HOUSTON — Baseball offers no harsher end than a loss in Game 7 of the World Series. You have endured the April frost and July heatstroke, the blowouts and the walk-offs, the delayed flights and the late-inning pitching changes, and you have played as long as you can play. And now you are faced with the most binary of options: win, and float with your friends through the next days and weeks in a champagne-soaked haze, or lose, and descend alone into winter.
Three of the last four seasons have slammed to a halt with this stark contrast, each team’s opposite emotion heightened by the suddenness with which it came. As the 2016 Cubs danced, the Indians staggered through the clubhouse. As the ’17 Astros doused one another in alcohol, the Dodgers wept openly. But on Wednesday, as the ’19 Nationals celebrated a title that even they barely believed had come, the Astros’ response was muted.
The tears were dry by the time the uniforms came off. Houston had just capped a 107-win season with a 6–2 loss, but the mood in the clubhouse reflected more disappointment than devastation.
At his locker, first baseman Yuli Gurriel checked his Instagram metrics. Across the room, outfielder Josh Reddick and reliever Will Harris argued about fantasy football invoices. In the quietest corner of the room, shortstop Carlos Correa and second baseman José Altuve leaned forward in the office chairs in front of their lockers. Between them, on the floor, sprawled third baseman Alex Bregman. In whispers, they discussed the improbability of what they had witnessed: Zack Greinke, seemingly on his way to a one-hit shutout, carried a 2–0 lead into the seventh inning. Then came a solo home run. A walk. A pitching change. Another longball. Two innings later, the Astros watched the Nationals celebrate at Minute Maid Park.
Eventually, Bregman rose. “We’ve been knocked down a lot and gotten back up,” he said. “We got knocked down today. We’ll be back for 2020.”
The Astros have undertaken this journey before, culminating with that 2017 title. They believe this season was the challenge they will credit when they win again. And can you blame them?
This was the best team in baseball. Not just in baseball in 2019. Perhaps in baseball history. They may boast the AL MVP (Alex Bregman), AL Cy Young Award winner (either Gerrit Cole or Justin Verlander) and AL Rookie of the Year (Yordan Álvarez). AJ Hinch has a shot at Manager of the Year. Their pitchers had the most strikeouts in the game (1,671) and their hitters had the fewest (1,166). Their .495 team slugging percentage was the best ever. An ESPN study suggested they might have trotted out the best postseason roster of all time. They view this loss as a frustrating aberration.
After Game 7, they elected not to focus on the missed opportunities. They left 10 men on base and went 1-for-8 with runners in scoring position, but they did not expect to spend the offseason replaying those moments.
Centerfielder George Springer lined to leftfield to strand runners on second and third in the second inning. “I hit it good, but at somebody,” he said. “It would have been nice for it to fall.”
Álvarez, the DH, twice ended innings with men aboard, in the third with men on first and second and in the seventh with a man on first. “I felt good about the approach,” he said through interpreter Oz Ocampo. “It just didn’t work out.”
Even Harris, who surrendered the two-run home run and with it the lead, said he did not want that moment back. “I made a pretty good pitch,” he said. “[Howie Kendrick, who lined it off the rightfield foul pole,] made a championship play for a championship team.”
Correa, the only Astro who had a hit with a runner in scoring position, simply marveled at the outcome. “The pitch [Harris] made to Howie—I just don’t understand how he hit that out,” he said. “It doesn’t add up. The way he throws his cutter, it’s one of the nastiest cutters in the game. Down and away, on the black, and he hits it off the foul pole. It was meant to be, I guess, for them. I thought we played great, but they played better. It was their year.”
Will next year be the Astros’ year, again? A second championship might be more elusive than they imagine.
Twenty-two of the men on the World Series roster are under contract for next season, but that number does not include Cole, who warmed up in the sixth inning but never entered the game. He already seems emotionally uprooted from Houston; when media relations head Gene Dias asked him to speak to the assembled press after the game, he hesitated. “I have to do it?” Cole said. “I’m not an employee of the team.” Eventually he acquiesced. “As a representative of myself …” he said. He appeared for the interview wearing not Astros gear but a cap bearing the logo of the agency that represents him, Boras Corporation.
Even the players who remain are not locks to replicate their production. Altuve and Springer will play next season at 30 years old, leftfielder Michael Brantley at 33, Gurriel at 36, Verlander at 37. Brantley, Springer and Gurriel can become free agents after 2020. Correa enters his third year of salary arbitration in ’21. Houston may find it more difficult to trade for expensive but talented starting pitchers, as they did in ’17 for Verlander and this July for Greinke.
Still, this organization became the sixth in history to win 100 games in three consecutive years. It plays in the AL West, home to only one other team that is clearly trying to win. Sportswriters and sportsbooks are likely to crown Houston the winner of the 2020 title by mid-February.
The team agrees. After Game 7, Bregman, still wearing his orange jersey with its 2019 WORLD SERIES patch, said he looked forward to spring training. The Astros are dead. Long live the Astros.