HOUSTON – It was 11:08 p.m., 18 minutes after Nationals closer Daniel Hudson had induced Astros outfielder Michael Brantley into swinging through the final pitch of the 2019 World Series, and Houston’s clubhouse was quiet, save for the periodic cracks of consoling backslaps between stunned teammates.
Over on one side of the locker room, Jose Altuve, Alex Bregman, and Carlos Correa–the Astros’ three star infielders–sat together. Altuve, the second baseman, and Correa, the shortstop, faced each other, hunched over in their chairs and shoeless, each of their chins in their palms. Bregman, the third baseman, sat on the floor between them, leaning back on a pile of unopened boxes of gear, his white spikes still laced. They murmured softly to each other in the Spanish that Altuve and Correa grew up speaking, and Bregman has worked hard to learn.
Between long periods of silence, they talked about how what had just happened had happened. How had the 107-win Astros, the best team in baseball this year, come home just two days earlier with a three games to two lead and between an 80% and 85% chance of winning the series, according to most projections algorithms, and lost? How had they hit so many balls so hard off of Max Scherzer in Game 7–especially George Springer’s 105 mph rocket with two men on and two outs in the bottom of the second, which traveled directly to the glove of Nationals leftfielder Juan Soto–and scored only two runs? And how in the hell had Nationals DH Howie Kendrick homered off that pitch from Astros reliever Will Harris in the top of the seventh, to give the Nationals the 3-2 lead that Washington would eventually extend to a 6-2 final score?
“It was a nasty pitch,” Correa would say. “Cutter. Down and away. Perfectly located. I guess I gotta watch the video again, but I don’t know how he did that.”
The 29-year-old Altuve, had a perspective on the result, and on the Astros’ journey to it, that his younger teammates couldn’t. He had once been accustomed to quiet clubhouses. He had first taken occupancy of the locker which remains his eight years ago, on July 20, 2011, when he was called up to an Astros team, and organization, that was then entirely different. None of the other members of that first lineup remain in Houston: Carlos Peña, Chris Carter, Brett Wallace, Justin Maxwell, Brandon Barnes, Matt Dominguez, Jake Elmore. Only one of them, catcher Jason Castro, is even in the majors anymore, and Castro has been with Minnesota for three years now.
Back then, the Astros were known as the Disastros, and after G.M. Jeff Luhnow took over the front office before the 2012 season, the clubhouse became even more consistently quieter. Luhnow initially thought that Altuve could prove a transitional asset, a 5’6” slap hitter who could hold down second base until better days, and better players, arrived. The nadir came at the end of 2013, which Houston finished with a 15-game losing streak, a miserable run that just one other current Astros player–reliever Brad Peacock–also experienced. Houston lost more games between 2011 and 2013, 324 of them, than any other club had dropped over a three-year stretch in half a century.
Then Luhnow’s data-driven rebuilding plan began working, modestly at first, and Altuve emerged as the unlikely face of it, as well as its heart and soul. You can make contact with virtually any pitch, Luhnow’s analysts and coaches told Altuve, so what might happen if you swing at only the good pitches, those you can drive? He became a batting title winner, then a slugger, and then, in 2017, both a World Series champion and the AL MVP. Less than two weeks ago, on Oct. 19, he drove one of those good pitches–a slider from Yankees closer Aroldis Chapman, who is in most ways everything physically that Altuve is not–deep to left for a walk-off, pennant-winning homer that sent the Astros to their second World Series in three years.
There would be no heroics on Wednesday night, but still Altuve was circumspect. “We used to lose a ton of games,” he said. “We just lost Game 7 of the World Series. Even though you lose, you are very thankful for how good this organization has become.”
“He’s our captain, man,” Correa said of his double play partner. “He’s the guy that’s been here since the bad days. He knows what it’s like losing a lot of games. He knows what it’s like winning. He doesn’t want to go back to those losing days.”
There is little chance of that for the Astros, despite their disappointment. Next year’s club will look different, as the three infielders were reminded by a loud voice that came from the other side of the clubhouse at 11:14 p.m. “Do I have to do it?” Gerrit Cole complained, after being asked to speak with the media scrum. “I’m not employed."
The 29-year-old Cole, who in his two seasons with the Astros developed into perhaps the game’s most dominant starting pitcher, quickly assented to a brief session, but he was also right: he’s a free agent now, certain to break David Price’s record $217 million contract for a pitcher, and likely not with the Astros, as so many deep-pocketed teams will compete for his services. Five other members of Houston’s 25-man World Series roster will also be free agents: both catchers, Robinson Chirinos and Martin Maldonado, and three relievers: Harris, Hector Rondon, and Joe Smith.
And yet a core tenet of Luhnow’s philosophy has always been sustainability, which means never selling out for a one-time run at a title, but instead maintaining a roster that can contend year after year. Sometimes, after all, your World Series rockets are caught, and the nastiest of your World Series pitches somehow end up glancing off the foul pole.
Next year’s rotation might be without Cole, but it will return Justin Verlander and Zack Greinke, as well as the rehabbing Lance McCullers Jr. and perhaps the top prospect Forrest Whitley, whom Luhnow has always refused to trade. The lineup will remain almost entirely intact, and will benefit from full seasons from two other top prospects, Yordan Álvarez and Kyle Tucker, on whom Luhnow has maintained a white-knuckled grip. It will, however, center on the three infielders who still mourned together, although Correa had joined Bregman on the carpet, the shortstop’s head now resting on the third baseman’s knee.
Correa won’t become a free agent until after 2021, and Altuve and Bregman–both signed to long-term contracts–until after 2024. Eventually, the three men got up and headed for the showers, their thoughts turning toward a future in which they might again have a chance to finish a season as winners. “I hope so and I think so,” Bregman said, when asked if he thought they’d return to the World Series. “I believe so.”
“Tomorrow’s going to be another day,” said Altuve, before, at 11:38 p.m., exiting the clubhouse that was physically the same as it had been when he’d first entered it eight seasons earlier, but different in virtually every other way. “Next year’s going to be another year. Gotta get ready for it.”