Gerrit Cole got some air time on his dugout leap after the Astros won Game 5 vs. Tampa. (Photo by F. Carter Smith)
Astros owner Jim Crane and Gerrit Cole shared a moment after another dominant gem from the free agent to be. (Photo by F. Carter Smith)
Justin Verlander and Kate Upton are loving going on this Houston Astros ride together. (Photo by F. Carter Smith)
Gerrit Cole wrapped closer Roberto Osuna in the bear hug of bear hugs after the ALDS win over Tampa Bay. (Photo by F. Carter Smith)
Jose Altuve grabbed another big game moment. (Photo by F. Carter Smith)
Gerrit Cole came bouncing out of the dugout at the final out of the Game 5 win over Tampa Bay. (Photo by F. Carter Smith)
The Houston Astros are creating a wild, party scene at Minute Maid Park. (Photo by F. Carter Smith)
Justin Verlander and Kate Upton know how to make hats look good. (Photo by F. Carter Smith)
George Springer is the one who starts things for the Houston Astros. (Photo by F. Carter Smith)
Minute Maid Park is only growing louder and louder in October. (Photo by F. Carter Smith)
The Houston Astros savored this one with plenty of on-field fun. (Photo by F. Carter Smith)
The Astros are a team in every sense of the word. Kyle Tucker didn't get the memo about wearing the hats in the photo. (Photo by F. Carter Smith)
The Astros took a happy team photo after advancing to the American League Championship Series for the third straight year. (Photo by F. Carter Smith)
George Springer welcomed Tyler Glasnow rudely — and the Rays never worked. (Photo by F. Carter Smith)
The Tampa Bay Rays could only watch their season come to an end. (Photo by F. Carter Smith)
Astros ace Gerrit Cole is on one of the greatest postseason runs of all time. (Photo by F. Carter Smith)
Gerrit Cole is a dominant force and free agent to be. (Photo by F. Carter Smith)
Alex Bregman has a way of coming through with the big hit when it counts most. (Photo by F. Carter Smith)
Gerrit Cole is racking up strikeouts. Again. (Photo by F. Carter Smith)
Gerrit Cole comes bouncing out of the dugout like an NCAA Tournament coach whose team has just won a buzzer beater. He’s nearly two feet off the ground after two steps and rest is just happy leap running all the way. He wraps Astros closer Roberto Osuna up in the bear hugs of bear hugs, twirling and almost lifting the 6-foot-2, 215-pound pitcher in the air.
These Houston Astros are no Cinderella, no upstart, no unlikely story made good.
Jose Altuve and Co. are chasing a dynasty, pursing baseball immortality, and they know it. But even baseball’s most dominant teams deserve to exhale now and then.
Pushed to the brink by the wildcard, future city uncertain Tampa Bay Rays, the Astros never come close to losing their grip. They’re still firmly locked onto their destiny. Cole and friends jump on the Rays early in the winner-take-all Game 5 and never let Tampa up for air. It ends with a 6-1 Astros triumph that leaves absolutely no doubt that the better team wins and advances.
Which does not mean it can be taken for granted. Especially not after the Braves find themselves down 10-0 in the first inning on their home-field and the 106-win Dodgers blow a 3-0 lead at their stadium in their own decisive Game 5s just the day before.
“I think one of the things I’ve learned in my time in baseball is these moments — no matter how many people say how good you are or what’s expected of you,” Justin Verlander, the ageless ace, says in the champagne and beer soaked Astros clubhouse. “These moments are earned, not given.
“And we had our mettle tested here. We earned it.”
Bring on the Yankees. And history.
Jeff Luhnow, the general manager who crafted this peerless roster, admits he freaked out a little on Wednesday night as he watched everything implode for those heavily favored Dodgers.
“Watching those games last night spooked me, I’ve got to tell you,” Luhnow tells PaperCity. “Especially the Dodgers where they grab a lead, the crowd is into it and then they give it up at the end. Anything can happen.
“Until (Michael) Brantley and Altuve hit those home runs (in the eighth inning), I was still incredibly nervous.”
The GM was not the only one feeling the burn of the upsets in the October air. Astros manager A.J. Hinch and Alex Bregman, the team’s young 25-year-old star, texted each other during the Dodgers game. Bregman assured his manager that no similar fate would befall the Astros.
“I love how much these guys are into baseball,” Hinch says.
And there is Bregman smashing a double to the center field wall in the first inning, stretching Houston’s lead to 3-0 before Rays starter Tyler Glasnow can even take a breath. This is how you leave no doubt.
Giving Gerrit Cole a 4-0 lead these days is like giving a cheetah a head start in a 100-yard dash. Good luck with that.
These Astros always seem to grab the moment, did you really expect them to falter in the Thursday night madhouse of Minute Maid Park?
Bring on the Yankees. And history.
“Because we have a game in a few days,” Luhnow says when asked about the relative quickness of the Astros clubhouse celebration. “Also, we expected to win this series. Not that we were surprised that Tampa took it to five because they’re a really good team.
“But if we had lost, it would have been extremely disappointing. In a certain sense, we accomplished what we expected to accomplish at this point. We expected to be playing the Yankees.”
Yankees-Astros Part II
The heavyweight American League Championship Series is here. The Astros and Yankees have been circling each other all season — for several seasons, and offseasons, now really — and it all starts again with Game 1 Saturday night in downtown Houston.
Which doesn’t mean kicking the Rays to October’s curb felt any less satisfying. You can see that in Cole’s mad sprint from the dugout. He nearly picks up Osuna — and he does lift Jose Altuve completely off his feet.
“If anything I felt this was even more sweet because they pushed us,” leadoff force George Springer says after the Astros make their third straight ALCS. “This one was a lot of work.”
For his part, Altuve largely stays away from the cameras and the chaos of the clubhouse, preferring to sit on some storage cases outside the entrance of the clubhouse’s main locker room, cigar in hand. Altuve urges reporters who try to stop and talk to him to go interview his teammates inside instead.
The small second baseman who swings large remains the driving force, the heart, soul and many of the good stuff, of these dynasty scheming Astros. But after a winner-take-all game in which he homers, singles, drives in two and scores two, Altuve wants no part of the spotlight.
“That’s just who he is,” Springer says, with a little champagne or something else apparently in his eye. “He never wants it to be about him, but we know he makes it happen for us.
“The amount of extra works he puts in to come through in these moments is incredible. You guys never see it. But all the work he does. . . he still wants it so bad.”
Dream Team, Dream Camaraderie
Altuve wants it for his teammates most of all. For Cole, who is dominant again, pushing his strikeout total for this series to an absurd 25 in 15 1/3 innings. That sets the all-time record for a division series and more impressively comes just two Ks short of Bob Gibson’s all-time two game postseason strikeout record.
If they gave out MVPs for the division series, Gerrit Cole would have won in a landslide.
“We got hit in the face twice,” Cole says of the Rays pushing the Astros to a winner-take-all-game after being down 2-0 in the series. “We needed the second one to respond the way we wanted to respond.”
How’s this for a response? Houston’s first four batters of the game?
Before the Rays or their 26-year-old flamethrower even knows what has hit them, baseball’s best team grabs a 4-0 lead. Giving Gerrit Cole a 4-0 lead these days is like giving a cheetah a head start in a 100-yard dash.
Good luck with that.
“I’m glad it wasn’t a 1-0 game,” Luhnow says.
By the time Cole gets Kevin Kiermaier swinging for his 10th strikeout of the night in the eighth inning, Minute Maid Park is a madhouse of orange-towel-waving noise. When Michael Brantley and Altuve hit back-to-back home runs to stretch the Astros advantage to 6-1 in the bottom of eighth, you half wonder if someone needs to check the stadium’s roof for cracks.
It is that loud, that frenzied, that downright giddy, with 43,418 baseball mad Houston fans all in. Baseball’s Dream Team is not seeing its run ended by some plucky upstart from Florida retirement land. These Astros are a heavyweight — and now they get the ultimate heavyweight ALCS against the Yankees.
Bring on the Yankees. And history.
But first, they — and seemingly everyone else in Houston — party.
There is Verlander, excusing himself from the media scrum in the soggy locker room to sprint out onto the field and share some moments with his wife Kate Upton. Verlander and Upton both wear their American League Championship Series hats on backwards and their smiles bright.
There is Astros owner Jim Crane, the man who always urges Luhnow to go for it and be bold in moves (Zack Greinke trade included), pulling Cole aside to give the pitcher who’s become a bonafide superstar in Houston a huge handshake and a personal message. No, they didn’t agree on a new contract for Cole, ever nervous Astros fans.
There is a Springer, who turns a 99 MPH fastball from Glasnow, the Rays second pitch of the game, into a sharp single to left to get everything started again, looking for anyone to embrace. Springer may give out even more hugs than Cole on this night.
“These are the things that you don’t forget,” Springer says, his champagne-eye-protecting goggles pushed up in the Astros clubhouse.
These Astros wore the mantle of the overwhelming favorite against these Rays for nearly a week — and they’re emerging as an even more tested team. It’s another big game win for A.J. Hinch and the Astros.
“I’ll go to war with this group of guys any day,” Luhnow tells PaperCity, his black celebration T-shirt and shorts soaked from champagne and Budweiser crossfire. “Best group of guys I’ve ever been around.
“Best team I’ve had or ever been involved with.”
Bring on the Yankees. And history.
“Can I go celebrate for a little bit?” Bregman asks a horde of reporters surrounding him in the middle of the clubhouse. “Is that cool?”
That has to be cool. OK, Houston. Party proud. Then, bring on the Yankees. And history.