HOUSTON – Eight days before the end of baseball’s regular season, the Houston Astros’ third baseman, Alex Bregman, fielded a one-hop chopper. With runners on first and third, Bregman immediately pivoted toward second base. He wanted to start a double play. The Astros did not complete it, and the runner from third scored. When Bregman returned to the dugout at the end of the inning, he explained the rationale to his manager, A.J. Hinch, and the Astros’ bench coach, Alex Cora. They nodded. Then Hinch offered a nugget of managerial wisdom.
“In the playoffs, you’d better throw that [expletive] ball home,” Hinch said. “We preserve runs in the playoffs.”
For the 2017 Houston Astros, every moment, big and little, was geared toward the postseason, toward the month in which they would prove their excellence existed beyond a division title. The Astros lived through three consecutive seasons of 105-plus losses for this October, and they wore the embarrassment of fielding teams that drew literal 0.0 television ratings for this October, and they tanked before tanking was cool for this October. They didn’t embrace analytics so much as they submerged themselves in data. They took a wrecking ball to the organization’s rotten foundation and rebuilt piece by piece, meticulous, with a purpose. And they nitpicked a routine groundball to third base on Sept. 24 because they understand that for all of baseball’s delicious flourishes, its once-in-a-lifetime moments, history more often repeats itself than not.
And so when runners were on first and third in the fifth inning of Game 7 of the American League Championship Series on Saturday night and a groundball dribbled toward Bregman, he remembered that play Sept. 24, that friendly admonishment in the dugout, and knew what he needed to do. Two nights earlier, on the off-day after the New York Yankees had won a trio of games in the Bronx to take a 3-2 series lead over the Astros, Bregman was playing Madden 17 against teammate Jake Marisnick, who was criticizing Bregman’s quarterbacking skills. “The kid drops dimes,” said Bregman, and in this moment, with the Yankees’ Greg Bird barreling toward home, only a dime would do. “You’d better put this on the cash,” Bregman told himself.
This was easier said than done. The ball off Todd Frazier’s bat took one hop more than Bregman expected. The window to throw to catcher Brian McCann’s glove was as narrow as a lollipop stick. Earlier in the season, he wouldn’t have dared try to make a throw like this.
“Spring training, I couldn’t hit a guy in the chest to save my life,” Bregman said. “I was trying to throw from over the top, everything. I was sailing it, throwing in the dirt.”
When Carlos Correa missed a few games, Bregman shifted over to shortstop and decided to change his throwing motion. He could control the ball from a sidearm angle, knowing it would sink exactly where he intended. And in this situation, with the Astros up a run, with a World Series berth on the line, he needed to feather it to the perfect spot.
Bregman wound up and fired. He lives for danger. When he plays spades with teammate Justin Verlander, he’s the guy who goes nil with the king of spades. This was that sort of risk. And when the ball landed in McCann’s glove and he held on as Bird’s spikes sunk into his forearm, and when Charlie Morton escaped the inning without a run, and when the Astros added three more in the bottom of the inning en route to a 4-0 victory in Game 7 and their second World Series berth in franchise history, he knew it was the right play, not just because he made it but because it personified everything for which these Astros stand.
This time, when he returned to the dugout, Verlander greeted him. “You’ve got balls,” he said, and though that’s true, it doesn’t just go for Bregman. It covers the entirety of the Astros’ franchise, particularly inside the front office that defied industry convention. They built around a 5-foot-5 wonder and saw him turn into a franchise player, drafted and developed with uncommon skill, and complemented that core with the proper pieces at the proper time. Now they’ll face the Los Angeles Dodgers in the first World Series between 100-win-plus teams in 47 years.
“When you’re playing Game 7 of the ALCS, you need to play aggressive,” Bregman said. “I was playing to win. I wasn’t playing not to lose. That’s the difference since we got home. And I guarantee you one thing. When we go to L.A., we’re playing to [expletive] win.”
***Everything started with the little guy. The only player remaining from the 2011 Astros is Jose Altuve. He arrived that season as something of a novelty, a pint-sized second baseman who had done nothing but hit in the minor leagues. Still, baseball history does not teem with 5-foot-5 superstars. And when the Astros hired general manager Jeff Luhnow that winter and he brought to Houston a desire to turn the Astros into a baseball think tank, his algorithms didn’t exactly foresee Altuve turning into the player he has become, either.
Which made the scene following Game 7 all the more surreal for Altuve. He tends to eschew the bawdy, boozy celebrations that accompany series wins, avoiding champagne like it’s water and he’s the Wicked Witch. He stood alone outside the Astros’ clubhouse as his teammates got the clubhouse carpet drunk and polluted the air with cigar smoke. He scrolled through WhatsApp messages that never seemed to end. He nodded, smiled, hugged, rolling his eyes when a particularly sopping-wet member of the Astros organization embraced him and sullied his dry shirt.
One message sprang Altuve to life. He scurried into a backroom and grabbed five hats. He exited the clubhouse and descended the steps toward the field two at a time. As he poked his head out of the dugout, the bellows from the fans above started. “Jose!” they called. “Jose!”
All series – all postseason – they’d feted him similarly. Altuve is the favorite to win the AL Most Valuable Player, and he has played like one this October after disappearing in 2015, his only other playoff appearance, where Houston bowed out in the division series. His opposite-field home run in the fifth inning of Game 7 handed the Astros a 2-0 cushion, and Altuve carried the bat halfway down the first-base line before he flipped it high into the dome’s conditioned air. The “M-V-P” chants rained down from the 43,201 who filled Minute Maid Park and could appreciate Altuve not just because of how he plays but that he lived through the 106-loss season of 2011, the 107-loss campaign of 2012 and the 111-loss horror of 2013.
He was the face of this franchise then, the best thing about it, one of the only good things. He believed in Luhnow because the approach to revitalizing a proud franchise was right, of course, but he believed, too, because what other choice did he have? Losing gnaws at self-confidence, erodes hope. The prospect of endless losing is something not even the strongest-willed can oblige.
“When I got here no one talked about winning,” said Hinch, who was hired before the 2015 season. “And that was one of the first things that Altuve told me in my office – that he wanted to win. And that represented what the next step was for this organization.”
So as much as anyone, this was Altuve’s win, Altuve’s triumph. He delivered the hats to his family. He held his daughter Melanie above his head, her feet dancing on his beard. She turns 1 on Nov. 1, the day of the seventh game of a World Series in which the Astros will play.
In the immediate aftermath of the ALCS, that still sounded just a bit odd to Altuve. It’s not that he had conditioned himself to expect anything else. He simply understands the game and the reality that triumph for one team means cruelty for another. That could have been the Astros. It was not.
“And now we’re in the World Series,” he said, smiling, looking around, hearing the fans chanting his name. He had bopped around the field, posing for selfies, signing autographs, shaking hands, a hat turned backward and resting on top of his head. He had scanned the crowd, with the kid who had turned around a shirsey so ALTUVE 27 faced the front and the woman who leaned over yelling for him and one person in Yankees gear. Altuve spotted the man, pointed to him and shrugged his eyebrows. The man nodded; he stayed as an offer of respect. They kept chanting “M-V-P” and singing “Jo-se, Jo-se, Jo-se, Jo-se!” and Altuve did his best to play humble at a time when humility didn’t need to be on the menu.
“They’re not here to watch me play,” Altuve said. “They’re here to watch the Houston Astros play.”
***The Houston Astros, as we know them now, started to come together in 2012. After the 106-loss season, they picked first in the 2012 Major League Baseball draft. With a treasure chest of draft-pool money available, they could have taken the consensus best player available, Byron Buxton. Instead, they agreed to a pre-draft deal for less money with a player they thought was every bit as good as Buxton.
The cash they saved by choosing Carlos Correa allowed them to spend more on later picks. With the 41st overall pick, they chose a pitcher out of high school in Tampa named Lance McCullers Jr. In the fourth round, they grabbed a third baseman out of a high school in California named Rio Ruiz, whom they would later trade for catcher Evan Gattis.
McCullers pitched the final four innings in Game 7, relieving Morton and earning his first career save after a career of starts. Gattis hit the fourth-inning home run off Yankees starter CC Sabathia that broke a scoreless tie and led to the exit of Sabathia, which brought on reliever Tommy Kahnle, on whom the Astros hung their other three runs.
Amid the on-field celebration, Correa found Luhnow, who had come to the Astros after running drafts and building a war chest of talent for the St. Louis Cardinals, and said: “That was a hell of a draft in 2012.” And Luhnow grinned, not just at the truth of the statement but because he understood how it represented the middle part of this experiment he had undertaken in Houston.
McCullers Jr. wasn’t exactly a safe pick. His talent was unquestioned. His father, Lance, had kicked around for parts of seven major league seasons with four teams. McCullers Jr.’s arm action scared scouts, though, as did his reliance on the curveball. They worried it would lead to arm troubles.
When he missed a significant amount of the second half this season, those fears were realized. And yet there stood McCullers Jr., in relief of Morton, who had blanked the Yankees for five innings, ready to spin his breaking ball and little else. No starter throws a harder curveball than his. It runs up to 89 mph. He throws it with extreme conviction, happy to spin it for strikes or bury it for swings and misses. McCullers Jr. lives and dies with the curve, and the Astros’ season was going to as well.
Because in the eighth inning, McCullers Jr. told himself he wasn’t throwing anything else. The final five hitters he faced saw nothing but curveballs. He threw 24 in a row. A few times, McCann didn’t even bother putting down a sign. Both knew what was coming.
“When I’m throwing so many in a row and nobody’s making an adjustment, I’m not going to stop throwing it,” McCullers Jr. said. “Either they were having a hard time seeing it or they’re just trying to be aggressive early. When I throw it, I want it to look like a fastball coming out of my hand. I want that initial reaction to be fastball.”
To get such an effect, McCullers Jr. digs his index finger into one seam, threads his middle finger along the horseshoe shape of the same seam and tucks his thumb underneath the ball along the adjacent seam – a particularly hellacious version of the typically tough-to-control spike curve. He learned the pitch as a junior in high school from Geoff Goetz, the sixth overall pick of the 1997 draft whose career was derailed by a shoulder injury. By putting extreme pressure on his middle finger and squeezing his index finger, the ball jumps, dips and confounds.
At first, McCullers Jr. didn’t love the notion of coming into Game 7 in relief. While he was throwing on three days’ rest following a brilliant Game 4, he wanted to start. Hinch went with Morton, who was on full rest, but called McCullers on the eve of the elimination game to let him know: If he wanted to finish it, Hinch would give him every opportunity.
As he tore through the Yankees, fitting Didi Gregorius for a golden sombrero with his fourth strikeout of the night in the ninth, following by getting Gary Sanchez to fish on a hook and ending with a lazy flyout to center field that George Springer caught with his arms extended in the air, McCullers Jr. proved the draft-and-develop ethos espoused by Luhnow wasn’t bunk, some talking point to rationalize all the losses. It was like the vaunted “Process” of the Philadelphia 76ers, only with four wins separating the Astros from a championship.
“This team had a plan, stuck to it and believed if they drafted well and pushed forward with their analytics, it would all come together,” McCullers said. “This is what I was drafted for.”
***The plan included its bumps. All paths to a championship do. The Astros whiffed on draft picks. They let go of players who blossomed elsewhere. The baseball establishment clowned them for titles – the brilliant Sig Mejdal, Luhnow’s consigliere, was named “director of decision sciences” – and for their reticence to part with the prospects they had hoarded and for believing they could use the mountain of data available to tell them the things traditionally in the purview of scouts. If nothing else, Game 7 served as validation that the Astros had some something right. A lot of somethings.
This winter, for example, as the emergence of Altuve and Correa and Springer and Bregman coalesced around a deep pitching staff, the Astros dipped into a traditional baseball maneuver: load up on veteran presence. Hinch, a former player whose front-office experience gave him gravitas among executives and in the clubhouse, believed the Astros needed players who could guide the young core while complementing it. In came Carlos Beltran, the future Hall of Famer, and Josh Reddick, the gritty outfielder, and on Aug. 31, with the trade deadline fast approaching, Hinch pushed for the Astros to acquire Verlander, and owner Jim Crane agreed to front the bump in salary, and Luhnow decided to give up the prospects, and in came the eventual ALCS MVP who threw an immaculate 13-strikeout gem in Game 2 and saved the season with seven shutout innings in Game 6.
Then there was Brian McCann. The Yankees, whose own development system had churned out a cache of phenomenal young talent, had seen catcher Gary Sanchez grow into a star. McCann, whom they had signed to a five-year deal, no longer was needed as an everyday catcher. The Yankees tossed in $5.5 million to help cover the remaining $34 million of McCann’s contract. They paid, in part, for their own Game 7 downfall.
“I was appreciated in New York,” he said. “I just wasn’t going to start anymore. Gary is one of the best catchers in baseball. I’m so proud of him. I knew I had more years behind the plate left, and I wasn’t ready to DH against right-handers and catch once a week. I wasn’t ready for that role. When the season was over, I looked around, and it was either come here or go to Atlanta, go home and play for the Braves. I knew this was one of the best teams in baseball, and this would give me the best chance to win a ring.”
McCann, an old-school sort whose past protestation of breaches of baseball etiquette earned him a humorous reputation as the game’s preeminent policeman, adored and respected the Astros’ young players. Even though he was 33 and past his home run-slugging prime, McCann appealed to Hinch, a former catcher, as well as the Astros’ quants.
“To me, it’s like the point guard in basketball and the quarterback in football,” Luhnow said. “That’s the key person that’s going to drive the team. And he’s not only a productive offensive player, but he has worked so well with our pitchers. He deserves credit for how he handled Charlie and Lance tonight and Justin yesterday and Dallas [Keuchel] all season. He made them better pitchers. He’s the glue that holds it all together.”
Glue is the only explanation for how he held the throw from Bregman in the third inning. “Honest to god,” McCann said, “I have no idea how I caught it or how it didn’t come out of my glove.” In a series where Sanchez let three relay throws bounce off his catcher’s mitt on plays at home – a flaw so obvious it was highlighted in the Astros’ advance scouting reports – McCann’s glove salvaged Houston’s lead and crushed the rally from the Yankees, who finished the night with just three hits, two off Morton and one off McCullers. McCann himself provided perhaps the biggest hit of the game, a two-run double in the fifth off a fat Kahnle changeup that doubled Houston’s lead and buttressed McCullers before he entered the game.
“Talent wins,” McCann said. “And this team is filled with talent.”
It was approaching midnight, and McCann’s 5-year-old son, Colt, stood behind him and admired the display on the wall showcasing the greats of Astros present and past. He saw a picture of Altuve and bleated: “It’s Altuve!” And as he moved down to prior years, past Jeff Bagwell and Craig Biggio, the Hall of Famers and leaders of the 2005 Astros team that lost the World Series to the Chicago White Sox, Colt stopped in the 1980s, pointed to a picture and said: “Is that Lance McCullers!”
It was Nolan Ryan.
***Game 1 of the World Series is set to start at 8:10 p.m. ET on Tuesday. The Houston Astros will face the Los Angeles Dodgers. Dallas Keuchel vs. Clayton Kershaw at Dodger Stadium. The Astros have beaten the Red Sox and the Yankees. Now they take their crack at the Dodgers, hopeful they can mount a trophy with the head of a baseball Cerberus.
First, they needed to celebrate. Verlander paraded around the clubhouse he had joined less than two months earlier like he owned the place, and nobody minded, their affection for him well beyond his on-field brilliance. Bregman double-fisted Bud Heavy. Hinch got huzzah after huzzah for his refusal to panic, even as the Astros found themselves with two must-win games. Crane, the Astros’ billionaire owner, shut down one of the restaurants he owns in Houston so the team could spend the night partying. Luhnow avoided most of the chicanery but found himself on the lips and minds of most who were in the midst of it.
“Jeff’s fingerprints are all over this team,” Verlander said. “I think he’s done a fantastic job building an organization from the ground up. I think he got a lot of flak early in here with the Astros. It wasn’t with conventional thinking. But the proof is in the pudding. Here we are.”
This team, Luhnow said, was built to win the AL West, sure, and it did, a week before the groundball was hit at Bregman and he tried to turn a double play. That was the easy part. “We wanted to win in the postseason,” Luhnow said, and they’ve done so, for this city that started watching them on TV again and came to games once more and needed them for whatever solace they could provide as Hurricane Harvey devastated Houston.
“Now,” Hinch said, “we chase the ultimate prize. There’s two teams standing. It’s a race to four wins now. At the start, there’s a race to 11. We’ve got seven of them down.”
None was more satisfying than that seventh, in a Game 7, where the season could have crumbled. Instead, piece by piece, play by play, man by man, it rose, the perfect embodiment of an organization that did things differently and doesn’t regret it one bit.