HOUSTON—Remember the Houston Astros? You know, that team that roared to a 42–16 start, but lost its Flavor-of-the-Month popularity as the Cleveland Indians literally shook the rafters of Progressive Field with a once-in-a-lifetime winning streak? The team that faded as the Los Angeles Dodgers lapsed into the most overrated, over-analyzed losing streak in baseball history, and as the New York Yankees and Boston Red Sox reminded us that as rivalries go, Yankees-Red Sox is so reliable that you can set your smartwatch to it?
Houston faded from national view in large part because of a 20–22 downturn that hit it shortly after the All-Star break. Well, in those 42 games, shortstop Carlos Correa played in none of them because of an injured thumb, and presumptive playoff starters Dallas Keuchel, Justin Verlander and Lance McCullers started only nine of them. That was no time to judge Houston.
To watch the Astros play baseball recently is to see a team that might even be better than the one that started 42–16. Ever since general manager Jeff Luhnow made the kind of trade that I said at the start of the season he would have to make—a trade that hurts, being that he had to dip into his proud stash of prospects to get an elite pitcher (in this case, Verlander, with one second to spare)—the Astros have looked like a dangerous postseason team, fully capable of winning the franchise’s first world championship.
Here’s what you missed this weekend as Houston delivered a knockout sweep to Seattle:
• The Astros outscored Seattle, 20–9, and reaffirmed that this is one of the most dangerous offensive teams in a generation—and one with the profile to win postseason style when pitching rotations shorten. Houston leads the league in runs and has struck out the least. No team has accomplished that double since the 1995 Indians, and not in a full season since the 1988 Red Sox.
• Correa hit his first home run since July 9, one of his four hits in the series, as he stung the ball the hardest since his injury. He’s back.
• Jose Altuve started putting a bow on his MVP candidacy, pushing his hit total to 193 as he seeks to become the first player ever to lead his league in hits outright for four straight years.
• Keuchel, after suffering neck and shoulder woes, left no doubt that his trademark sinker is back in top form. He threw 52 sinkers Saturday, producing no swings and misses but getting 11 grounders on the 12 sinkers put into play and giving up only one hit on the pitch. It was a clinic on pitching to soft contact at the bottom of the zone, reminiscent of his 2015 Cy Young season.
• Verlander, for the second straight start, matched his season high by getting 17 swings and misses and punched out 10 batters in seven innings. In three starts for Houston, all of which have resulted in Astros wins, he has allowed just two runs and 10 hits in 21 innings, striking out 26 against three walks. His stuff is as good as ever.
Starting pitching, the weakness of the team a month ago, suddenly looks like a postseason strength.
“Dallas has been solid,” manager A.J. Hinch said. “He’s getting his ground balls. There’s nothing too different now from the Dallas Keuchel of 2015.”
With nothing firm yet, here is how the Astros are planning their rotation for the Division Series:
Game 1: Verlander, because he’s been the most dominant pitcher in baseball since the middle of August (5–0, 1.29 ERA) … unless Houston plays the Yankees. In that case you should expect Hinch to give the ball to Keuchel. Why? Keuchel has the lowest ERA in history among all pitchers who ever made at least six starts against the Yankees (1.41, displacing Jing Johnson, who last threw a pitch in 1928). If you include his six shutout innings against New York in the 2015 wild-card game, Keuchel has a career ERA against the Yankees of 1.24 and has never allowed a home run to the 188 Yankees batters he has faced.
Game 2: Keuchel, or if it’s against New York, Verlander.
Game 3: Lance McCullers. He will pitch behind Collin McHugh on Tuesday, but his stuff is too electric not to get a start in the postseason. He has missed time with a back ailment and arm fatigue, but he’s checked out fine, and the rest will be beneficial for a smallish righthander with max velocity and spin who’ll never be a 30-start, 200-inning rotation fixture.
Game 4: Brad Peacock. Not excited about someone who entered this year with a career record of 11–17? Check out these numbers, which show that Peacock, in a breakout year, has the kind of pure stuff you want on the mound in October.
Lowest BA vs. Four-Seam Fastballs, AL Starters
1. Chris Sale, Red Sox .174
2. Michael Fulmer, Tigers .185
3. Brad Peacock, Astros .191
Highest Slider Spin Rate, AL Starters
1. Sonny Gray, Yankees 2,850
2. Jaime Garcia, Yankees 2,793
3. Marcus Stroman, Blue Jays 2,745
4. Brad Peacock, Astros 2,665
Highest Strikeouts Per 9 IP Rate, AL Pitchers (Min. 120 IP)
1. Chris Sale, Red Sox 12.83
2. Corey Kluber, Indians 11.84
3. Brad Peacock, Astros 11.38
Peacock is not going to win a game by himself. He’s the classic modern starter: spin the tar out of the baseball for five innings and get out of there. His numbers facing hitters the third time around as a starter are scary (.342/.432/.618), but those are irrelevant in October.
Houston’s bullpen (an MLB-worst 7.99 strikeout-per-nine rate in September) could be problematic, but remember that with the surfeit of off days in the postseason, managers can rely on the same three or four arms. Hinch showed last week in Anaheim how he will use closer Ken Giles: He brought him into the eighth inning against the Angels because the top of the order was due up. Multiple-inning option Chris Devenski, the most important arm in the pen, pitched the ninth. In the postseason, Hinch said, “I could use [Giles] multiple innings, just go all Kenley Jansen with him.”
The Astros lack a true lefty specialist, though famously streaky Francisco Liriano is getting such a tryout here in the final weeks. Houston has learned not to have Liriano aim for corners—his command isn’t nearly as good as his stuff—and now positions its catcher over the center of the plate and just tells Liriano to get it over and let it move.
Will Harris needs his cutter to behave again, and McHugh, Charlie Morton and Joe Musgrove, with 47 starts among them, all could fortify the pen.
As it turned out, the season turned twice for Houston, once when Luhnow wasted hours trying to get Zach Britton from Baltimore and didn’t find an elite starter (the disheartened club went 10–17 on the bad news), and again when Luhnow ponied up three prospects for Verlander (beginning that day, the revived team is 12–5).
The Verlander deal came oh-so-close to never happening. Verlander, with his 10-and-5 rights, preferred to be traded to Los Angeles, New York or Chicago. But Detroit GM Al Avila was rebuffed by the Dodgers and Yankees for what they said were monetary reasons. (The Dodgers said they would be too penalized by the new CBA tax, and the Yankees said they simply didn’t have room in their budget, upon which an astonished Avila blurted aloud, “The Yankees don’t have money for Justin Verlander?”)
The Cubs were interested, but Avila got nowhere asking for a package that included outfielder Albert Almora Jr. and catcher Victor Caratini. Chicago loved the metrics on how Verlander is throwing today but gulped at paying him $56 million over the next two seasons at ages 35 and 36 while already on the hook for $55 million for the age-34 and -35 seasons of Jon Lester. Giving up major league ready talent and taking on that kind of money chilled the talks.
At the Aug. 31 trade deadline, upon seeing that Tigers teammate Justin Upton was traded to the Angels that afternoon, Verlander texted Avila.
“As a competitor, you always think your team is about to turn things around,” Verlander said. “But when they traded J-Up, it was different all of a sudden. I had to ask, ‘What’s this mean for me? Where are we going?’”
Avila sent word to Verlander that he didn’t expect anything to happen. He also sent the same message to Tigers manager Brad Ausmus, who promptly went to bed. Then, a bit after 10:30 PM, just after McHugh couldn’t get through five innings in Texas, and the day after Kuechel gave up six runs, Luhnow called Avila. He wanted Verlander. He needed Verlander. What would it take? The two executives started kicking around names. Fifty minutes later, Avila called Verlander.
“Will you go to Houston?”
“Let me think about it.”
Verlander told me this was the first time he thought seriously about whether to accept a trade to Houston. I told him I found that hard to believe, given the rumors that were in play for weeks. He assured me it was true.
“Think about it. If I start thinking about the possibilities, about whether I would go here or there, then I’m not devoting my energies and the best of what I have to the Detroit Tigers,” he said. “And really, that’s the only way I know how to go about things. It would have been a disservice to my team and my teammates to be pitching for the Tigers and my mind is racing about pitching somewhere else.
“What was crazy, though, was a couple of times I had dreams about it, actual dreams, about pitching here [in Houston]. And then I’d wake up.
“It was a lot harder decision than you expect. It was 11:20 or something, and now I have to make this major life decision and I have to make it quickly. I can’t sleep on it. They need an answer in a hurry.”
Avila, working out of his home in suburban Detroit, dispatched a couple of baseball operations staffers to Verlander’s house, about 15 minutes away, with the paperwork to waive his 10-and-5 rights to block a trade. The clock kept ticking. Verlander talked it over with his fiancee, Kate Upton. What was best for him? What was best for the both of them?
The Justin Upton trade had sent Verlander an unmistakable signal. The Tigers were going into full rebuild mode. Verlander had two more years left on his contract. Detroit was unlikely to put a contender together that quickly.
Houston, he knew, was headed to the postseason this year. Much of the core of the team remained under control for at least the next two years: Altuve, Correa, George Springer, Yuli Gurriel, Josh Reddick, Giles, Devenski, McCullers. Avila could try to shop him again in the winter, but because the Dodgers and Yankees showed no interest, there was no reason to expect an option better than Houston would emerge.
Verlander said yes, just before the midnight deadline for postseason roster eligibility. When did he sign the papers?
“At 11:59:59,” he said. “No joke. This is the right place for me. And so far it’s been great. It’s been easy to fit in. Actually, it helped that I joined them on the road, because I know all the road clubhouses and places. It was after the first game of a doubleheader and I just jumped into the [handshake] line.
“The guys in the clubhouse are tremendous and [owner] Jim Crane has gone out of his way to make us feel welcome.”
Crane bought the team in 2011, when the Astros began consecutive seasons of horrid play in which losses piled up like the heat in Phoenix in midsummer: 106, 107, 111, 92. On their way to 111 losses in 2013, stuck in a 15-game losing streak and saddled with a financially-troubled regional television package, the Astros played a game against the Indians that drew a local rating of 0.0, which meant nobody in a Nielsen-monitored home was watching their Major League team—nobody. Four years later, an Astros-Indians game might be an epic ALCS battle.
Now the Astros have their first division title since 2001, their best attendance in nine years, their highest payroll ever ($130 million), a 14% increase in local TV ratings from last year, the swagger of adding an ace like Verlander, and the responsibility and motivation to help heal a region reeling from the devastation of Hurricane Harvey. Just last week, three tractor-trailers filled with food, clothing and supplies arrived in Houston from New Britain, Conn., where Springer, his parents and his sisters organized a relief drive for hurricane victims. Springer is the emotional centerfielder who, after crossing home plate with his 30th homer (which happened to come in the Astros’ first post-hurricane home game), pounded the “Houston Strong” patch on his chest and saluted the fans.
It’s not a stretch to say the Astros are playing with purpose, not unlike the Red Sox of 2013. This is their home. About 15% of Astros’ employees were directly impacted by the hurricane. When you drive from the airport to downtown, on the side of neighborhood streets, you still see what lives turned upside down in an instant look like: small mountain ranges of furniture, clothing, carpeting and possessions still waiting for the overwhelmed sanitation trucks to remove the ruin.
Maybe baseball is a small diversion against the backdrop of tremendous hardship for so many. And maybe the postseason is the chance for that diversion to become something bigger.