As Alex Bregman returns to the brink of a World Series title, his happy place only gets bigger

HOUSTON - Alex Bregman is dogged and intelligent, hyper-competitive and discerning, a thinking man’s ballplayer to the core. But right now, his math isn’t adding up.

Five years after his Houston Astros debut resulted in a World Series championship, three years after he was implicated in an illegal sign-stealing scandal during that title run and one year after a body in need of surgical repair broke down as his club again fell short of another ring, there’s a twinkle back in his eye.

The trademark swagger that accompanied him from LSU to Minute Maid Park has not fully returned, and maybe it never will. The 23-year-old kid who got the biggest hit in the 2017 World Series – an extra-inning walk-off in Game 5 – is now a 28-year-old man, a new father, a dude who stood in against the rightful scorn following his role in a trash-can banging scheme that stunted his superstar ceiling.

Now, Bregman’s Astros are again one win from a World Series title, headed home to Minute Maid Park with a 3-2 lead and a chance to close out the Philadelphia Phillies in Game 6 on Saturday night. His firstborn, Knox, celebrated his 3-month birthday Wednesday in Philadelphia, a night that culminated with the Astros beating the Phillies in Game 4 to tie the Series, thanks in large part to Bregman’s two-run double.

And it’s all just so overwhelming.

On one hand, Bregman says winning another World Series “means the world to me.” On another, he says the chance to spend the off day before a potential clincher flying back home with wife Reagan and Knox “is everything to me.”

And the simple gift of moving freely, of controlling the bat with a surgically repaired wrist and a quadriceps that doesn’t bark at him and enjoying the playoff outcomes that followed? Well, the mere state of “just feeling good is amazing.”

In theory, everything can’t be everything, right?

Astros third baseman Alex Bregman doubles in Game 5 of the World Series.

Perhaps it is best to think of Bregman’s life at the moment not like a pie chart but a series of buckets. And after three years of public scorn, of moving largely in silence even if his good intentions merited amplification, Bregman is letting his gratitude overflow them all.

“This is what I dream about. This is what I love,” Bregman told USA TODAY Sports after the Astros seized command of this World Series with a heart-stopping 3-2 victory in Game 6. “Really, it’s family and friends and baseball for me.

“This is everything.”

And after a significant detour, everything came together in rapid fashion.

‘It’s Houston vs. all y’all’

Like the rest of the world, Bregman had his own Before Times. The wave surged upward in 2017, when Bregman’s 10th-inning single off Kenley Jansen delivered Houston a 13-12 Game 5 victory that proved the most important of that World Series. It continued through consecutive All-Star appearances in 2018 and ’19, cresting when Bregman nearly outpointed Mike Trout for 2019 AL MVP.

As they are this year, the Astros returned home with a 3-2 World Series lead. Bregman smoked his third homer of that World Series in Game 6, giving Houston a 2-1 lead, and dramatically clutched his bat all the way down the first base line before dropping it after rounding the bag.

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It was perhaps the apex of Bregman’s youthful swagger, stamped with the approval of MLB’s nascent “We Play Loud” campaign but also painfully paid back innings later when Washington’s Juan Soto hit a go-ahead homer off Justin Verlander and mimicked the maneuver.

Baseball’s old guard voiced its displeasure. Bregman ultimately apologized postgame for “letting my emotions get the best of me.” A night later, a subdued Bregman and Nationals veteran Ryan Zimmerman engaged in a civil but lengthy pregame chat during batting practice.

The Astros lost Game 7. But the worst was yet to come: Less than a month later, The Athletic revealed that the 2017-18 Astros engaged in an elaborate and rules-breaking electronic sign-stealing scheme, significantly tainting their lone championship and impugning the players involved.

While the scheme was conceived and executed by players and coaches nearly two decades his senior, Bregman was undeniably involved, and he and MVP teammate Jose Altuve were nudged front and center as the scandal’s public faces.

The COVID-19 pandemic halted the game but not the backlash. Fans were not allowed inside stadiums when the season began but queued outside them to shout down the Astros. As attendance restrictions eased, Altuve, Bregman, George Springer, Carlos Correa and players who had nothing to do with the 2017 Astros were scorned from Los Angeles to New York.

They were the game’s anti-heroes, but the unrelenting and often misplaced anger also made it easier for the club to adopt a devil-may-care attitude.

“I mean, we don’t really care what fans think,” says closer Ryan Pressly, who joined the club in a July 2018 trade from Minnesota. “Everywhere we go, we get booed.

“It’s Houston vs. all y’all.”

The mentality played well on the field: The Astros have advanced to the past six ALCS, three of those coming after the sign-stealing scandal was revealed. Another championship has been elusive: Their best team in this run was knocked off by the 2019 Nationals, while last year’s version never had a leg up in a six-game loss to the Atlanta Braves.

You could argue they were playing a man down: Bregman produced a .217/.304/.300 slash line with just one home run in 16 playoff games. Five days after their Game 6 loss, he underwent surgery on his right wrist, capping a year in which a quadriceps strain limited him to 91 games.

In a sense, the Astros in 2022 would lose superstar shortstop Correa to free agency but regain Bregman.

‘His blood is baseball’

That’s because a Bregman who cannot fully commit to the gig is not much of a Bregman at all. He is, as general manager James Click puts it, the “definition of a baseball rat.” The group of Astros who showed up for early batting practice five hours before game time in this World Series are mostly greenhorns: Rookies like infielder David Hensley, inactive outfielder Jake Myers and third-year center fielder Chas McCormick.

And then the two-time All-Star and Silver Slugger among them, physically free to get in as many hacks as possible.

“Last year he was not right,” says Astros hitting coach Alex Cintron. “I don’t think physically he was healthy, his mechanics were not working, movement, his body was not the same. Late, jumpy. It was a tough year for him.

“But I am glad he is stepping up more in the postseason. In the past few years, it was always Altuve, George Springer, Correa. And now he is stepping up for our team, big time.”

While Altuve suffered through a career-worst 0 for 25 skid to start the playoffs, and MVP candidate Yordan Alvarez is in a 5 for 40 slide with 15 strikeouts and no homers since Game 2 of the ALDS, Bregman has been a consistent force, batting .292 with a .954 OPS and five homers in Houston’s 10-2 postseason run.

Perhaps most startlingly, he has struck out just five times in 48 at-bats, seemingly in every at-bat and on every pitch even as the Astros face a parade of aces like Luis Castillo, Gerrit Cole and Zack Wheeler throughout this postseason. This after a season when he defied modern baseball trends by drawing 85 walks against just 77 strikeouts, even as he posted an .820 OPS.

“He’s one of the most amazing hitters I’ve ever seen,” says Cintron, a big leaguer from 2001-2009. “Barry Bonds was amazing; this kid is unbelievable. Everybody asks, how can he take all those pitches? He knows.

“When he says it’s a ball, it’s a ball.”

Click says when Bregman discusses mechanics and tweaks he’s working on, “it is beyond my level of knowledge of hitting. I trust him when he says he’s mechanically in a good spot or locked in.”

Cintron and fellow hitting coach Troy Snitker help comprise one of the best hitting labs in the majors. Houston once again was in the top five or better in the AL in average, on-base percentage and OPS, despite significant losses in recent years and the integration and occasional struggles of burgeoning stars like rookie shortstop Jeremy Peña.

It helps when the third baseman is a virtual rock.

“His blood is baseball,” says Cintron. “He smells baseball. He eats baseball. He’s always in the cage, watching video, helping his teammates, helping us as hitting coaches. If you don’t see him on the field it’s because he is in the cage, doing his routine.

“He can go out there and hit four times a day and be there for 30 minutes. This kid is special.”

Of course, a little work-life balance can’t hurt, either.

‘This is what we dream about’

The pandemic gave a chastened Bregman time for other things. He spearheaded a drive to raise more than $2 million for the Houston Food Bank. He joined in the protests when Houston native George Floyd was murdered by a Minneapolis policeman, calling it “one of the most powerful experiences of my life.”

In December 2020, he and Reagan wed in a backyard ceremony pared down due to the pandemic. Knox’s arrival this August expanded the home team.

“You’ll hear him talk about, he’s a new father, he just had the baby, how that, in a lot of ways, demands so much of your attention,” says Click. “I think it’s healthy for him to have something, a release, something he can go to off the field.

“He cannot get enough of this game, and maybe that’s good for him.”

While the younger Bregman seemed indomitable, Bregman at 28 has a renewed appreciation for the difficulty of the Astros’ task. They barely got the best of a 107-win Dodger team in 2017. The 2019 Nationals pulled off the upset but haven’t been the same since.

And while Atlanta followed up its championship with a 101-win season, it was knocked off in the NLDS by a Phillies team now in the Astros’ way.

Perhaps not for long. The Astros are on the verge of a championship again, one that will carry considerable heft given the weight they’ve been carrying. Bregman says he doesn’t necessarily appreciate the opportunity more than he did as a younger man. But it is clear he is back in his happy place, a space that seems to grow with every passing year.

“I think everybody appreciates every second of this,” he says. “This is what we dream about. This is why we love playing.”

This article originally appeared on USA TODAY: Astros' Alex Bregman's happy place got bigger this World Series