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SportsColumnistsDavid Lennon

Jose Altuve denies Yankees, fans of total satisfaction

Houston Astros second baseman Jose Altuve hits a

Houston Astros second baseman Jose Altuve hits a three-run home run against the Yankees during the eighth inning at Yankee Stadium on Thursday, May 6, 2021. Credit: Kathleen Malone-Van Dyke

Revenge doesn’t quite fit in describing what Jose Altuve did Thursday to the Yankees -- and the 10,042 fans at the Stadium -- with one swing at Chad Green’s neck-high fastball in the eighth inning.

Altuve is the one with the ’17 MVP trophy he stole from Aaron Judge. His Astros still have their World Series rings from that same year, along with the "piece of metal" they swiped from the Dodgers.

In reality, what did Altuve really need payback for? It was general manager Jeff Luhnow and manager AJ Hinch who paid for that cheating scandal with their jobs (Luhnow remains in exile, Hinch now has the same gig with the lowly Tigers). As for Altuve and his teammates, they got to play the 2020 season in empty, pandemic-cleared stadiums -- devoid of the verbal abuse they so richly deserved. Other than being used for target practice by a few AL West foes, the Astros pretty much skated for their trash-can banging escapades.

So what was on the line for Altuve during these three games in the Bronx? Nothing really, in the grand scheme of things. He’s got his. It was the Yankees who needed the sweep, just to deprive the Astros any crumb of happiness during their trip to New York, and satisfy the bloodlust of a seriously ticked-off fan base at the Stadium.

And Altuve robbed the Bronx of that Thursday, by clubbing Green’s full-count pitch over the leftfield wall for a three-run homer in the eighth inning that flipped a 3-2 Yankees’ lead and proved to be the separator in the Astros’ 7-4 victory. Afterward, Altuve was given every chance to crow about silencing the Stadium, but he refused. Despite the days of unending harassment, Altuve wanted us to believe it was no more gratifying than any other homer that spurred a Houston win.

"I think I’m just a guy that just wants to go out there and help his team to win," Altuve said. "It doesn’t matter where we’re playing, against another team, it’s going to mean the same for me always -- that I can help my team to win."

Every Astro was tormented by the fans this week, none more so than Altuve, who was besieged at a decibel level unmatched by any of his teammates. On Thursday, the only reason we knew it was Altuve’s 31st birthday was because of the chant he received as a gift: a relentlessly loud "[expletive] YOUR BIRTHDAY!" from the boisterous crowd. We’re better off not knowing what happened to the cake and candles.

For most of this series, the verbal assault appeared to work. Altuve went 1-for-8 with a harmless single in the Astros’ first two losses, and he tacked on another single in the first inning Thursday before going hitless in his next two at-bats. By the eighth, the Yankees were clinging to a 3-2 lead, but Green was faltering, and Altuve stepped to the plate with one out and two runners on.

The fans immediately rose to the occasion, turning up the volume on their "CHEAT-EEERRR!" refrain to the highest of the afternoon as the count went full. Then Green went upstairs, well out of the strike zone, with a 96.3-mph fastball that the 5-6 Altuve absolutely hammered. The Yankees’ bullpen was riding a nine-inning scoreless streak before that swing, and it marked the first time in Green’s career that someone took him deep with a 96-plus fastball above the zone.

"That was on-time," Astros manager Dusty Baker said. "He couldn’t have scripted it any better."

Baker recalled talking to Altuve before the game about potentially hitting a home run on his birthday, but made no mention of shutting up the mouthy Yankee fans. We’re not sure how that wasn’t the No. 1 priority. The Astros did their best to avoid stoking that fire this week, which was probably a smart idea. And even with this series over, they probably envision coming back at some point in October, so why talk trash this early.

Maybe Altuve played it cool, but there were others that felt like celebrating. When Altuve headed back toward the dugout, there was a conga line of Astros waiting with their personalized handshakes, something that’s usually done at home rather than on the enemy’s home turf. A few players even turned around at the dugout roof and clapped toward the stands, reveling briefly in the moment.

"They’re passionate fans who are going to let you know, but we’re OK, though," said Astros starter Lance McCullers Jr. who held the Yankees to three runs over six innings. "We knew what to expect, and I mentioned it the other day -- we’re all grown men here and we know what we gotta do."

Revenge for Altuve? To a small degree, perhaps. And despite having mostly fun this week at the Astros’ expense, it’s the Yankees who still are craving the payback that only October can provide.

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