HOUSTON -- The Astros were fighting their way through the first of a four-year rebuild when they thrust a 21-year-old second baseman into big league action.
Jose Altuve, who at the time of his callup on July 19, 2011, had played just 35 games at Double-A, was a scrappy, undersized talent whose offensive doings could not be ignored. The 5-foot-6 Altuve had proven to be remarkably consistent at the plate, a trait the Astros hoped would translate two levels up. They needed bodies on the field, and Altuve seemingly would suffice.
"When they called me, I thought they were taking me to Triple-A," Altuve recalled on Wednesday as the Astros prepare for Game 1 of the American League Division Series presented by Doosan today at Minute Maid Park. "They took me straight to the big leagues. I couldn't believe it, but as soon as I got here, I knew I was going to work to stay here. I wanted to stay here through the bad times to see these good times."
All these years later, the bright spot of the many lean seasons in Houston is still shining, and these good times have the makings to be the best of times.
Behind Altuve, unquestionably the heart and soul of these Astros, Houston will look to make amends for a disheartening exit in the 2015 ALDS against the Royals.
Altuve, who has made a habit out of surpassing expectations since being signed for $15,000 as a 16-year-old out of Venezuela, wrapped up his fourth 200-hit season and claimed his third batting championship in four years with a Major League-best .346 average.
"We expected it out of Altuve, 200 hits," manager A.J. Hinch said. "Unfortunately that's not fair to him, but that's what's expected."
Yet, Altuve, a strong AL MVP Award candidate, is always yearning for more.
"He just won the batting title and he thinks he could've done better," Astros outfielder George Springer said. "I don't know anybody that would be unhappy hitting .350, and he is, and that's a testament to who he is."
Springer wasn't around during the dire days of three consecutive 100-loss seasons. Among the members of this 101-win Astros club, it's a short list: Altuve and countryman Marwin Gonzalez.
"We earned this," Altuve said. "It took discipline and a lot of work to get to this point, and I'm really, really enjoying it. It's not about numbers anymore, it's not about you being the hero, it's about you helping your team to win. I feel really happy that I was here for the 100 losses, and now I'm here for my second playoffs."
"This is way better," Gonzalez said. "It wasn't fun showing up every day and you had the feeling like you were going to lose, like we were finding ways to lose games."
Gonzalez, who arrived in 2012, closely watched Altuve's exploits -- "I knew he was a special guy." -- and formed a friendship Gonzalez counts among his biggest treasures. So honored are all of Altuve's teammates to share this experience with him.
"He's a very honorable guy," Springer said. "He works his butt off. He doesn't really settle for anything. He's our leader, he's our guy. He was a part of those 100-loss teams, and that's hard. To see him be the player he is now is awesome, and to have that script flip is great."
Jane Lee is a reporter for MLB.com. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.