HOUSTON — Jose Altuve had just arrived in the Astros dugout after launching his third home run of the game when George Springer grabbed his right biceps and examined it, as if searching for an explanation for his teammate’s extraordinary pop.
“He makes sure he stays on top of his gym routine, whatever it is,” Springer said. “The dude is just a joke.”
The major league batting champion put on an unprecedented show of power Thursday as Houston roughed up Chris Sale and the Boston Red Sox 8-2 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.
“As soon as I cross the white line, I feel the same size as everyone else,” Altuve said.
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.
“I told him the last time I’ve seen three home runs in a game was Pablo Sandoval and I gave up two of them, so I’m glad there’s somebody new that’s done it,” winning pitcher Justin Verlander said.
Altuve became the first Astros player to hit three homers in one game since 2007, when Carlos Lee did it in the regular season. He seemed as surprised as anyone else that he was now in a category with the Sultan of Swat, Reggie Jackson and Albert Pujols.
“I hit one and I was like: ‘Wow,’” he said. “And the second one is like: ‘Wow, what’s going on here?”
And his thoughts after the third?
“I got to wake up,” he said, flashing a huge grin.
After he finished talking to Springer following his third shot, Altuve’s teammates 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.”
Verlander pitched six effective innings and improved to 6-0 since Houston got him in late trade with Detroit. He is 5-0 with a 2.24 ERA in nine career starts in the division series.
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 main reason this team ran away with the AL West title this year.
“First off, how good is Jose Altuve?” Houston manager A.J. Hinch asked. “It’s incredible to watch him step up and be every bit the star that we needed today for sure. It’s hard to describe in different ways.”
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.
“Anytime he mislocated, particularly in the middle of the plate, they made him pay for it ... And then his slider was hit and miss today,” manager John Farrell said. “Some were flat, some had good depth, but the inconsistency to the location pitch to pitch is a difference in this one against a team that makes you pay.”
After fanning 308 in the regular season, Sale 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.
“Never really gave my team a chance to win. Put them in a hole early,” Sale said. “They fought back and they fought back hard and I gave it right back to them. It happens (but a) terrible time for it to happen.”
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. He pulled up running to first base on a groundout in the first inning before falling to the ground. Nunez missed 19 of Boston’s last 20 regular-season games with what the team called a sore knee. The Red Sox said he had re-aggravated his knee injury and he was replaced by Hanley Ramirez.
“We have got to go through a protocol here to determine his inactivity before we make a roster move,” Farrell said. “But I think it’s pretty safe to say, given how he went down today, he would not be available.”
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.