Houston Astros Jose Altuve (27) hits a double against the New York Mets during the third inning of an inter-league baseball game Sunday, Sept. 28, 2014 at Citi Field in New York. The mets defeated the Astros 8-3. (AP Photo/Rich Schultz)
Houston Astros' Jose Altuve reacts as he scores on a double by Chris Carter when New York Mets catcher Anthony Recker dropped the ball for an error during the sixth inning of an inter-league baseball game Friday, Sept. 26, 2014, at Citi Field in New York. (AP Photo/Bill Kostroun)
NEW YORK — What began as a puzzling day for Jose Altuve and the Houston Astros ended with a champagne toast.
In a bizarre twist before the season finale, Altuve talked his way into the lineup and wrapped up the American League batting title with two more hits in an 8-3 loss to the New York Mets.
Initially benched to protect his three-point lead, the pint-sized All-Star reiterated his desire to play and the Astros complied. He went 2 for 4 and became the first Houston player to take home a batting crown.
"I think this is way better than just sitting on the bench and waiting for something," Altuve said. "If you want to win something, you've got to win it on the field."
The mini-saga made for a strange morning at Citi Field, but Altuve was hardly affected at the plate. He hit a ground-rule double and a run-scoring infield single, ending the season with 225 hits and a .341 average — both best in the majors.
"It's awesome, man," teammate Dexter Fowler said. "Like I said, you see how hard he works and you see it paying off."
In the clubhouse afterward, the Astros toasted Altuve with champagne poured into plastic cups. He posed for pictures with several teammates and autographed bats for them.
"It means a lot. It's something that I've been working for," he said. "To win a batting title, to be the first one in franchise history, is pretty exciting for me."
Altuve began the day with a three-point lead over Detroit slugger Victor Martinez, who went 0 for 3 and finished at .335.
Meanwhile, Altuve seized the moment and raised his average one point.
"A big weight came off his shoulders once he got that first hit, and then he threw another one in there so that pretty much solidified his goal of being the American League batting champ," Astros interim manager Tom Lawless said. "That's a goal that is a pretty prized possession."
Lawless said Altuve went back and forth about whether he wanted to play, though the second baseman publicly pledged Friday night to stay in the lineup all weekend, saying he would "win it outside on the field, not sitting on the bench."
Altuve said Sunday morning he was told he would be held out of the lineup during a meeting with Lawless, general manager Jeff Luhnow, assistant GM David Stearns and hitting coach John Mallee.
"I came to the park today ready to play. You know, they called me in the office, explained everything. They let me know it's something that I'm not going to get by myself. There's a lot of people around who deserve that, too. And they just decided, don't put me in the lineup," Altuve said. "I wanted to play, but it wasn't an option. They just said no."
Luhnow told The Associated Press that Altuve had "earned the right to enjoy this day."
"This has been a long season, he's had a ton of at-bats and we felt like it was the right thing to do under the circumstance," the GM said.
But then, about 35 minutes before the first pitch, the Astros posted on Twitter that Altuve had been inserted in the starting lineup. A little while after that, the change was announced in the press box.
"Altuve approached Lawless prior to today's game and was passionate about playing today," the team tweeted. "As the best player, he deserves the right to make that decision."
After the game, Lawless indicated Altuve was originally on board with sitting out.
"It was a decision that we made and we all collectively made it. But he wanted to play so we honored what he wanted," Lawless said. "He made it happen."
It is not unheard of for players to skip the last game or few games of a season to safeguard their stats — and sometimes that raises eyebrows.
Jose Reyes and the Mets were criticized three years ago when, in order to preserve his NL batting crown, he was pulled from his final game with the team after a bunt single leading off the first inning.
Ted Williams famously played both ends of a season-ending doubleheader in 1941 rather than sit out to protect his .400 average. Williams went 6 for 8 to finish at .406 and has been the last major leaguer to hit .400.
Before the Astros changed course, Lawless said there was no shame in holding out Altuve.
"Once he sat down in there and we all talked about it, he's OK with it, is the best way to put it," Lawless said Sunday morning. "What's not honorable? He's played 157 games. He's got 640 at-bats. He's got way more at-bats than everybody else. It just boils down to, it is what it is. You know, it's something that may never happen again in his life, so why not do it this way?"
If Altuve had sat out, Martinez would have needed to go 3 for 3 to pass him Sunday.
THEN THERE WERE THREE
Seattle/Milwaukee, Arizona and Tampa Bay remain the only teams in the majors without a batting champion.
Chris Carter sat out in favor of 1B Jon Singleton and finished the season with 37 homers and 88 RBIs.
After choosing a manager for next season, Houston opens April 6 at home against Cleveland.
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