HOUSTON (AP) Chris Carter doesn't want to talk about his difficult summer. That doesn't matter now.

It was easy to see that something was wrong. Always reserved, the Astros slugger retreated even more as he struggled at the plate. A radiant smile that comes naturally almost disappeared.

Relegated to a pinch-hitting role after being benched in early August, Houston's regular first baseman had a choice to make:

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Wallow in the setback or do whatever he could to turn things around.

''It's hard going from an everyday player to playing every other game, to playing every few games to maybe playing once a week or getting a pinch-hit at-bat,'' he told The Associated Press. ''That's kind of upsetting.

''But I decided to keep working and not give up. I worked every day. Every day I wasn't playing I stayed positive and just kept working and when I got the opportunity to play again I just made the most of it and now I'm back in there playing every day,'' he added.

And he's not simply playing. Carter is a big reason why the Astros are on the cusp of closing out their American League Division Series against the Kansas City Royals with a 2-1 lead heading into Game 4 on Monday.

Carter's .455 batting average in the playoffs is second in the AL to teammate Colby Rasmus, who has hit .500.

Carter's first three-hit game of the season came in Houston's 4-2 win over Kansas City on Sunday when he had a majestic homer and also doubled and singled.

''He's hung in all year,'' manager A.J. Hinch said. ''It hasn't been an easy year for him. ... This guy's continued to hit homers and maintained his composure.''

Carter has started slow in all three of his full seasons in the majors, but in his first two years he was able to turn it around and keep his job all season. Strikeout prone, he had a stark turnaround in 2014 when he hit 16 homers with 39 RBIs in August and September to finish tied for second in the majors with 37 homers.

This season he batted just .109 in July, and Hinch decided to make a change. He told Carter he wouldn't be starting every day and gave the 28-year-old a chance to respond.

''He reacted with more emotion than you guys have ever seen in a positive way,'' Hinch said. ''He was very respectful about it, but it was clear he wanted to work his way back into the lineup.''

So even though Carter spent games on the bench, he kept working, making adjustments and trying to do whatever he could to be ready when he got another chance.

He figured he'd get it and didn't want to let the team down when it came.

''Nobody wants to watch games and not play,'' he said. ''So even though I wasn't playing I still went through everything the same way as if I was playing. Still stayed in the cage and still just kept working and didn't give up.''

On Sept. 15 against the Rangers, Hinch played Carter for a whole game for the first time in more than two weeks. Carter doubled and hit another ball hard that center fielder Delino DeShields tracked down to rob him of a second hit.

''At that point he looked like he made a few adjustments and that started to trickle into more playing time,'' Hinch said.

Carter closed out September by homering in three of four games. Houston won each time he homered, boosting its playoff chances.

Carter hit .344 in September to help the Astros earn the second AL wild-card spot, their first postseason berth since 2005.

He didn't cool off once the playoffs began, either.

Carter has five hits and three walks in three playoff games for a .571 on-base percentage and .818 slugging percentage. He has scored three runs and driven in one.

Asked about his success and the numbers he's put up to make his .199 regular-season batting average seem really far away, Carter deflected attention from himself.

''At the end of the day, I just want to get a win,'' he said. ''If I don't get a hit and somebody else does and we end up winning, that's all that matters.''

When pressed again about what it means to help the team on such a big stage, Carter finally acquiesced. But as usual, he did it in the most concise way possible.

''It means everything,'' he said, flashing the smile that is back in full force as Carter and the Astros soar.