BOSTON — Jason Castro was an Astro long before it was cool, his 2010 debut even predating franchise cornerstone Jose Altuve’s arrival in Houston by a year.
It was Castro and Altuve who together wandered the desolation of 100-loss seasons and a regime change from general manager Ed Wade to a former consultant named Jeff Luhnow, who seemed determined to suck in order to thrive.
Yet as the Astros righted the ship and began to win, Castro’s path diverged, from 2013 All-Star to backup catcher to Minnesota Twin, leaving in 2017, the same year Altuve became an AL MVP and the Astros finally claimed a World Series title.
But Castro’s eventual journeyman path brought him back home and collided headlong with Altuve on Tuesday night at Fenway Park.
‘BOOM, BOOM, BOOM’: Astros score seven runs in ninth, beat Red Sox in Game 4
The Astros dynasty was teetering, six outs from falling into a 3-1 hole to the Boston Red Sox in this American League Championship Series, Altuve at the plate without a hit in his last 12 at-bats.
Altuve, once again, came through in the most crucial moment, slamming a game-tying home run. This time, though, his clutch hit would welcome Castro, 34, into the biggest spotlight of his career, a familiar face even if not a constant.
“It seems to me,” says Altuve, “like he’s always been an Astro.”
One strike away from allowing the Red Sox a chance to walk it off in the ninth, Castro delivered the biggest hit of his life, stroking a 2-2 pitch from Boston ace and relief hero Nathan Eovaldi up the middle for the go-ahead run.
A few more line drives later, and the Astros had a seven-run ninth, a 9-2 win and a ton of gratitude for their 34-year-old backup catcher.
Consider this: Castro entered the game with a career .091 playoff average. He drove in just 21 runs in 179 plate appearances this year, the Astros opting for receiver extraordinaire Martin Maldonado to handle the vast majority of innings from their young pitching staff.
And for six innings, he sat on the bench on a windy 59-degree night, no batting cage to get loose in an ancient ballpark with no such amenity for the visitors.
Never mind that he’d never faced Eovaldi, either. Castro winced while taking a 1-2 curveball for a ball, barely, at the top of the zone. One foul ball later, and he was a Houston legend.
“What impresses me the most is the fact he was sitting on the bench for seven innings, on a cold night, and you don’t have a batting cage nearby here because the ballpark is so old,” says shortstop Carlos Correa, whose leadoff double set the stage for Castro. “I admire that because I wouldn’t be able to do that.
“Sitting down for that long and going out and facing a guy throwing 100 at crunch time? That’s special.”
Indeed, Castro had seven hits in 18 pinch-hit appearances this season as the Astros won 95 games. Yet he did not hesitate to acknowledge his Game 4 go-ahead hit was the biggest of his life.
Contrast that with Altuve: His seventh-inning home run was the 21st playoff longball of his career, moving him into third place behind Bernie Williams (22) and Manny Ramirez (29).
He’s hit walk-off homers to win pennants, as he did off Aroldis Chapman in 2019, had a three-homer game off Chris Sale (who incidentally starts Game 5 on Wednesday) in the 2017 ALDS and turned around Game 5 of that World Series with another.
While those accomplishments are now heavily scrutinized due to the Astros’ sign-stealing scandal that year, his overall body of work is undeniable.
“He lives for those moments,” says Correa. “He’s one of the all-time greats in the playoffs, he’s going to be a Hall of Famer, he’s going to be one of the best second basemen to ever play the game.
“He’s one of those talents you only see every now and then.”
For his part, Castro now has a moment that will jump out when he’s regaling grandchildren or warming up the crowd at a charity roast. A handful of Astros remain from his first stint, but now he’s the old guy.
And even if he’s just passing through this year, his Game 4 heroics ensure he won’t ever be forgotten.
“There’s not that many guys left from when I was here last,” he said of a 2016 season in which Altuve and Correa were entrenched and third baseman Alex Bregman called up in July. “To be able to come back to a winning Astros team is nice.
“Having gone through that whole rebuild process and seeing where the organization was headed and then I went on my own path – being able to rejoin this team right in the heart of what they’ve been able to accomplish is pretty special.”
This article originally appeared on USA TODAY: Astros journeyman Jason Castro takes surprising star turn in ALCS G4