Altuve was not the only reason the Astros won the first two games of this series, each by a 2-1 score. Dallas Keuchel, who shut out the Yankees on four hits over seven innings in Game 1, and Justin Verlander, who had 13 strikeouts in his complete-game victory the next day, had more than a little bit to do with it.
But Altuve collected five hits in eight at-bats in those games, scoring two of the Astros’ four runs, stealing a base to set up one of those runs and generally playing with the kind of energy that made the Yankees appear somewhat flat-footed.
Altuve was the runner who barreled down on catcher Gary Sanchez at the end of Game 2, scoring the winning run all the way from first base as shortstop Didi Gregorius’s one-hop throw squirted out of Sanchez’s glove.
“We like to put pressure on teams,” Astros Manager A.J. Hinch said. “Altuve really ran well around the bases when the ball was hit.’’
Judge went 1 for 7 in the first two games of the series, drawing just one walk and striking out three times, although his lone hit would have counted as a tying single in Game 1 if Greg Bird had not been thrown out at the plate. Judge’s meager output was a continuation of his struggles in the first-round of the postseason, when he went 1 for 20 with 16 strikeouts against the Cleveland Indians.
But starting in Game 3 at Yankee Stadium, when Judge slammed into the right-field wall to make a running catch in the top of the fourth and then lined a fastball into the left-field seats in the bottom of the inning, the fortunes of the two players, and their teams, have been reversed.
In the Bronx, Judge has come alive at the plate, with a big home run and a double that ignited the Yankees’ comeback in Game 4 and another run-scoring hit in Game 5. Over all, he is now batting .313 (5 for 16) in the A.L.C.S., and his on-base-plus-slugging percentage has soared to 1.263.
Judge also made one of those plays that generally goes unnoticed, charging in from right field to take the final throw in a rundown that snared Yulieski Gurriel after his bases-clearing double had given the Astros a 3-0 lead in Game 4.
“He is not just a hitter. He’s a complete player,” Yankees Manager Joe Girardi said of Judge. “He’s a great defender. He’s a great base runner. He understands that the little things win you games.”
As Judge has surged, Altuve’s productivity has plummeted, along with that of the rest of the Houston lineup. He was hitless in the three games at Yankee Stadium, going 0 for 10 with three walks and a strikeout. His A.L.C.S. batting average is down to .278 from .625, and his on base-plus-slugging percentage has dropped to .659 from 1.250.
In those three games, the Yankees outscored Houston by a total of 19-5.
Back to the vote for the most valuable player. No less an authority than Reggie Jackson, a Yankees special adviser who has worked closely with Judge, cast an unofficial vote in an August interview. For Altuve.
“I’m partial to the kid Altuve, who is a 5-foot-4 guy, 5-foot-5 guy, but a giant of a player,” Jackson said on the MLB Network. “We have a guy on our ball club, Aaron Judge, who in time I think has a chance to develop into that special type of player that Jose Altuve already is.”
And before this series started, Altuve cast his own unofficial ballot.
“I’d probably vote for Judge,” he said. “Because he hit a lot of homers, a lot of R.B.I.s, he got on base a lot, and I like the way he plays.”
The results of the M.V.P. vote — the official ballots were cast before the postseason — will be announced next month. The contest between the Yankees and the Astros will be over by Saturday at the latest, and considering the way it has gone so far, either Altuve or Judge might be the player to settle it.