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Altuve sends Astros into orbit

‘We were really down. We didn’t want to go home down by one… so it was good to hit that one and get the team to win.’

Jose Altuve sparkles in the Houston Astros’ 5-4 comeback win over the Texas Rangers in their American League playoff game. | Carmen Mandato/Agence France-Presse

WASHINGTON (AFP) — Jose Altuve smashed a three-run home run in the ninth inning to deliver defending champion Houston a dramatic 5-4 comeback victory over Texas on Friday in the Major League Baseball playoffs.

The 33-year-old Venezuelan second baseman, talisman of the Astros’ dynasty run, rallied the visitors after a benches-clearing scuffle in the eighth inning saw two players and Astros manager Dusty Baker ejected.

Altuve blasted his 26th career MLB playoff homer off Rangers closer Jose Leclerc to give Houston a 3-2 lead in the best-of-seven American League Championship Series, moving the Astros within one win of their third consecutive World Series and fifth in seven seasons.

“We were really down. We didn’t want to go home down by one… so it was good to hit that one and get the team to win,” said Altuve, who rated it his best playoff homer.

Also rallying to win was Arizona, which edged Philadelphia 6-5 to level the National League Championship Series at 2-2 with game five on Saturday in Phoenix.

“It’s an awesome feeling,” said Arizona’s Alek Thomas, who hit a two-run homer. “We’re going to keep doing our thing.”

The Astros, who downed Philadelphia in last year’s World Series, have now won 19 of their past 22 road games and seven in a row at Texas.

“That was a huge victory,” Baker said. “This will go down in history.”

Texas outfielder Adolis Garcia crushed a three-run homer in the sixth to give the Rangers a 4-2 lead before he was tossed as intense emotions boiled over.

Garcia was hit by a pitch from Houston’s Bryan Abreu, sparking a melee that saw both players and Baker ejected.

“It was just the heat of the moment,” Garcia said. “I just reacted to being hit by the pitch… he could have hurt me.”

The Rangers must win game six Sunday in Houston to sustain hope of their first World Series trip since 2011.

“You’re going to get punched in the gut,” Rangers manager Bruce Bochy said. “They’ve done a great job of bouncing back all year and I’m confident they will.”

Solo homers by Houston’s Alex Bregman and Texas’ Nathaniel Lowe, and Jose Abreu’s run-scoring single in the sixth put Houston ahead 2-1.

Garcia belted his fourth homer of the playoffs off Astros starter Justin Verlander to give Texas a two-run edge.

Tensions flared in the bottom of the eighth when Abreu hit the 30-year-old Cuban slugger with a fastball and Garcia reacted angrily, confronting Houston players.

“He could have injured me,” Garcia said. “I just let him know that shouldn’t happen there.”

Teammates needed to restrain Garcia after both squads ran from the dugout onto the field.

“I don’t think anybody likes to get hit, especially by a 95-mph fastball,” Altuve said of Garcia. “He got a little mad, but hopefully it doesn’t go beyond this.”

Umpires decided Abreu deliberately hit Garcia with the pitch and ejected him, Garcia and Baker, who argued in vain the Astros didn’t want another baserunner.

“I haven’t been that mad in a long time,” Baker said. “I was just seeing red.”

“I know Abreu. I know he’s not trying to hit anybody in a two-run game in the post-season,” Bregman said. “Everyone is amped up because this is what we play for.”

In the ninth, Houston’s Yainer Diaz singled, Jon Singleton walked and Altuve smashed the ball over the left-field wall to plate the winning runs.

“I was just focused on getting one pitch in the middle I could really hit,” Altuve said. “And it happened.”

At Phoenix, Philadelphia’s Kyle Schwarber blasted a solo homer in the fourth inning, his 19th career playoff homer, the most by a left-handed batter.

Philadelphia took a 5-2 lead after Johan Rojas tripled and scored on Trea Turner’s sacrifice fly in the seventh, but the Diamondbacks pulled level on a bases-loaded walk in the seventh and Thomas’s homer in the eighth.

Arizona’s Ketel Marte singled with two outs in the eighth, advanced on a hit batter and scored the final run on Gabriel Moreno’s single.

Schwarber hit a two-out double in the ninth but Turner then struck out to end the game.

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