HOUSTON — It had to be Game 4. And yes, it had to be the eighth inning.
If the Houston Astros were going to move on, if they were going to reach the American League Championship Series, if they had any chance of achieving the greatness they are certain is within their grasp, they first had to chase away the memory that tormented them for 728 days.
It followed them wherever they went. The four base hits in a row against reliever Will Harris. The double-play grounder botched by shortstop Carlos Correa. The four-run lead that went up in smoke in the eighth inning of Game 4 of a division series against the Kansas City Royals in 2015.
“I thought I was over it, until [reporters] made me talk about it,” Astros manager A.J. Hinch said with a chuckle the other day, “and now it’s back.”
Not anymore. It’s finally gone for good, thanks to Alex Bregman and Evan Gattis and George Springer and Josh Reddick and a rousing comeback this week at Fenway Park against none other than Chris Sale and Craig Kimbrel, the Boston Red Sox‘s two best pitchers. It was coincidental that it happened in the eighth inning of Game 4 of this year’s division series, but it was entirely fitting. Catharic too.
In flipping the script from two years earlier, the Astros need not be haunted by their past any longer. They might have reappeared on the national scene in 2015 with a group of young players that was the envy of the league. But this year, they have officially arrived, having endured the fallout from a bitter postseason disappointment and come out the other end as a legitimate favorite to win the pennant.
“To get here, it’s a huge burden off a lot of guys’ shoulders,” said left-hander Dallas Keuchel, who will start Friday night in Game 1 of the ALCS against the New York Yankees at Minute Maid Park. “For the guys who were here, losing it, there was an extreme amount of pressure not beating the Royals when we had a lead at home. To do it in Boston, at Fenway, with that crowd, with Sale pitching the way he was, for Bregman to do that at that point, that’s when we knew it was ours.”
Hinch called Bregman’s game-tying home run against Sale “very emotional for our dugout.” In that case, Gattis’ single, Springer’s two-out walk against Kimbrel and Reddick’s go-ahead RBI single were downright exhilarating. And they demonstrated how far the Astros have come.
Jose Altuve knows all about it. The star second baseman made his major league debut with the Astros in 2011 and lived through consecutive seasons of 106, 107 and 111 losses. During those years, 2011 to 2013, Houston burned through three managers, from Brad Mills to Bo Porter, with interim skipper Tony DeFrancesco in between. A new general manager was hired at the start of 2012, but Jeff Luhnow’s extreme analytics-driven approach to decision-making (he even enlisted former NASA engineer Sig Mejdal to work in the front office) was derided when the Astros didn’t show improvement.
By 2015, though, Altuve and Keuchel had been joined by other talented young players. Springer was a first-round pick in 2011; Gattis came over in a trade with the Atlanta Braves; and right-hander Collin McHugh was selected off waivers from the Colorado Rockies. Then there was Correa, a first-round pick in 2012 who made his debut in midseason as a precocious 20-year-old.
The Astros won 86 games, clinched a wild-card berth and were six outs away from closing out the division series at home against the Royals. Two days later, they were eliminated, and Altuve was sobbing in Hinch’s office.
“That was our first arrival, the first time we were really, in some ways, respected again in the game,” Hinch said. “We had good players, good talent, and we won games. And we celebrated a couple times. We went to Yankee Stadium and won the wild-card game. Those were all great memories for those guys, for guys like Jose who came through the lean years where we were losing and came out of it now feeling like a winner.”
To Altuve, though, it also felt incomplete.
“I’m coming from a team that lost 100 games in a row three years, three straight years,” Altuve said. “Most of the guys inside the clubhouse in 2015, it was their first playoff. You don’t know what to expect.”
The expectation was that the Astros would be right back in the postseason in 2016. But they stumbled out of the game, going 7-17 in April, and never fully recovered. They went 84-78, finished third in the AL West and watched the playoffs on television, a feeling that Altuve describes as “uncomfortable.”
“We were like, ‘OK, we’re good enough to be in the playoffs,'” Altuve said.
“We knew the whole time, even last year, that we were good. But we weren’t anywhere near this level.”
Dallas Keuchel on the evolving Astros team
Looking back, Keuchel believes it took a full season for the Astros to live down the wasted opportunity against the Royals. After all, they brought back nearly the same team, with all the same young players who were so impressive the year before.
“We were just some young group in ’15 playing with a little swagger and some ‘funness’ to us,” Keuchel said. “In ’16, it was more of a job and a burden, and you can’t win that way. We weren’t in a position to win last year.”
Luhnow realized as much. And so, last winter, he strayed ever so slightly from the data he trusts so much and made a few moves designed to add veteran leadership to the clubhouse.
The Astros signed 40-year-old free agent Carlos Beltran to a one-year deal, even though he’s strictly a designated hitter now and he posted only a .776 OPS down the stretch in 2016 after being dealt to the Texas Rangers. They traded for catcher Brian McCann, who was pushed out by the Yankees in favor of Gary Sanchez. And they doled out a four-year, $52 million contract to Reddick, mostly because of the winning reputation he built in Oakland.
“First and foremost, we looked for guys that were still producing at a high level,” Luhnow said. “I understand the hypothesis that you want guys around the clubhouse who have experience and can mentor younger players, but if they’re not able to perform on the field and help the team win, I don’t really think that’s what we want. Now, that being said, we had our choice between the [free-agent] veterans and we were looking at guys that we thought would be influential on our younger players and be a motivator for them.”
That’s exactly what Beltran, McCann and Reddick have done. It doesn’t necessarily show up in their statistics, but they have been every bit as important to the 101-win Astros’ success this season as Correa, Springer and Altuve, all of whom figure to receive MVP votes, with Altuve as the likely front-runner to win the award.
For one thing, they helped to lighten the mood. In spring training, Beltran custom-made two replica World Boxing Organization title belts, one in blue and the other in orange, one designated as “Player of the Game,” the other as “Pitcher of the Game.” With input from Reddick, Beltran decided the belts would be awarded after each victory, with the most recent winners serving as judges, and the recipients would be required to stand up in the clubhouse and deliver a brief speech.
If the Astros were still feeling the weight of their 2015 postseason failure, it was quickly lifted.
“I think that was huge for us,” Correa said. “Last year, we had a young team with a lot of talent, but that leadership from a veteran guy we didn’t have. And this year, with McCann, Beltran, Reddick showing up, besides their baseball skills they are great guys in the clubhouse, and they taught us so much about the game, things that we didn’t know about.”
It was all part of the Astros’ evolution. They surged to a 38-16 record through the end of May and all but wrapped up the division title before the All-Star break. But they also dealt with adversity, including injuries to Keuchel and right-hander Lance McCullers Jr. and a torn thumb ligament that sidelined Correa for six weeks.
And once the Astros returned to the division series, there was the matter of shaking the ghost of Game 4, eighth inning.
“We knew the whole time, even last year, that we were good. But we weren’t anywhere near this level,” Keuchel said. “We didn’t have the guys, we didn’t have the knowledge.”
They also didn’t have the confidence of knowing what it was like to get beyond the first round.
And now that they’re here?
“To advance is the whole goal when you get into this,” Hinch said. “So now we have one more challenge ahead of us, and then we’ll continue to try to work towards our ultimate goal, which is to win the whole thing.”