LOS ANGELES – The image from the pennant-trophy presentation neatly captured the Jose Altuve-Carlos Correa dynamic.
On the stage during the on-field ceremonies after the Houston Astros claimed the American League championship, both middle infielders wore expressions of satisfaction as the 6-4 Correa draped his arm over the shoulder of the 5-6 Altuve. They looked like brothers whose parents were about to reward them for a good deed.
Their positions on the field bring them together, as do their spots in the lineup as the No. 3 and 4 hitters in Houston’s potent attack. But it’s their mutual affinity off the field that forms the strongest bond. Altuve and Correa have lockers next to each other, hook up for dinner on the road and gather at times for family barbecues.
It may not be true that Altuve and Correa are inseparable, but it takes some effort to pry them apart.
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“This team gets along very well. We have very good chemistry,’’ Altuve said on the eve of Tuesday’s Game 1 of the World Series, pitting the Astros against the Los Angeles Dodgers. “But Carlos and I have a little extra. I don’t know if it’s because we’re a shortstop and a second baseman or because we’re both Latin guys, but it’s really a very good relationship.’’
It began in the spring trainings before Correa reached the majors in 2015 as a former No. 1 overall draft pick out of Puerto Rico. The Venezuelan-born Altuve, who had broken in in 2011, showed the heralded prospect the ropes, where to go, how to behave in a major league clubhouse.
Their partnership has helped lift an Astros team that lost 111 games as recently as 2013 to two playoff berths in the last three years and the franchise’s second World Series appearance since its inception in 1962.
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As a second baseman, Altuve has always made a point of establishing a rapport with his double-play partner that goes beyond their play around second base. He also got along well with previous Houston shortstops Jed Lowrie, Jonathan Villar and Marwin Gonzalez, believing such connections benefit the team.
“But he and Correa take it to another level,’’ Astros general manager Jeff Luhnow said. “They can almost anticipate each other’s moves, which allows them to do things other combinations aren’t able to do. It’s like watching art unfold before your eyes.’’
Besides anchoring the infield at positions that traditionally oriented toward fielding, Altuve and Correa form the nucleus of an offense that scored the most runs in the big leagues.
Altuve, 27, just won his third batting title with a .346 average and led the AL in hits for a fourth year in a row while finishing third in the league in on-base plus slugging percentage at .957, tops among major league second basemen.
Correa, 23, missed 42 games with a thumb injury but still set career highs with 24 home runs and a .941 OPS, the highest of any shortstop.
No other second base-shortstop combination had both players with an OPS of .900 or above. The Indians’ Jose Ramirez (.957) and Francisco Lindor (.842) came closest.
“Throughout the history of baseball, middle infield is one of those positions where you haven’t always had to hit really well. You can get by with your glove,’’ Astros pitcher Collin McHugh said. “But they’ve come to the forefront as middle infielders who are maybe bat-first. Not so say their defense isn’t spectacular. They’re probably going to have multiple Gold Gloves by the end of their careers. But what they’re able to do offensively sets them apart from everybody else.’’
And, as often happens in brotherly-type relationships, they push each other to succeed. Correa, the 2015 AL rookie of the year, finds inspiration in Altuve’s persistent desire to improve.
After overcoming the bias he frequently encountered because of his stature, Altuve made the All-Star team in his first full season of 2012, when he batted .290 with a .740 OPS for a last-place team that lost 107 games. But when he got caught stealing a league-high 13 times in 2013, Altuve decided to focus on his baserunning the next season and led the AL with 56 steals while batting .341.
The next year he wanted to improve his fielding and wound up winning the Gold Glove. In the last two seasons, Altuve has made more of an effort to drive the ball while adding a leg kick. That paid off in back-to-back seasons of 24 homers and more than 81 RBI.
“He’s never pleased,’’ said Correa, who views Altuve as an older brother. “If he gets three hits in a game, he wants four. He has four and wants five. That impresses me.’’
Even though some metrics rank Correa as merely a slightly above-average defensive shortstop, Altuve often calls him the best player in baseball. Certainly, few possess his combination of athleticism and canon arm, let alone the offensive prowess.
In addition, Correa has long displayed maturity beyond his years, one of the reasons the Astros were so taken with him when deciding whom to choose with the top pick in the 2012 draft.
In Game 2 of the AL Championship Series, facing the majors’ hardest thrower in New York Yankees closer Aroldis Chapman, a poised Correa drilled a double that drove in Altuve with the winning run in a 2-1 walkoff victory.
Four games later, it was Altuve’s turn to play the hero, with a little help from his compadre. Altuve’s two-run single off Yankees starter Luis Severino was the key blow in a rally that set the Astros on course for a 7-1 victory that tied the ALCS. He also homered in the 4-0 win in Game 7.
“I think at least 100 of the 200 hits I had this year were because of Carlos,’’ Altuve said. “He would come up to me in the on-deck circle and say, ‘Hey, this guy throws this stuff, try to do this.’ So I would do that and get a hit. On that hit I got against Severino with the bases full, he gave me some encouragement and told me, ‘Let’s go. You’re the one to deliver this hit.’ That meant a lot to me. I went up to home plate and got the hit.’’