Surprising Astros hope to build on playoff run in 2016
HOUSTON (AP) The Houston Astros weren't even thought by most to be a postseason contender this year.
That's little consolation in the wake of their elimination by the Kansas City Royals in Game 5 of the American League division series.
''It's going to leave a sour taste for a very long time,'' ace Dallas Keuchel said. ''Next year can't come soon enough.''
The Astros were six outs from a trip to the AL Championship Series on Sunday with a three-run lead entering the eighth inning before the Royals used a shaky bullpen and a costly error to score five runs and rally for the 9-6 victory. Houston was ahead by two runs early on Wednesday night before Johnny Cueto shut down the Astros in the Royals' series-ending 7-2 win.
''Our guys last night had the right balance of pride and disappointment,'' first-year manager A.J. Hinch said. ''Very proud of what we did, what we accomplished, how we came together as a team ... but yet hungry enough to be devastated that the season came to an end.''
Houston made the playoffs for the first time since a trip to the World Series in 2005. The Astros' rise to contender status this season came just two years after they lost a franchise-worst 111 games as part of three consecutive 100-loss seasons.
''We made baseball a topic of conversation in October in the state of Texas and that's not easy to do,'' general manager Jeff Luhnow said.
They made the turnaround thanks to the development of a crop of young talent highlighted by shortstop Carlos Correa, the top overall pick in 2012 who they expect to the be cornerstone of the franchise for years to come.
''We've got a lot of confidence,'' Correa said. ''Nobody expected us to be here. And we accomplished a lot this year ... the future is bright and we're looking forward to next season.''
Polished beyond his years Correa, who turned 21 on Sept. 22, was called up in June and set a franchise record for home runs by a rookie with 22, the most by an AL rookie and the most by a shortstop in the majors. He had 68 RBIs, 45 extra-base hits and 22 doubles.
''The story of Carlos Correa is still early,'' Luhnow said. ''This is the second chapter of a long book, so it's going to be fun for our fans to watch him and other young players develop.''
All-Star second baseman Jose Altuve reached 200 hits for the second straight season and led the AL. He topped the Astros with .313 average, was first in the AL with 38 stolen bases and had 40 doubles and 66 RBIs.
The Astros also got a solid season by outfielder George Springer, who hit .276 with 16 homers, 41 RBIs and 16 stolen bases in his second season despite missing two months with a broken wrist.
''We kind of raised the bar for Astros' baseball for sure and earned the respect of a lot of people, who didn't believe in us before,'' Springer said. ''This team has been through some ups and down and has been able to accomplish a lot more than a lot of people thought they would. We've shown we can go out and play with anybody and beat anybody.''
The Astros went 15-7 in April and led the AL West for most of the season before Texas overtook Houston in mid-September. The Rangers won the division and Houston gained the second AL wild card and beat the New York Yankees 3-0 in the wild-card game to advance.
Keuchel won that game and also pitched Houston to a victory in Game 3 of the ALDS to cap a stellar year where he led the AL with a career-best 20-8 record and was second in the AL with a career-low 2.48 ERA.
The Astros added pitchers Scott Kazmir and Mike Fiers and outfielder Carlos Gomez to boost their team before the trade deadline. Kazmir started out well before struggling late and was 2-6 with a 4.17 ERA in 13 starts. Fiers provided one of Houston's biggest moments of the regular season when he pitched a no-hitter in August against the Dodgers.
Gomez provided a spark to the team in the regular season but was slowed by a ribcage muscle strain throughout the postseason.
Luhnow, the architect of Houston's rebuilding project, wasn't ready to discuss offseason needs or plans for personnel changes.
''If I could bring back the whole team, I would,'' Luhnow said. ''This is a fun team and I think they have a chance to do next year what they did this year and maybe more.''