Houston Astros shortstop Carlos Correa's bat speed is back — and baseballs are soaring. (Photo by F. Carter Smith)
Houston Astros shortstop Carlos Correa is back to attacking baseballs. (Photo by F. Carter Smith)
Houston Astros shortstop Carlos Correa believes 2019 will be his year. (Photo by F. Carter Smith)
The Houston Astros are a different team when Carlos Correa is healthy. (Photo by F. Carter Smith)
Carlos Correa's teammates are as excited about his return to form as he is. (Photo by F. Carter Smith)
Houston Astros owner Jim Crane, his wife Whitney and his son James Robert Crane II embrace the Minute Maid Park fun. (Photo by F. Carter Smith)
The Houston Astros home opener brought the excitement and plenty of theatrics. (Photo by F. Carter Smith)
Jose Altuve brings plenty of fire to the Houston Astros. (Photo by F. Carter Smith)
Houston Astros fans are back to packing Minute Maid Park. (Photo by F. Carter Smith)
Houston Astros shortstop Carlos Correa knows how good he can be. (Photo by F. Carter Smith)
Carlos Correa is back to making all the plays at shortstop. (Photo by F. Carter Smith)
Alex Bregman, the Houston Astros' new $100 Million Man, is already a major team leader. (Photo by F. Carter Smith)
Houston Astros centerfielder George Springer knows how to grab a big stage moment. (Photo by F. Carter Smith)
Michael Brantley gives the Houston Astros another impact bat. (Photo by F. Carter Smith)
Houston Astros third baseman Alex Bregman brings it on defense. (Photo by F. Carter Smith)
Lance McCullers Jr. honored Dallas Keuchel in Houston's home opener. (Photo by F. Carter Smith)
The Houston Astros' roster is packed with stars. (Photo by F. Carter Smith)
Navy Lieutenant Commander (and former Texas A&M grad) Greg Sharp sang the National Anthem at the Houston Astros' home opener. (Photo by F. Carter Smith)
The four fighter jet flyover made quite an impression at Minute Maid Park. (Photo by F. Carter Smith)
Jose Altuve and Alex Bregman shared a moment. (Photo by F. Carter Smith)
The tribute to George H.W. Bush and Barbara Bush included commemorative bricks. (Photo by F. Carter Smith)
The Bush family enjoyed the sweet tribute at Minute Maid Park. (Photo by F. Carter Smith)
George H.W. Bush and Barbara Bush's grandson, George P. Bush, threw out the first pitch. (Photo by F. Carter Smith)
Starting the Astros' Houston Opening Day meant a ton to Colin McHugh. (Photo by F. Carter Smith)
Carlos Correa is standing above the crowd again for the Houston Astros. (Photo by F. Carter Smith)
Jose Altuve makes every game count. (Photo by F. Carter Smith)
As the baseball soars into the newly dark night and Carlos Correa begins his jaunt around the bases, Tony Kemp sees the superstar teenager he was first dazzled by nearly six years ago. This is the guy who walked into professional baseball as a teen with the confidence (if not the cockiness) of a young Robert De Niro.
“I’ve been playing with Carlos since Low A ball and to see him back and being 100 percent healthy like the 18, 19 year old kid that I saw coming into pro ball is amazing,” Kemp tells PaperCity. “I’m glad he’s back healthy. You can actually see him hitting balls 108, 110 MPH (exit velocity). And I don’t think he hit one ball over 105 last year.
“You can tell that his back is real healthy. This is the Carlos Correa I know.”
It’s the Carlos Correa that anyone associated with the Houston Astros has been anticipating ever since the team’s all-star level shortstop regained his health. This Correa is the most important sight of a feel-good home opener, a 3-2 win over the Oakland A’s in which the Astros begin to look like the Astros again.
It’s Friday night at Minute Maid Park, Correa is scorching baseballs again and everything is all right.
“Right now, I feel dangerous,” Correa says afterwards in the Astros’ clubhouse.
That is an ominous declaration for the rest of the American League. For when Correa is at full health, an already strong team can take the next step to powerhouse. This is why Astros general manger Jeff Luhnow and the rest of the franchise’s leadership group seemed more buoyant than worried heading into this home opener despite the team’s 2-5 record through the first week of the season.
Yes, much of the lineup comes in struggling. But Carlos Correa is hitting — and that matters so much more in the long run.
“He’s being Carlos Correa,” Astros manager A.J. Hinch says. “Watching him play with some freedom and the acrobatic plays that he’s playing with, the freedom in his swing, even the at-bat where he swung and missed a couple times, there’s some danger in there.
“But he’s Carlos Correa. I don’t think too many people need to label him anything other than elite.”
Of course, they have though. The nightmare of 2018 when he hit .239 with 15 home runs and found his body preventing him from helping the Astros pull off a World Series repeat drastically changed the narratives swirling around Correa.
When Correa missed the first three games of the season with neck stiffness, the local newspaper felt compelled to run two full columns about it. The man who’s been under the microscope ever since he became the No. 1 pick in the MLB Draft at the age of 17 has a different type of spotlight flooded on him now.
A doubting spotlight.
Those who’ve been around Correa almost since the beginning of his Astros journey know better. When Correa’s body lets him perform, he’s a dominant force. It’s really that simple.
Correa is a relentless worker — it’s how he was raised by his father in Puerto Rico — and there should be little question how he’ll grab the opportunity to play a full season healthy again.
Kemp has seen this since the lowest rungs of the minor leagues.
“One thing that stood out to me — being the No. 1 pick he was very humble with the type of person he was,” Kemp remembers. “He was very driven and he was one of those guys you loved to go to the ballpark with because he was going to give you 110 percent every day.
“You wouldn’t know he was the No. 1 overall pick by the way he carried himself in the clubhouse and with his teammates. That’s what makes him special. And he’s going to play this game for a long time.”
And Correa’s going to play it at an All-Star level.
It is all there on this Friday night, the first game in the Astros’ restart, a talking point orchestrated by Alex Bregman and seemingly adopted by all. Correa’s bat speed. The diving plays that a 6-foot-4 shortstop is not supposed to be able to make. The quick jolt that gives 43,165 fans joy spasms.
Bregman seems to mouth the word, “Wow” when Correa heads back to the dugout — and the Astros’ forearm bumping, high five parade — in the wake of his home run. Correa is back to pulverizing hanging sliders — the mistake Oakland starter Frankie Montas makes against him. His healthy back allows him to wait on pitches again — and pounce.
The Astros’ offensive difference maker is hitting .333 this young season with four extra base hits (three doubles and that home run) in the last four games.
The Home Opener Restart
These Astros are the team that won the World Series in 2017 and made it back to the American League Championship Series last year as a 103-win power. But that doesn’t mean moments like this home opener aren’t special for many of them.
Not all the Astros have enjoyed a magic carpet ride. It’s been a struggle — and a fight — for many of them to get to a Friday night at Minute Maid with a roaring sold-out Houston Opening Day crowd on a beautiful open roof Bayou City evening. This is 27-year-old outfielder Tony Kemp’s first home opener with the big club.
You’d better believe he savors every moment.
“That (fighter jet) flyover is something I’ll never forget,” Kemp tells PaperCity. “I got chills. That’s what this game will do for you.”
Or take Colin McHugh, the starting pitcher who found himself pushed out of the starting rotation all of 2018. McHugh is the Houston Opening Day starter. That got to him like one of Netflix’s romantic comedies hits a teenage girl.
“I got a little emotional before the game,” McHugh says. “It hit me that I’ve been here for six years — and to be able to take the ball for Opening Day, that really means something.”
Technically, these Astros opened the season more than a week ago in Tampa Bay. But good luck convincing any of them of this.
“Our Opening Day is today,” Bregman, the Astros’ new $100 Million Man, says with conviction and a little smirk, “and we had fun with it.”
Much of the fun revolves around Carlos Correa. The bat that changes so much for these Astros is whipping through the zone, attacking baseballs, creating rockets.
“I just feel great to be out there back with the guys, grinding and contributing to the team,” Correa says. “Last year I felt I was there, but I wasn’t able to contribute at the plate.”
The back is better — and the real Carlos Correa is back. The silly doubting can stop now.