Yordan Alvarez comes alive as Astros salvage finale of disappointing homestand

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HOUSTON — He is hitting in a new spot but reprising his familiar role, the force around which the Houston Astros offense functions. Yordan Alvarez can conceal this club’s flaws and end its slumps with one or two swings. A sputtering lineup awaited his arrival for six games, an eternity for someone who can make the sport look so simple.

Alvarez opened the season with three singles in his first 24 at-bats. He bemoaned feeling rushed in the batter’s box and became the victim of some poor batted ball luck. Houston scored 12 runs in the five games it lost while Alvarez searched for his vintage form.

During his final at-bat of the fifth defeat Tuesday, Alvarez timed up a hanging slider from Toronto southpaw Tim Mayza. He pulled the baseball to right field but missed his barrel by a matter of inches. He descended the dugout steps after flying out, found manager Joe Espada and explained, “I’m close.”

“Any time he says he’s close,” Espada said, “he feels it.”

Alvarez arrived at Minute Maid Park on Wednesday still without an extra-base hit. By the time he departed, he trailed only Jose Altuve for the team lead. Alvarez hit two home runs, added a double and drove in three of Houston’s eight runs during an 8-0 evisceration of the Toronto Blue Jays.

Alvarez matched his season hit total after his third at-bat and exceeded it after the fourth. All five balls he put in play exited his bat 105 mph or harder. Alvarez’s fifth career four-hit game eased any worries about his slow start — if any existed at all.

“It was a matter of time, but any time he can put some good swings like that and hit some balls hard, it’s a good sign,” Espada said. “That’s exactly what we needed, especially doing it with people on base. I think it’s contagious. It spread throughout the lineup the whole entire night.”

Altuve and Jeremy Peña provided home runs of their own during Houston’s 15-hit barrage. All but one of the Astros’ starters collected at least one hit, authoring a catharsis to complete an underwhelming season-opening homestand at 2-5.

“That was something we talked about with the guys, try to get today’s win and go into the off day with a fresh mind,” Alvarez said through an interpreter. “We’ve been in this situation in the past and it’s too early in the season to be worrying about things like this, but we’ve been like this in the past and we need to go out there and continue to win.”

Alvarez made just one major adjustment Wednesday: switching to the bats he used last season. He never felt out of sync with his swing or setup but did acknowledge an adjustment to hitting second in the batting order. Alvarez never hit higher than third in either 2022 or 2023, but Espada made it a priority in his first season to put his best hitter in a position to take more plate appearances.

Batting second means standing behind one of the sport’s quickest hitters. No other active major leaguer has more first-pitch hits than Altuve. He sees just 3.46 pitches per plate appearance — major-league average is 3.87 — and can sometimes force Alvarez to modify or rush his routine.

“For me, it’s basically about noticing where (Altuve) is and making sure I know where he is at all times,” Alvarez said. “Sometimes he’s sitting next to me and the next thing I know he’s already over there hitting, so I need to rush and get ready. But as long as I know where Altuve is, I think I’ll be OK.”

From the on-deck circle, Alvarez watched Altuve finish a two-pitch plate appearance to begin the third inning. Alvarez dug in to continue his career-long bullying of Toronto starter Chris Bassitt, who elevated a 2-1 sinker on the outer half of Alvarez’s strike zone. He deposited it 422 feet into the Astros’ bullpen.

Alvarez added two more hits off Bassitt and has eight hits in 18 career at-bats against him. Five are home runs. The two men crossed paths leaving the field after the fourth inning Wednesday.

“I wasn’t trying to run into him there, he was trying to run into me,” Alvarez said afterward with a smile. “Basically what he asked me is, ‘How do I get you out?’ And I don’t know.”

Few do. To start the sixth inning, Alvarez annihilated a towering solo home run off Mayza that traveled 444 feet and onto a pavilion above the Astros’ bullpen. Espada marveled at the well-executed sinker Mayza threw and the pure strength Alvarez had to send the baseball where “not a lot of people can” in right-center field

The only out Alvarez made traveled 404 feet and exited his bat at 105.4 mph. According to Statcast, the fly ball would’ve left 18 of the 30 major-league ballparks. Minute Maid Park is not one of them, a fate Alvarez realized while ambling to first base. He wore a mischievous grin while Kevin Kiermaier secured the baseball on the center field warning track.

“Yeah,” Alvarez said with a sigh, “welcome to Minute Maid.”

Alvarez remained lighthearted and joked in a clubhouse that could finally be upbeat. Starting 2-5 led to some silent, even stunned, postgame gatherings. Wednesday’s win did not solve everything that ails them. The lineup left the bases loaded in two of the first three frames en route to stranding 10 runners, swelling its total to 54 across the season’s first seven games.

The Astros struck four singles during 14 at-bats with runners in scoring position. Peña and Chas McCormick provided consecutive ones during the fifth, widening a lead while continuing an early-season concern.

Houston is 15-for-67 with runners in scoring position during its first seven games. All but two of those hits are singles, forcing a team built for slugging to play station-to-station baseball. While Alvarez remained absent, Houston could not.

When he awoke Wednesday, it wasn’t required.

(Photo: Logan Riely / Getty Images)

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