s shouted expletive could be heard from the upper deck.
“We’ll give him all the support that we can,” Baker said. “Nobody takes it worse than Jose. He takes it very serious and takes it to heart … It hurts us all to see him hurting.”
The inability to make a routine throw — the yips — is something every player fears will suddenly strike, like a bolt of lightning on a clear day. It started for Altuve in Game 2, when he bounced two routine throws from short right field while the Astros were in a shift.
After the second error, shortstop Carlos Correa moved into right field on the shift and Altuve played on the infield near second base. Baker diplomatically said Altuve and Correa worked that out themselves and he trusted them to know what was best.
Then came the costly error on Tuesday. Altuve also made an awkward flip to second base on a force play in the ninth inning, handling the ball like it was hot to the touch.
But Baker didn’t hesitate when asked if Altuve would play second base in Game 4.
“For sure. Yeah. Yeah. That’s without a doubt,” he said. “That wouldn’t help us and it would certainly kill him.”
The Rays offered no sympathy.
“It’s surprising to see that,” manager Kevin Cash said. “But you do whatever you can to make the most of the opportunities that the opposition presents you.”
The Astros did not make Altuve available after the game. Others were left to speak on his behalf.
“Altuve’s a great player, man. He’s going to be a Hall of Famer. He’s going to bounce back from this,” Correa said. “I think he’ll be fine.”
The Rays are a win away from the second pennant in franchise history and a chance to get some rest before the World Series starts on Tuesday in Texas. They’ll have Tyler Glasnow on the mound against Zack Greinke.
No team has come back from a 3-0 deficit in a postseason series since the 2004 Red Sox in the ALCS against the Yankees.
“We need to put our big-boy pants on and come out fighting,” Baker said.