Six years ago things were looking bleak for the Houston Astros. The Astros were losing money which led to their team owner Drayton McLane selling the team. In 2011, Jim Crane would purchase the Astros for $680 million while also taking on debt as well as accepting the fact that Houston would switch from the National League to the American League in 2013. Crane knew that it would not be a quick turnaround for his Astros as they lost at least 100 games in each season from 2011-2013.
Upon taking over the Astros, Crane hired Jeff Luhnow to be the team’s general manager. Luhnow understood that the Astros were starting over from scratch and focused on drafting, while also developing those players in Houston’s minor-league system.
Upon taking over in Houston, Luhnow inherited starting pitcher Dallas Keuchel and second baseman Jose Altuve who would develop into cornerstones for the Astros. Keuchel would be drafted by the Astros in 2009, and he’d make his Major League Baseball debut in 2012. By 2015, Keuchel would win 20 games and in the process he would be named as the American League Cy Young Award winner.
For Altuve, he had to work his way onto the big stage through a tougher route. Altuve tried out for the Astros in his native Venezuela, but he didn’t received a contract as he was dubbed to be too short at 5’6″. Altuve would not give up and came back for another tryout with the Astros and this time he was signed by the team in 2007.
Like Keuchel, Altuve worked his way up through the Astros system and he was ready for his debut with the big club in 2011. Altuve was the only bright spot for the Astros during their lean years due to his prowess for being a solid contact hitter. In each of Altuve’s full seasons with the Astros, he has led the club hits, while he has exceeded the 200 mark in hits in each of the last four years as he has led the American League in that category.
But Keuchel and Altuve alone could not make the Astros respectable as Luhnow would continue to come away from the Major League Baseball Draft smelling like a rose.
In 2012, Luhnow’s first draft choice was used on shortstop Carlos Correa who rose through the Astros system with outfielder George Springer who was selected in the first round in 2011. Springer would make his debut with the Astros in 2014, while Correa would follow suit in 2015 as things were beginning to come together in Houston.
By 2015, the Astros were playoff bound for the first time since 2005, and in the postseason they fell one victory shy of knocking off the eventual World Series Champion Kansas City Royals in the American League Divisional Series.
The Astros failed to make the playoffs in 2016 as things never came together for them, but with their core set, it was now time to just add a few pieces in order to make a run at a championship in 2017.
After an 84-78 campaign in 2016, Luhnow sought out to get Houston back to the postseason and his big moves last winter were to acquire catcher Brian McCann from the New York Yankees as well as signing designated hitter Carlos Beltran. McCann became expendable with the Yankees due to the emergence of Gary Sanchez, but he immediately found a home with Houston. Throughout McCann’s 13-year Major League Baseball career he has been known for his ability behind the plate to work with a pitching staff. In comparison to 2016, the Astros team earned run average did slightly increase during the regular season, but their opponents batting average dipped by 16 points. And most importantly, the Astros pitchers felt comfortable with McCann behind the plate.
The 2017 Major League Baseball season was the 20th one for Beltran who is a borderline Hall of Famer. At 40-years of age, Beltran is no longer going to hit 30 homers in a season or steal 25 bases, but what he gave the young Astros this year was a veteran bat off of the bench as well as being a shoulder to lean on in the clubhouse due to his experience.
The Astros began 2017 with the right blend as they finished the month of April with a record of 16-9. Houston would keep that momentum going as by the time that the month of May finished, their record was 38-16, and in the process they were running away with the American League West. The Astros would never look back as by the time that the All-Star break rolled around, their record was 60-29 and it was now time for them to think about the postseason.
As the summer progressed, the Astros maintained their firm grip on first place in the American League West, and now it was time for them to solidify their chances to do some damage in October. This led Luhnow to pull off a huge deal just minutes away from the waiver trade deadline on August 31 when the Astros were able to acquire starting pitcher Justin Verlander from the Detroit Tigers.
When you think of Verlander, one of the first words to come to mind is professionalism. Verlander is one of the best pitchers of this era which included him being named as the American League’s MVP in 2011 when he won 24 games as well as leading in earned run average (2.40), strikeouts (250) to win pitching’s version of the Triple Crown. And aside from bringing a wealth of experience with him to Houston, Verlander also provided the Astros with some depth in their starting rotation behind Keuchel.
By the time that the regular season had ended, the Astros had won 101 games for their second best record in franchise history, while it was also a far cry from a team that had just lost 111 games in 2013. The Boston Red Sox may have won the American League East here in 2017, but they proved to be no match for the Astros in the American League Divisional Series as they fell in four games. The Astros would then tango with the Yanks in the American League Championship Series who took the field with house money after they had knocked off the Cleveland Indians in the ALDS after they were expected to reach the World Series for a second consecutive year.
Houston would maintain home-field advantage after winning the first two games of the series at home, but when the series shifted to the Bronx, the Astros offense didn’t make the trip as they were limited to a combined 5 runs in the road games versus the Yankees which were all losses. The Astros would then return home facing elimination, but they would outscore New York over the final two games of the series 11-1 to advance to the World Series for the second time in franchise history, while becoming the only team in Major League Baseball history to appear in the Fall Classic in both the National and American Leagues.
In the World Series, the Astros would meet the Los Angeles Dodgers who like them were faced with an ownership change several years ago which threatened to cripple the franchise’s finances. The Astros and Dodgers were evenly matched which resulted in a back and forth series that was a classic. And like a good boxing match, both the Astros and Dodgers showed that they had what it took to go the distance, but since Houston could not win via the knockout, they had to settle for winning on points.
The Astros defeated the Dodgers for their first World Series Championship and they did it by seizing the moment. Just like it was when the Astros faced the Red Sox and the Yankees, Houston was not fazed by the rich tradition of the Dodgers. The Astros were able to get to the Dodgers bullpen which up until the World Series had been tough to score runs against. But Houston found away to crack the spell and importantly Dodgers relief pitcher Kenley Jansen as they would rally for key victories in Games 2 and 5 as each win would be a turning point in the series for the Astros.
The Astros have spent the past few years picking early in the draft and their stars came to the forefront when it mattered the most. In the World Series, Springer batted .379 to go along with 5 home runs and 7 runs batted in to be named as the World Series MVP. And Springer would save his biggest hit for Game 7 when he belted a two-run homer off of Dodgers starting pitcher Yu Darvish in the second inning to put Houston ahead 5-0 which all but made their victory a formality.
Third baseman Alex Bregman was the second overall pick of the 2015 Major League Baseball Draft and ever since he joined the big club in 2016, he has provided some slick fielding at the hot corner which was on display throughout the World Series as he consistently made key plays with his glove that prevented the Dodgers from scoring runs.
During the regular season Altuve led the American League in batting for the third time in the last four years, but he struggled at the plate during the World Series as he only batted .194. However when it mattered the most Altuve came up with big hits which included a game-tying three-run homer off of Dodgers pitcher Kenta Maeda in the fifth inning of Game 5.
The Astros bullpen had been shaky in the American League Championship Series versus the Yankees which carried over to the World Series as relief pitcher Ken Giles finished the Fall Classic with an earned run average of 27.00. But for Astros manager A.J. Hinch he was able to lean on a pair of the team’s starting pitchers to be a force coming out of the bullpen in October.
Starting pitchers Charlie Morton and Lance McCullers combined to win 21 games for the Astros during the regular season, but when the postseason rolls around the philosophy changes as it is simply “whatever it takes”. In Game 7 of the American League Championship Series, Morton limited the Yankees to just a pair of hits over five innings, while McCullers would finish them off by going the final four innings without surrendering a run. In Game 7 of the World Series, McCullers was shaky through 2 1/3 innings as the starter for Astros which led to Hinch pulling him. But it was Morton who sealed the deal by shutting down the Dodgers lineup over the final four innings of the contest. And as the majority of the 56,000 fans that filed into Dodger Stadium on Wednesday night anticipated a championship for the home team, it was the Astros who foiled those plans.
So now things have come full circle for an Astros organization that just five years ago was an afterthought. The Astros didn’t do it by having press conferences in order to announce the signings of marquee free agents as they simply went under the radar and focused on building from within. Having early picks is one thing, but it comes down to making the most of those selections which is exactly what the Astros did. Each championship team has the support of the respective city that they call home, but it meant a little bit more to the Astros this year as the City of Houston is still recovering from the devastation of Hurricane Harvey over the summer. And although that there are those who lost their lives as well as those who lost most or all of their personal belongings, the Astros have given the ones who survived something to put a smile on their faces.