In a Major League Baseball season, every game counts. It sounds like a cliché off a PowerPoint slide in a marketing meeting at baseball’s headquarters, but it’s true. The Astros have recent history to remind them of this, having secured one of the American League’s two wild card spots last season by just one game, after needing to win six of eight down the stretch in 2015 just for the right to play the Yankees in Yankee Stadium in the one-game wild card matchup.
So when the Astros’ All-Star closer, Will Harris, coughed up four runs in the top of the ninth inning to the pedestrian Oakland Athletics on a Friday night at home earlier this month, and the Astros watched a 7-4 lead turn into a 9-7 deficit (reliever Michael Feliz yakked up the other run), the angst and dread in the stadium were both palpable. That’s because when you’re still digging out of the rubble of a 17-28 start to the season, as the Astros are in 2016, these are the games you must close out — multiple run leads at home against inferior teams — and here were the Astros, committing baseball self-mutilation.
As bad as the top of the ninth went, the Astros at least had Jose Altuve and Carlos Correa due up in the bottom of the ninth, Altuve in the midst of a season when he can do no wrong, and Correa a player who can turn a game with one swing of the bat. Sure enough, Altuve reached on a single, something he’s done more than any other hitter in baseball the past three seasons. Then, Correa…well, he certainly executed a game-altering swing of the bat. It was a swing and a miss at a third strike that rolled to the backstop and allowed him to reach base, one of those breaks that a team climbing back into a pennant race must have.
So now, with the Astros down two runs with two on, up came third baseman Luis Valbuena. When you’re in an eight-team mosh pit for an AL wild card spot, sometimes it’s the Luis Valbuenas of the world, the 30-year-old castoffs, who decide that one-game-here-or-there. That Friday night was one of those times.
One pitch, one swing, one Valbuena trademarked bat flip, three-run homer, ball game. 10-9, Astros win. Celebrate good times, come on!
“That inning, the way you draw it up is ‘Hey, we’re in the good part of our order that we feel really comfortable with,’” Astros manager A.J. Hinch said in the postgame press conference as he calmly laid out the blueprint for recovery from near devastation.
Across the hallway from Hinch’s media room, music blared from outfielder George Springer’s iPhone in the team’s metaphorical clubhouse nightclub, Club Astros, a sea of jubilant chaos after every Astros win, especially a three-run rally from the brink of disaster. For his part, Valbuena was decidedly less methodical than Hinch was in his analysis.
“Trying to get the pitch I wanted and I [didn’t] miss the pitch. You see what happened?” Valbuena said, smiling.
Indeed, we all saw. These are your 2016 Astros.
Three years removed from a 51-111 season, the Astros are in the second season of a baseball renaissance. Altuve is the star, and the Horsemen — Altuve, Correa, Springer and Keuchel — are the nucleus, and the unflappable Hinch is the perfect orchestrator. Where is this all going, and why does it feel so familiar? The franchise second baseman, the core nucleus, the easygoing chameleon of a manager.
In Houston, we’ve seen this movie before.
The Major League Baseball schedule is a 162-game grind of attainable peaks and unavoidable valleys, and the teams that advance to the postseason are the ones that best minimize the latter. Every player, every team has its own process for doing so. Twelve hours after the biggest, most emotional victory of the season so far, on Saturday morning, the Astros’ clubhouse is once again quiet, but upbeat.
In the middle of the room, sitting on a table about three feet in front of an 80-inch monstrosity of a flat-screen television, 2015 Cy Young Award winner Dallas Keuchel and 2016 AL MVP frontrunner Altuve are in a heated game of FIFA on the main clubhouse PlayStation. Correa sits in a leather chair, awaiting the winner. On a smaller flat-screen next to his locker, donning an Astros football helmet, outfielder George Springer battles Harris in a game of MADDEN 2016.
“Always the Patriots, baby,” Springer proclaims, when asked who his team of choice is. “Always the Patriots. Growing up, I liked the dude on the Patriots helmet, man.”
Across the clubhouse, starting pitcher Collin McHugh is discussing the merits of electronic communication tidiness. “I’m a little bit OCD when it comes to texts and emails; if I see a text, I answer it,” McHugh explains. “Now Lance [McCullers], he has like 2,000 emails on his phone. I can’t look at his phone; it stresses me out.”
In the modern MLB clubhouse, these are the things that constitute time killers and casual topics, and with one of the youngest rosters in baseball, the Astros are probably inherently, unavoidably millennial, and that’s fine, because they’re also ahead of schedule, having been labeled the 2017 World Series champions by Sports Illustrated back in the summer of 2014, only to have SI move that timetable up a year this past February with a revised prediction of ultimate success in 2016.
However, after a 7-17 April and a 17-28 start overall, it was looking more like 2015 was an aberration than the beginning of a trend. Fortunately for Houston, a 17-12 May gave way to a 16-8 June, and as of the All-Star break, the Astros were a quite manageable two games out of a wild card spot and 5.5 games out of first place in the AL West behind the Texas Rangers.
“We’re just playing complete ball games now,” McHugh said, when asked what’s changed since April. “Early on in the season, we were missing chances to get big hits, missing something on defense. We’re finishing games now.“
“I wasn’t worried about how we were playing,” Altuve said. “I knew we’d turn it around. You have to believe in your team, and I believe in this team.”
In the reciprocal world of mutual belief, early on in the season, Altuve’s believing in his team was likely a far more difficult task than the team’s believing in him. On the field, the diminutive Altuve has been the one constant for the Astros this year, taking his game from the level of “perennial All-Star” to “legitimate MVP candidate,” and he’s done it by adding more elements to an already robust list of offensive skills.
Altuve has always hit for average (career .302 coming into the 2016 season), he’s always been a terror on the base paths (AL steals leader in 2014 and 2015), but now he’s added game-changing power and a selective eye at the plate, with practically as many home runs and already more walks at the All-Star break than he had in all of 2015.
“I’m just trying to become a better player every single day, and everything I can do to improve and help my team win games, that’s what I’m going to do,” Altuve said.
“He’s one of the best examples that I could have on this team, and he just wants to be better,” Hinch said as he casually chatted with a few reporters in the dugout that Saturday morning after the Valbuena homer sent everyone home happy the previous evening. “Jose has shown that he can have plate discipline, he can drive the ball a little bit more. He takes great pride in his game, and when your best player does that, it makes my job a lot easier.”
Imagine J.J. Watt adding three more devastating pass rush moves in an offseason. Hinch believes that’s how Altuve has evolved as a player this season. “When you look at the Houston sports superstars — Watt, Harden, Altuve, Correa — they’re all hungry to be better, and when your best players are doing that, it’s a great example for younger players.
“Our best players are playing at an All-Star level,” said Hinch. “Altuve, Springer, Correa’s turned it around, and we’ve pitched a little better.”
The outlier of the Horsemen has been Keuchel, the 2015 AL Cy Young Award winner, who struggled out of the gate to a 3-9 start this season after winning 20 games last year, including a 15-0 record at home. Any hopes of replicating or exceeding 2015’s team accomplishments rest on the left arm of Keuchel, and he knows this.
“There may have been something with the workload I had the last two seasons, and it took 60-some-odd games for me to feel good,” Keuchel explained. “But the season is long enough where you can go through ups and downs and still come out on top.”
In many ways, Hinch is the perfect manager for this young group, in demeanor and in pedigree. The Astros job is Hinch’s second as a big league manager; he compiled a .420 winning percentage in just over one season as manager of the Diamondbacks in 2009 and 2010. At the time, Hinch wasn’t even 35 years old yet, so in a way, his now managing these young Astros makes perfect sense — who better to lead a young team learning its way than a manager who’s learned from mistakes made in his job at a young age?
“A.J. knows how it goes; he was a catcher in the big leagues,” said Keuchel. “He’s competitive, but he knows the clubhouse vibe. He really keeps it chill and gets us ready to go every game.”
When Craig Biggio arrived at spring training in 1991, for him it was like stepping out of a time warp. The group of players in camp that spring was hardly recognizable compared to the veteran-laden squads he was part of his first three big league seasons. Long gone were the likes of Nolan Ryan and Buddy Bell, and gone from the previous season were Bill Doran and Larry Andersen, shipped off in a massive tear-down of the team, a voluntary reboot by management.
In their place? Rookies. Lot and lots of rookies.
“We had something like 15 rookies on that 1991 team,” Biggio recalled. “It was crazy, compared to those teams I broke in with in 1988, where I was the youngest guy on the team by ten years.”
If you’re a longtime Astros fan and you ever want to know from where the seeds of quiet professionalism came for the Astros’ nucleus of the late ’90s, a core that eventually made it to the franchise’s only World Series, in 2005, go all the way back to 1988, Biggio’s rookie year, when the wisdom was imparted to him by those older players and he carried it forward.
“I was around guys like Nolan Ryan, Billy Doran, Buddy Bell, Larry Andersen, that came to work every day, and it just became the ‘Astro way,’” Biggio says, the pride evident in his voice. “That experience was so valuable to me, because when they were gone, I was the senior statesman. [Management] stripped the team down, and all of a sudden we had 15 rookies on the team, so I was able to pass on how we play the game.”
The build from punching bag to contender was slow and methodical, from a 65-win sinkhole in 1991 to .500 the next season, to 85 wins in 1993, and then a season in 1994 when the work stoppage might have prevented the first playoff appearance for that group. It was a young team, fun to watch, and the players all believed in one another.
Ask Biggio about that nucleus, and you sense from the joy in his voice that, if PlayStation and flat screens had existed in 1994, he would have been laughing and cursing at Jeff Bagwell or Ken Caminiti over a game of MADDEN the same way Springer and Harris were that Saturday morning a couple of weeks ago.
“We had a bunch of great guys — Cammy, Baggy, Spiers, Bogar, Kile, Hampton, Wagner — we were friends,” Biggio fondly remembers. “It wasn’t hard; everyone played the game the right way. We took our lumps early on, because we didn’t know how to win, then we figured out how to win, and we were dangerous.”
It was at about that time, right at “dangerous,” after the 1994 work stoppage and amidst cries of baseball poverty from Astros owner Drayton McLane, that Biggio was faced with a career-shaping decision, one that would affect his and the franchise’s trajectory for the next decade. Biggio hit free agency after the 1996 season, and it was his first opportunity to really cash in. Coming off three straight All-Star appearances, Biggio at 29 years of age, had reached the peak of his value, and the Colorado Rockies wanted him badly.
So Biggio was faced with a choice — go to Colorado for more money and gaudier stats (the thin air in Denver was creating pinball-machine numbers for batters at that time), or stay in Houston for less money and finish what he’d started.
We know how the story ended. Biggio stayed in Houston, led the Astros to six playoff appearances and a World Series, and became the first player to enter the Hall of Fame as a Houston Astro. Far less evident is just how close Biggio came to leaving Houston.
“I never wanted to leave,” recalls Biggio. “My goal was to get the Astros to their first World Series. We wanted to get the deal done, but there’s a lot of waiting, and honestly, it reached a point where I thought maybe they didn’t want me, and I might have to go somewhere else. The right thing happened, but it got really hairy. I sat in church for four hours one day saying, ‘I don’t want to leave.’ Thankfully, it all worked out, because I love Houston.”
Gerry Hunsicker was just one season in as the Astros’ general manager, and he remembers the Biggio contract similarly, both in terms of significance and the stress it induced. “It was an agonizing negotiation, but we knew it was critical to keep Craig, who had earned the right to test the market and make the best decision for his family,” said Hunsicker, who still makes his home in Houston and works in an advisory capacity for the Los Angeles Dodgers. “It got tense for a while, and at one point, I thought it was a coin flip that we’d keep him.”
The other piece of business the Astros conducted during the offseason following the 1996 season was the hiring of former Astros pitcher and broadcaster Larry Dierker as manager of the team, a decision that many in baseball questioned because of Dierker’s lack of managerial experience. However, Dierker didn’t see that as a major obstacle, considering that he was constantly analyzing the game day in and day out as a broadcaster.
“I thought about managing someday in the same way that every player who has a brain and an opinion thinks about it,” Dierker said. “I always thought, ‘What would I do in this situation?’ and when I was offered the job, I thought if I chickened out that I’d never forgive myself.”
Bill Brown has been an Astros broadcaster for 30 years, several of those as a colleague of Dierker’s, and he said Dierker’s peers on the broadcasting side were stunned when Larry was hired.
“Totally shocked; we had no idea anything was going on with that,” Brown said, sitting in the booth at Minute Maid Park that Saturday during the A’s series. “We knew Larry knew the game and could communicate, and the team was ready, but we had no idea that was coming.”
Managing an existing, talented nucleus can be both rewarding and challenging. Dierker found out right away that he would be as much a caretaker as he was a strategist. “I knew I had good material to work with, and I had a chance to be successful,” Dierker remembers. “On the other hand, I had some unconventional ideas I thought I could sell. There were delusions I had about shaping the team, and it didn’t turn out that way. A lot of times, I sat back and watched like a fan does, but we won games.”
However much of a tactician Dierker may have been, after three seasons of white-hot, often overbearing intensity under Terry Collins, the Astros opted for a different managerial approach, and Dierker’s more laid-back, folksy demeanor was a stark contrast that proved successful. With their future Hall of Fame second basemen in the fold for what would end up being the rest of his career, and with former MVP Jeff Bagwell alongside as Biggio’s tag-team partner in the Killer B’s, and with a familiar manager in place, the Astros became one of the perennial contenders of the late ’90s.
Even though the Astros eventually reached the World Series, in 2005 — the true final act for Biggio and Bagwell as a duo — everyone around the team and who follows the team agrees on one thing: The 1998 Astros were the greatest team in franchise history.
Embedded somewhat fortuitously in a period when Houston was without professional football, that 1998 team captured the city’s hearts, and at a time when the Astros were on the wrong end of the “big market vs. everybody else” struggle in baseball, the city got to see how Yankees fans felt for a summer, as McLane and Hunsicker made the decision to go all-in for a World Series, trading three major prospects (Freddy Garcia, Carlos Guillen and John Halama) for Seattle’s ace, Randy Johnson. The deal came down right at the midnight trade deadline, so when Houston woke up the next morning to the headline “Big Unit Coming to Houston,” there was stunned jubilation, in the clubhouse and around the city.
“Back then, we didn’t communicate electronically; you had to call in and confirm the trade,” Hunsicker recalled. “Both teams had to call it in, so since it was a trade involving both leagues, I was at the mercy of Seattle’s GM, and vice versa. I remember literally when I called it in; the lady’s name in the NL office those days was Nancy Krofts…Nancy said that the second hand on her clock was at 55 seconds till midnight. ‘If you called a minute later, I couldn’t have confirmed this deal,’ she told me…That’s how close it was.”
For once, the Astros were the team sending future prospects out the door for name brands, and it felt as weird as it felt euphoric. “We didn’t do many things like that back then,” said Hunsicker. “It was the one time that I had to swallow hard and put the short term ahead of the long term, but I felt like the city was reaching a pinnacle in its interest in baseball. The city was upside down after that trade; it was an adrenaline rush.
“I remember Mattress Mac sold an eight-foot mattress in honor of Randy; it was crazy,” Hunsicker said, chuckling.
“We didn’t do stuff like that, so, man, it was so cool,” Biggio recalls. “I remember Baggy calling me at midnight screaming ‘We got him!’ and when Randy showed up, it was like John Elway or Joe Montana walking into your clubhouse, and you felt like, ‘Damn, we got the dude. We got a chance at this thing.’
“He was a great teammate, too. When it was his day, he was like J.J. Watt, man. Going into the Hall of Fame with him was really special,” said Biggio, who was inducted into the Hall in 2015 alongside Johnson, Pedro Martinez and John Smoltz.
Unfortunately, that 1998 team ran into a buzzsaw in the San Diego Padres, specifically right hander Kevin Brown, who was every bit the ace that Randy Johnson was for the Astros, and in that series, even more so. “I still think  is the best team this franchise has ever put on the field,” said Hunsicker. “But it’s a reminder of how humbling this game can be.”
When you have superstar grinders and tone-setters, like Bagwell and Biggio, sometimes the message needs to be sent that management wants the championship ring as much as the players do. Johnson was an Astro for only three scintillating months, but the trade sent a message to the core group that lasted beyond 1998.
It was a message that Bagwell and Biggio internalized enough to get to the playoffs again in 1999, and then, through a seismic change in ball parks, again in 2001, 2004 and 2005, with the 2005 World Series being their final act as a pair.
Despite the changes that would occur after that magical 1998 season — the move onto then-Enron Field, Dierker’s firing after the 2001 season, Hunsicker’s leaving in 2004 — the culture, the “Astro Way,” as Biggio calls it, was the fuel for what eventually ended up being a World Series team.
Asked exactly what the “Astro Way” entails, Biggio explained: “When your best players play the game the right way, everyone else follows suit.”
Nothing stays the same forever, and through numerous ebbs and flows, including a 2011 ownership change and a 2013 change in leagues, the Astros have most certainly evolved. However, in examining the teams that laid the groundwork for the Astros to eventually reach their only World Series in 2005, ask yourself, “What are the things I’d have least liked being changed or removed from those late ’90s teams?”
The answer for most would include the hardworking, foundational superstars; the “band of brothers” team chemistry; the manager who understands his team’s psyche intimately; and the adaptable general manager who is unafraid to take chances.
The 2016 Houston Astros are not perfect, and like any other team in baseball, they probably need more pitching, but the core elements that have yielded success here before are here now.
Ask Craig Biggio to evaluate Jose Altuve, and it sounds like anyone around baseball in the mid-’90s evaluating Craig Biggio.
“He’s a pretty special player, and I’m glad he’s wearing our uniform,” Biggio says with an obvious fondness in his voice that you’d expect from a fellow All-Star Astros second baseman. “He does a lot of things right and plays the game the right way. He’s had to fight for everything in this game, but man, what an amazing player. He’s a really good kid, man.”
Bill Brown has watched virtually every at-bat of both players and agrees with Biggio’s scouting report. “Craig and Jose are very comparable; the comp is absolutely valid,” Brown assessed. “Both are so intense, they run hard on every ground ball, they both hit tons of doubles, they’re both run-scoring machines. In a word, dependable.”
Ask Dierker, who also doubles as the closest thing the Astros have to a team historian, about the two teams, and he sees not only similarities but up side with this group.
“Stylistically, the pitching is very similar in that you have a lot of effective guys, but no real power arm,” said Dierker. “Randy [Johnson] was our only real power arm in the rotation, when I managed. But as far as the whole team goes? Yes, this 2016 team actually is not only similar, but they can get better. They have [stud rookie Alex] Bregman coming up, and a whole lot more guys coming.”
Ask Brown, who covered and worked with Dierker, about Hinch, and he gushes about how in tune Hinch is with this core group. “A.J. is so good and so plugged into this team,” said Brown. “You know, those ’90s teams were maybe a little more self-sufficient leadership-wise. With this team, A.J. is the guy, but his style is perfect for this group.”
General Manager Jeff Luhnow has already shown that, like Hunsicker in 1998, he isn’t afraid to be a buyer at the trade deadline. Last season alone, Luhnow made July deals that sent prospects to Oakland for pitcher Scott Kazmir and to Milwaukee for center fielder Carlos Gomez.
Brown thinks the Astros may need a deal, as they did in 1998, to put them firmly in the mix. “Keuchel was the guy last year who allowed them to achieve the level they did,” said Brown. “Those ’90s teams always had a guy like that. This year’s team doesn’t really have that, unless Keuchel regains his form. They may need to make a deal for a pitcher; I’m just not sure who it will be.”
Hinch, like any good manager who knows that he can only control the guys who are in his dugout, is pragmatic — “If we get the Keuchel of 2015 in the second half of this season, it’s like we did make a big trade.”
It’s Sunday afternoon, the final game before the All-Star break and the final game of the four-game set against the Athletics. Once again, for the third straight game, the Astros find themselves trailing in the ninth inning. Friday, Valbuena bailed them out. Saturday, a two-run rally fell short.
On this day, the Astros trail 1-0 in the bottom of the ninth against A’s closer Ryan Madson, and as they did on Friday, the Astros are able to get to him, this time scratching out one run and sending the game into extra innings.
In the bottom of the tenth inning, Astros outfielder Jake Marisnick (with his sub-.200 batting average) singles to center field, and then steals second base. After a strikeout by Springer and a groundout from Marwin Gonzalez (this generation’s Bill Spiers), Marisnick finds himself on third base. After an intentional walk to Altuve, Correa is at the plate.
Four times in his young career, Correa has provided a walk-off RBI, so the crowd is waiting for No. 5. Instead, it gets a ground ball to third, but a poor throw over to first base by A’s third baseman Danny Valencia pulls the first baseman off the bag, and the Astros win on a run-scoring error, which means in the two seminal, game-winning rallies of the weekend, Correa (this generation’s Bagwell) reached on a swinging strikeout that rolled to the backstop and a bad throw from a third baseman.
Fortunately, though, baseball isn’t scored like figure skating or gymnastics. It doesn’t need to be pleasing to the eye, as long as you score runs, because you win when you score more of those than your opponent, and since May 1, the Astros have been doing a lot of that, style points be damned.
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“The best teams just know how to win,” said McHugh. “With the guys we have in this clubhouse, we just find a way to win.”
And as the music blared in Club Astros after another Astros win, those who have followed this team forever, certainly back to the glory days of Biggio and Bagwell, can hear the gentle whispers of Astros seasons gone by in Biggio’s voice, reminding us that baseball is, more often than not, cruel and that success is fleeting.
“You gotta have a little luck,” the voice says. “Things happen for a reason…that’s how baseball is…It’s such a humbling, amazing, beautiful game.”
You hope these Astros hear the voice, because the pieces are there.