by Paul West
Believe it or not, it hasn’t been as long as you might think since the Houston Astros were a contender.
That’s right: in 2005, the Astros overcame a 15-30 start and won the National League–yes, the National League–Pennant, bringing the World Series to the state of Texas for the first time ever. They were swept in the World Series by the Chicago White Sox, foreshadowing a decline that made the next decade feel much longer. 2005 was the final season for eventual Hall of Famer Jeff Bagwell; in 2006, fellow Hall of Famer Craig Biggio would retire while Hall of Famers Andy Pettitte and Roger Clemens would depart for free agency. During the following decade, they moved to the American League, lost 100 games three seasons in a row, and became the first team in MLB history to have the first overall pick three years in a row. They built a new stadium, named after one of the most infamous corporations in recent history (it’s since been renamed to Minute Maid Park), and inexplicably built a hill–with a flagpole!–in the middle of center field. A decade after making it to the World Series, the Astros were one of the biggest punchlines in professional sports.
Then, in 2015, the Astros scraped their way into the playoffs. They lost in the ALDS to the eventual World Series champion Kansas City Royals, but all of a sudden, it seemed like all those draft picks were paying off. Their pitching staff was led by Dallas Keuchel, a bearded lefty who precision-tossed his way to 20 wins and the Cy Young Award; they were led on offense by Jose Altuve, an undersized speed merchant who racked up hits and stolen bases and had surprising power for his 5’6, 164-pound frame; Carlos Correa was an exciting young shortstop, whose combination of power, athleticism, and rangy size was reminiscent of past greats; and they were suddenly being discussed as an impending perennial threat.
Then 2016 happened, and the Astros not only struggled, but were pummeled by the Texas Rangers all season–going only 4-15 against their cross-state rivals.
This season, from the very beginning, things have clicked. The Astros ran away with the AL West early on, opening a double-digit lead as of early June and landing near the top of most power rankings for baseball’s best team. Correa has struggled with injuries for much of the year, but thanks to the likes of George Springer–another tall, rangy, speed-power threat in center field–along with Altuve and the resurgent Josh Reddick, as well as contributions from a string of talented rookies, the Astros lead the majors in runs scored. Future Hall of Famer Carlos Beltran is back where his career took off, serving as the team’s primary DH, and Keuchel sits atop a rotation that’s exceeded expectations. The Astros have held serve, maintaining a double-digit lead all season–and some have even wondered aloud, ‘will the Astros be able to remain focused down the stretch?’
Baseball fans, we’ve just received our answer to that question.
Not only are the Astros still playing as if every game had standings implications, showing poise that some would say belies their youth and a grit that some would say belies their huge standings lead; they’ve just addressed one of the lingering holes on the roster with the acquisition of Justin Verlander. Other than Keuchel, the rest of the Astros’ rotation–Collin McHugh, Charlie Morton, Brad Peacock, and Mike Fiers–is capable, but not overwhelming; and even including Keuchel, the Astros lacked the sort of dominant power arm that seemingly every championship rotation seems to have one of lately. Verlander isn’t the innings-chomping flamethrower he once was, but he still qualifies as a power pitcher–and he’s got plenty of playoff experience. He’s also won the Triple Crown, Cy Young Award and the MVP–all in one incredible season.
The Astros have also strengthened their bench, acquiring veteran outfielder Cameron Maybin off waivers from the Angels. Maybin is tied with Altuve for the AL lead in stolen bases, with 29; he’s also a solid outfield defender.
What does all of this mean? It means the Houston Astros don’t want to go down as one of the many teams in baseball history who’ve stomped their way through the regular season only to falter in the fall. They’ve got speed, power, youth, experience, and defense; and now, their rotation has both power and craft, along with two Cy Young winners and a handful of serviceable secondary starters. And in Altuve–always underestimated due to his stature–and Springer, who proudly discusses how he overcame shyness and a childhood stutter to be the MLB star he is today–they even have their own underdog backstories to feed their sense of purpose. And most recently, and tragically, they have the sense of purpose and perspective that comes from seeing their home fans, and in some cases loved ones, struggle through the effects of a natural disaster.
The Astros know how quickly windows of opportunity can open and close; and with two moves on the brink of September, they’ve positioned themselves well to still be playing in October.