For the first time, as an American League franchise, the Astros celebrated a division crown.
For the first time, as an American League franchise, the Astros celebrated a division crown.
Photo by Jack Gorman

Stepping Up: The Houston Astros Are Ready to Tackle the Playoffs and Beyond

Sunday mornings in a baseball clubhouse always have a strange vibe, especially in September, when most of the free world is engaged in some form of worship, either at church or in front of a television getting ready to watch NFL football. However, for the Astros, this particular Sunday’s pregame open clubhouse had an especially distinct feel to it.

It was the 149th game of the 2017 season, and in a perfect storm of serendipity, the Astros could clinch their first division title since 2001, and first ever as a member of the American League, with a win that afternoon, and their newly acquired ace, Justin Verlander, would be taking the mound. Just one win, one more great Verlander start, and Houston’s climb from baseball’s abyss, a 51-111 record four seasons ago, would be one more rung toward completion.

Since the team regained relevance two seasons ago, the Astros’ clubhouse has been a place where you could cut the chemistry with a knife. In one corner, George Springer, wearing a retro New England Patriots Malcolm Butler jersey, jokes around with Josh Reddick. In the starting pitchers’ corner, Collin McHugh talks with reporters about last week’s Georgia-Notre Dame game. In the middle of the clubhouse, amid the sacred horseshoe of recliners, a few players autograph jerseys for charity while chatting about their fantasy football teams.

Down the hall, inside the dugout, manager A.J. Hinch is holding court. He is asked about the significance of this day — the chance to clinch, the chance to do it with Verlander on the mound. To listen to Hinch, winning the division sounds as much like a chore he would just as soon cross off his to-do list as it does an achievement for which the team will raise a banner next year.

“No, look, I’m excited, we’re all excited,” Hinch said. “We want to win [the division] in front of our fans, we want to clinch, but honestly, it’s a topic that I cannot wait until it’s over, so that we can talk about it anymore, so we can focus on bigger things. It’s not our end goal; it’s our first goal.

For a manager trending toward a 100-win regular season, Hinch sounds like a man with a lot on his mind, and truth be told, with various injuries to nearly every star player at some point this season, and with trade deadline drama that’s forced him into part-time work as a clubhouse therapist, it’s been about as jagged a near-100-win season as anyone can remember.

Things, however, seem to be coming together at just the right time.

***
The lefty Keuchel’s precision-based style is the perfect complement to the righty Verlander’s sheer force.
The lefty Keuchel’s precision-based style is the perfect complement to the righty Verlander’s sheer force.
Photo by Jack Gorman

By and large, the construction of this Astros roster has gone according to the plan Jeff Luhnow began executing when he took the general manager’s job here five years ago — endure a ton of losses at the big league level while building the minor league system for a few years, begin building around a young nucleus in 2015, and then cautiously enter the “go for it” phase in 2016 and 2017.

“Our ownership has been supportive from day one, and that’s been consistent,” claims Luhnow. “They allowed us to do the things we need to do to lock up young talent in 2012, 2013 and 2014, putting some pieces together to get to the playoffs in 2015, and now really going for it. We have a team that’s built to win for a long period of time.”

With 2016, though, representing a step backward from their postseason appearance in 2015, Luhnow wanted to urgently repair a 2016 everyday lineup that was largely Jose Altuve, Carlos Correa, George Springer and not much else. He also wanted to inject some maturity into the clubhouse. This led to the crucial additions of three veterans — outfielder Josh Reddick on a four-year deal, designated hitter Carlos Beltran returning to Houston on a one-year deal, and the trade for catcher Brian McCann.

“They’ve changed the whole tone,” said Hinch. “They help us with the rigors of the season, and just getting to the finish line. Beltran is very even-keeled and very focused. McCann has some fire to him. Reddick plays the hardest of anybody on the team; he has an edge to him. It’s the intangibles that they bring that have helped our young nucleus, and they perfectly fit our clubhouse.”

The upgraded everyday lineup, combined with a return to full health for frontline starters Dallas Keuchel and Lance McCullers, led to a record-setting 22-7 record in the month of May, and an overall record that built to an astounding 42-16 on June 5. The ball club was leading the big leagues in most of the power hitting categories, and unlike Astros teams of recent years, they were making more contact than any other team in baseball. Two months in, the Astros were the odds-on favorites to win the World Series.

It was at this point, though, in early June, that the wheels began to fall off Hinch’s starting rotation. Keuchel sustained some sort of mysterious neck injury that kept him on the shelf through the All-Star break, and Lance McCullers’s body began its annual physiological parade of aches and pains shortly thereafter. To put it into plainer terms, the Astros’ top four starting pitchers at the beginning of spring training — Keuchel, McCullers, Charlie Morton and McHugh — started a total of five games in June.

In July the injury bug hit even harder, bleeding into the everyday lineup in practically the worst possible way, taking down two of the team’s six All-Stars. Shortly after the All-Star break, Correa tore a ligament in his thumb sliding headfirst, and would miss more than a month’s worth of time. Additionally, Springer would suffer a pulled quad muscle toward the end of July and would miss the final week of that month and the first week of August on the disabled list.

Fortunately, while employing what amounted to a baseball MASH unit, the Astros had two luxuries working in their favor. First, their lead in the American League West hovered around 15 games, so they had plenty of cushion while their wounds healed. Second, and more important, the Astros employ Jose Altuve, who is the heavy favorite right now to win the American League MVP Award and who carried this team on his five-foot-six frame through the dog days of summer.

Even with all the injuries, the Astros still managed a 15-9 record in July, largely because of the transcendent greatness of Altuve, who at age 27 is finding his name on hitting accomplishment lists that include players like Ty Cobb and Pete Rose. In July Altuve hit .485 with an OPS of 1.250 in winning American League Player of the Month. He may or may not have walked across Lake Conroe.

“The nice thing about Altuve is his consistency,” Hinch said. “You know you can expect two things from him — energy and hits. He really carried us and helped us solidify things when Springer was out and Correa was out, and he just keeps rolling. There are a lot of consistencies on this team, none more consistent than Altuve.”

Altuve has evolved from a prolific singles hitter into one of the most complete players in baseball.
Altuve has evolved from a prolific singles hitter into one of the most complete players in baseball.
Jack Gorman

Unfortunately, as magical as Jose Altuve’s bat may seem, one thing that it cannot do is pull off a deal at the trade deadline, and aside from a minor deal for lefty setup reliever Francisco Liriano, neither could general manager Jeff Luhnow. Despite his best efforts to find sizable upgrades to the pitching staff, Luhnow was unable to pull off that impactful deal that would make the rest of baseball sit up in its collective chair.

The bigger problem caused by Luhnow’s failure to close a deal was the open discontent it caused in the clubhouse and a pervasive feeling that management didn’t do its absolute best to set the Astros up for postseason success, especially when virtually every other contender made one or more big deals.

The most vocal of the players was Keuchel, who did nothing to hide his disappointment. “I’m not going to lie. Disappointment is a little bit of an understatement,” Keuchel told reporters the day after the trade deadline. “We obviously believe in ourselves and believe we’re good enough to win now and get to the World Series. It’s just good teams can always be great and great teams can always be legendary, so at the end of the year we want to be the only ones left, but it’s just a little disappointing, for sure.”

Keuchel was undoubtedly not alone in his displeasure, and Hinch was left with another crisis to manage, having to play counselor to his players while keeping the train chugging forward toward a division title. “Whether players are angry or frustrated, we have to separate ‘frustrated with the outcome’ from ‘frustrated with the process,’” Hinch reasoned in an interview with SportsRadio 610 at the time. “Our front office worked hard, and we will never know what was possible. We’re all disappointed we didn’t get to the finish line with a couple of ideas, so I’ll let the players get it out of their system, and then focus on the task at hand.”

Many around baseball thought the Astros had the trade assets to get a deal done but that Luhnow was too conservative, choosing to hold onto minor league prospects rather than add immediate major league help. The trade deadline does not favor the timid, and rarely does a general manager get second chances. Luhnow, though, would turn out to be a few weeks away from an unlikely mulligan.

***
Like Randy Johnson in 1998, Verlander gives the Astros a seasoned ace at the top of the rotation.
Like Randy Johnson in 1998, Verlander gives the Astros a seasoned ace at the top of the rotation.
Photo by Jack Gorman

Prior to 2017, the last time the Astros made a deal for a frontline starter at the trade deadline was in 1998, when then-GM Gerry Hunsicker acquired Randy Johnson from the Seattle Mariners with literally seconds remaining before the July 31 trade deadline. To this day, Johnson is still the gold standard for deadline pitching help, having gone 10-1 with a 1.28 ERA down the stretch that season.

With names like Jose Quintana, Sonny Gray and Yu Darvish all on the move, Astros fans were hoping for something similar this July 31. When it didn’t happen, most fans grudgingly moved on to the next best solution — praying like hell that Keuchel and McCullers would get healthy. However, as it turned out, Luhnow was not dead yet.

As most baseball fans know, the July 31 trade deadline is not the actual “drop-dead” deadline. It’s actually the deadline for a player to be traded without having to pass through waivers. From August 1 to August 31, a player can be traded, but it’s more complicated — he must pass through waivers, meaning he can be claimed by any big league team, before being eligible for a trade.

With $56 million and two years remaining on his contract, and working on a solid but unspectacular season, Detroit Tigers ace Justin Verlander passed through waivers fairly quietly, with no team willing to bite off on that exorbitant deal. However, following a couple of rough starts from McHugh and Keuchel, Luhnow reached back out to Tigers GM Al Avila to rekindle trade talks for Verlander.

Eventually, late in the evening on August 31, the two sides agreed to a deal — three of the Astros’ top 11 minor leaguers for Verlander and $16 million in cash from the Tigers to offset some of that salary. The only catch? Verlander, the beneficiary of a collectively bargained rule allowing ten-year veterans with five years with the same club veto rights on trades, had to approve the deal.

The Verlander trade meant double the fun for Astros fans.
The Verlander trade meant double the fun for Astros fans.
Photo by Jack Gorman

Like the Johnson deal in 1998, this one came down to the final seconds. Verlander, who would have preferred a trade to Los Angeles, New York or Chicago, had to decide in mere minutes whether or not to end the Detroit chapter of his career and spend the next few years in Houston. He paced around his apartment, weighed pros and cons with his fiancée, supermodel Kate Upton, and eventually pulled the trigger on the move to Houston.
It was a surreal end to what had been a deadly, destructive week in Houston. Amid the devastation and displacement caused by Hurricane Harvey, in a small consolation prize, Houstonians and the Astros players had their new ace.

“Ultimately, it came down to winning and joining an organization that is set up to win for a long time,” Verlander said. “Hopefully, we can bring a championship to a city that could really use something like that right now. Hopefully, I can help give the city something to rally around.”

The consummation of the Verlander trade was validation for the franchise on a number of levels. First, given that the deal required Verlander’s approval, this was confirmation that All-Star-level players see Houston as a place they can win a title. Second, the deal was redemption for Luhnow, who went from the guy who couldn’t close the deal to the guy who bagged Gordon Gekko. Third, and perhaps most important long-term, owner Jim Crane’s commitment to paying Verlander $20 million each of the next two seasons is an indicator that he will be similarly ready to pay up when Springer, Correa, Altuve and Keuchel are in line for mega-deal-level raises.

“Houston is absolutely a destination city,” Luhnow said. “It’s a great place to play baseball, great fan base, great stadium and, most important, players here have a chance to win for years to come.”

In the near term, the Astros can finally stare the Indians and the Red Sox straight in the eye and say, “We have our postseason hammer, and his name is Verlander.” In a few days, this will be crucial.

***
Gonzalez (left) and Altuve, both there in 2013 for the worst of times, are now on top.
Gonzalez (left) and Altuve, both there in 2013 for the worst of times, are now on top.
Photo by Jack Gorman

Despite appearing in the ALDS in 2015, when the American League playoffs begin next week, the Astros will still feel a little like party crashers. The Indians are just days removed from a 22-game winning streak and were one run away from winning the World Series last season. The Red Sox are still the Red Sox, winners of three titles in the past 13 seasons. The Astros, on the other hand, still struggle to sell out their ballpark for big games (although playoff tickets have reportedly sold out), and are just four seasons removed from pulling a 0.0 television rating on a regular season game, ironically against the Cleveland Indians.

However, the playoffs won’t be decided by the karmic vibe of each team. They will be decided by execution, and for A.J. Hinch, the “next man up” resilience shown by his team amid the slew of injuries in June and July should serve them well in October. The injuries to Correa and Springer led to continued openings for über-utilityman Marwin Gonzalez to get enough at-bats to lead the team in RBI heading into the final two weeks of the season. The injuries in the starting rotation necessitated Brad Peacock’s transition to a starter, where he’s become a double-digit winner.

“We’ve had a difficult time staying healthy, so we’ve had to ask a lot of guys to step up,” said Hinch. “But what a roster our front office has put together, and what a credit to our players that we’ve kept our head above water.”

Whatever team the Astros face will have to deal with the deepest lineup, one through nine (plus the first couple bats off the bench), in baseball. The middle infield has arguably the two most talented players at their positions in the sport in Altuve and Correa; third baseman Alex Bregman has been one of the most dangerous hitters at his position in the second half of the season; and Gonzalez, Springer, Reddick and first baseman Yuli Gurriel provide further run-scoring pop.

Hinch will have some interesting and difficult decisions to make with the 25-man roster, including whether to keep 11 or 12 pitchers, and in what order to throw his two aces, Verlander and Keuchel, out there. Verlander would seem to be the no-brainer to start Game 1 of the playoffs, but perhaps Hinch would rather Verlander go in Games 2 and 5 of an ALDS, and avoid, say, Chris Sale. The strategy should be fascinating.

While versatility and talent are the tangible baseball traits that the Astros could ride to a World Series, there is no shortage of that esoteric karma that comes from community adversity. Hurricane Harvey buried Houston, turning the local news into what looked like a round-the-clock trailer for a Waterworld sequel.

When the Astros returned home after an ill-conceived, Harvey-caused trip to Florida to play the Rangers for three games, they were the first sports team in town to see the field and give the city a welcome distraction. The Astros players get constant reminders of Harvey’s plunder every day driving to and from work, with ruined furniture curbside a metaphor for the ruined lives of their fellow Houstonians.

“When I was in the World Series in Detroit in 2006, it was a very difficult time for the city,” said Verlander. “Just to see how everybody in the community really rallied around us, and how we gave them something to cheer for and look forward to. It was one of the most emotional times that I had there. That was something I had on the forefront of my mind in making this decision to come here and help be a part of this.”

***
Springer has been the team’s top home run producer all season long.
Springer has been the team’s top home run producer all season long.
Photo by Jack Gorman
Like so little over the past two months, that serendipitous Sunday afternoon actually went almost exactly according to plan for Hinch. The Astros got home runs from three of their top four power guys — Gonzalez, Springer and Correa. (In the one bit of irony, Altuve had the day off.) Verlander struck out ten Seattle Mariners in seven innings, and Ken Giles closed things out in the ninth inning in customary Giles fashion, by striking out two batters but giving up three hits, yet somehow keeping the M’s off the board.

Minutes later, after making a literal human train that circumnavigated Minute Maid Park so they could high-five and fist-bump the entire front row of the whole stadium (a constituency that included young Ms. Upton, by the way), the players and the celebration poured into the clubhouse, where sheets of plastic protected the players’ lockers and belongings from the lasers of champagne and beer shooting across the room. That same clubhouse, so quietly confident just three hours ago, was now a combination of Mardi Gras and Animal House, and every corner was a testimony to this talented group and an homage to Astros playoff teams of years past.

Playing the role of 2015 Colby Rasmus was Reddick, who celebrated buck naked except for his star-spangled skivvies, smoking a gigantic stogie and sipping a beer. Like Rasmus, who’d been to the postseason with the Cardinals before becoming a cult hero in Houston, Reddick is now on his fifth playoff team. “No matter how many of these you do, they never get old, and as you can see, you got to cut loose,” Reddick smiled. “When I signed here, this is what I expected.”

Playing the role of 1998 Randy Johnson was Verlander, the ace this team needed in the American League arms race, who seemed as relieved over making the right choice to come here as he was exuberant over the win Sunday. “To make my home debut in this situation, oh my gosh. It’s what you dream of as a kid; I can’t ask for anything more,” Verlander screamed. “The fans have been unbelievable, and my teammates have been unbelievable.”

Playing the role of 2004 Carlos Beltran was Beltran himself. He’s 40 now, and he’s not the same player that hit .435 in the 2004 postseason. Instead, he’s the elder statesman, the one guy in the clubhouse who won’t let his teammates take this for granted. “This is a great feeling; it doesn’t get old,” Beltran said. “We’re going to enjoy it, and I’m going to make sure every young guy here knows this is a blessing.”

Playing the role of Larry Dierker and Phil Garner was Hinch, for whom his players would run through a brick wall. “This story is almost too good to be true,” Hinch said when asked about Verlander’s start that day. “You know, we traded for him for this reason, to come up in big moments. and he was locked in from the very beginning. No better guy to have on the mound, and another guy who chose to be here.”

Playing the role of Gerry Hunsicker, the previous best general manager in team history, was Luhnow, who himself was soaked in champagne, and whose smile says all you need to know about the quality of the roster he’s assembled and, perhaps, his feelings of vindication in closing the Verlander deal. “I wanted us to celebrate this division title with a win at home,” Luhnow said. “When you have Justin Verlander on the mound, even without our MVP, Altuve, out there today, we got it done.”

The September return of Correa has the Astros’ offense back at full strength.
The September return of Correa has the Astros’ offense back at full strength.
Photo by Eric Sauseda

Finally, playing the role of Jeff Bagwell, Craig Biggio, Lance Berkman and every core nucleus farmhand from those 1990s and 2000s playoff teams were Springer, Correa, Keuchel and Altuve, the original Four Horsemen of this Astros clubhouse. “The homegrown players really appreciate this because of where we’ve been,” Keuchel said, champagne dripping from his trademark beard. “We had a culture back then, but we have a whole new culture now, so we’re going to keep it going and enjoy it every single step of the way.”

This celebration is one more step toward what should be Altuve’s first MVP award, but as usual, trying to extract acknowledgment of his own greatness from the diminutive second baseman requires the Jaws of Life. Altuve is all about the team. “I had a feeling we would celebrate today because of the way we’ve been playing, but it doesn’t matter if I was on the bench or on the field,” Altuve said. “This is a team, this isn’t about me or a couple other guys; this is about the whole team, the whole city.”

If Altuve wouldn’t directly address his Hall of Fame career track, then McHugh would. “The ones that separate themselves are the guys who are continually working on their game, continually trying to improve, and we’ve seen that with guys all the way to the top of this team,” McHugh said. “Altuve just keeps getting better and better and better, he’s probably the best hitter in the game, and he’s always learning, he’s always competing, he’s always looking for the slightest thing that can put him in even more rare company, and I think it rubs off on guys like Correa and Springer. That’s the culture here, and it’s brought us a long way so far.”

There is more work to do, but for that one day, at least, the road to the World Series is soaked in Korbel and Budweiser, and the clouds in the perfect storm are made of cigar smoke and dry ice.

“We had a chance to celebrate like this twice in 2015, but this one means more, winning the division this early in the season,” exclaimed Luhnow. “It means we are gonna be ready to go. This team is the most talented team I’ve ever been around, and I just can’t wait to see what October brings.”

You and about six million others, Jeff. 


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