Jose Altuve, the Yips, and Some Sympathy for the Astros

Every baseball player fears the affliction, the sudden mental block that prevents them from making a routine throw. It goes by a funny name — the yips — but it is invisible and terrifying. You would not wish it on your worst enemy, even if he is Jose Altuve, the best player for the notorious 2017 Houston Astros.

“I don’t wish cancer on people who wrong me in some form or fashion,” Brandon McCarthy, a former Los Angeles Dodgers pitcher, wrote on Twitter late Tuesday night. “This is baseball cancer.”

McCarthy experienced the yips late in his career, before recovering to pitch for the Dodgers in the 2017 World Series, when the Astros were stealing signs on their way to a championship. Now, after a 5-2 loss on Tuesday, Houston has dropped the first three games of the American League Championship Series to the Tampa Bay Rays, and Altuve’s sudden throwing problems are a big reason.

Altuve, a second baseman, made two throwing errors in Game 2 on Monday, the first with two outs in the first inning. Manuel Margot followed with a three-run homer, and the Rays won by one run.

In Game 3 on Tuesday, with the Astros leading by 1-0 in the sixth inning, Altuve tried to start a double play but bounced his throw to second, well in front of shortstop Carlos Correa. Instead of having two outs and the bases empty, the Rays had no outs and two runners on. They went on to score five runs in the inning.

On Twitter, McCarthy called the condition “suffocating,” and responded to followers who insisted he could not really feel badly for a member of the 2017 Astros.

“In this scenario, I absolutely do,” he wrote. “0-20 with 10 K’s and a sweep? Wouldn’t care. But this is a whole other thing, and I refuse to find joy in it.”

Altuve did not speak with reporters after Tuesday’s game. His teammate, left fielder Michael Brantley, said, “It’s a team effort; we win or lose together,” and indeed, there was plenty of blame to go around.

The Astros are 4 for 24 with runners in scoring position in this series, and none of those hits have brought in runs. They have scored only five runs in three games — two on solo homers by Altuve — and have stranded 31 runners in all.

“Boy, that’s a big number,” Manager Dusty Baker said. “The way I look at it, we’re due. We’re due big-time to push some runners across.”

Altuve will be part of that effort for Game 4, said Baker, who vowed to keep him at second base, where he handled 194 chances in the regular season without a single throwing error.

“Oh, for sure,” Baker said. “Yeah, yeah, yeah. That’s without a doubt. That doesn’t help us, and it would certainly kill him.”

Altuve, who has won a Gold Glove, a Most Valuable Player Award and three batting titles, had the worst offensive numbers of his career this season: a .219 average and a .629 on-base plus slugging percentage. But he has played for the Astros for 10 seasons — longer than any teammate — and the Astros gave him $163.5 million in a seven-year contract that runs through 2024. They are not about to abandon him.

“It’s tough to see this happening to such a great player and such a great guy,” said Baker, who conceded he did not know if Altuve had the yips. “It’s just, I don’t know what it’s called — you can go into a defensive slump the same way you go into an offensive slump, and the physical turns mental. We’ve certainly got to get past this.”

On the field after the error, Correa told Altuve to keep his head up, promising that the Astros would win and reminding Altuve there was plenty of game left. Altuve nodded in response, but said nothing. After the game, Correa blamed himself for the play.

“I feel like I make that pick nine out of 10, and I didn’t,” he said. “I was not able to pick my teammate up on that one. When I look back on the replay, I wish I could have that play back because I know I can make that play and I can make that pick. I know the error goes to him, but I blame myself for that one.”

Correa called Altuve a future Hall of Famer, and with more than 1,600 hits at age 30, Altuve is on track. There is no way to tell if the throwing problems will linger into Game 4, let alone into next season and beyond. One All-Star second baseman, Steve Sax, conquered the yips. Another, Chuck Knoblauch, never did.

“Nobody feels worse than Jose, because he takes it very serious and takes it to heart,” Baker said. “He’s one of ours. We’ve all been through this before; not in this spotlight like this. It hurts us all to see him hurting. We’ll give him all the support that he needs.”

Altuve got no sympathy from the home plate umpire, Jeff Nelson, when he tried to check his swing with two runners on in the bottom of the ninth. Altuve represented the tying run with one out, but he was tempted by two-strike slider and tried to hold up. Nelson, who did not seek help from the umpire at first base, called Altuve out, and soon the game was over.

The strikeout was a physical failure, caused by a biting slider from Diego Castillo. For those who wish ill upon the Astros for 2017, it was fair game to cheer — and McCarthy did just that. “See now that,” he tweeted after the strikeout, “I have exactly zero pity for.”

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