George Springer is getting that old Astros feeling back. (Photo by F. Carter Smith)
Astros pitcher Framber Valdez is a difference making arm. (Photo by F. Carter Smith)
Carlos Correa and Jose Altuve know how to win baseball games. (Photo by F. Carter Smith)
Alex Bregman's mental game is strong too. (Photo by F. Carter Smith)
Michael Brantley may be one of the most underrated players in all of baseball. (Photo by F. Carter Smith)
Astros catcher Martin Maldonado and Framber Valdez enjoyed a moment. (Photo by F. Carter Smith)
If Jose Altuve starts having fun again, the Astros will be dangerous. (Photo by F. Carter Smith)
Zack Greinke will sometimes tell hitters what is coming. They still have trouble hitting it. (Photo by F. Carter Smith)
Carlos Correa's defense is often underrated. (Photo by F. Carter Smith)
It turns out that reports of the Houston Astros’ demise have been greatly exaggerated. Houston’s modern baseball dynasty is very much alive — and winning.
With seemingly the entire sports world outside of Houston rooting against them — including suddenly outraged NBA commentator Stan Van Gundy — the Astros do it again. Showing every bit of the playoff magic and postseason moxie they’ve earned from winning so many big games before, Jose Altuve, George Springer, Alex Bregman and Co. win another one.
With grit, determination, just enough defensive dazzle and plenty of know how.
After sputtering through a below .500 regular season, the Astros stun the favored Minnesota Twins 4-1 on Monday in the ballpark where they hardly ever lost during this strange coronavirus season. Then, they beat them again in Game 2 by a 3-1 margin, winning the best of three series in a 27-hour flash. The championship spirit is alive after all.
And you could even hear it over the Zoom interviews from Target Field. As manager Dusty Baker is being interviewed by reporters back in Houston, the sounds of the Astros’ clubhouse celebration (and thumping music) come through.
“It is loud,” Baker says after the playoff opener. “It should be loud. Hasn’t been loud in a while so. . . let them party. Let them enjoy themselves. Savor the victory. Breathe in what it feels like.”
It feels like Astros baseball. Circa 2017, 2018 or 2019. And the core of this team hardly needs a reminder.
“When you play big games, you have to do the little things — the small details,” Jose Altuve says. “I think everybody did something that helped the team win.”
For all the jokes and jeers over trash cans — many of them deserved — one of the remarkable, often overlooked hallmarks of this Astros run is how many big games like this they’ve won in opposing ballparks. In some ways, the Dodgers have yet to completely recover from Marwin Gonzalez shocking them in Game 2 of the World Series in Dodgers Stadium and then Charlie Morton closing it out in Game 7 in the shadow of those famous palm trees, too.
There was no trash can system available — or needed — when the Houston Strong Astros won those road games. Now, another team sounds like it’s doubting itself after the remainder of the Core Astros do it again.
“This is why we are here, why we busted our hind parts to get to this spot, to this moment so we can show everybody that we really are a legitimate contender,” Astros-tormented Twins reliever Sergio Romo says in his own postgame Zoom. “I mean, I’ll just straight up say it.
“We’re a badass team. We really are.”
Who’s Romo trying to convince? Himself?
The Twins have now lost 18 straight playoff games. The postseason-proven Astros are already moving on to Dodgers Stadium, of all places, for the American League Divisional Series and baseball’s modest version of the NBA bubble. The Twins are done, their 24-7 regular season home record rendered meaningless.
Yes, these Astros sow doubt more effectively than a Russian Facebook bot.
“We did a great job in the ninth of just putting pressure on them,” Astros lifeline Michael Brantley says . “We capitalized on a big opportunity.”
That three-run ninth in the playoff opener made a winner out of Framber Valdez, the latest Astros starter to turn into a playoff relief hero. Valdez joins the ranks of Charlie Morton and Lance McCullers Jr. after throwing five scoreless innings in relief of Zack Greinke. Players change. Administrations change. The manager changes.
Yet these Astros continue to treat the playoff game that’s today like the only game in the world. They continue to use elite starters in relief to make sure no chance is squandered. It started with A.J. Hinch turning to Justin Verlander out of the bullpen in Game 4 of that first round series against the Red Sox in ’17. It continues on with Baker leaning on Valdez in this wild and bizarre 2020 playoff opener.
The Astros’ Big Little Things
Bregman saves Greinke from potentially losing it all in the first inning with a dazzling stop and throw from third. Altuve draws a bases loaded walk on a 3-2 pitch from Romo to break a 1-1 tie in the ninth.
“It’s just as good as a base hit,” Altuve says of his no-swing heroics.
The Astros were a bad defensive team by almost all statistical measures this short 60 game coronavirus regular season. They were almost as bad at drawing walks, ranking 18th in a 30-team league in that category.
Yet, there Altuve and Friends are using superior defense and a humble walk to stun another playoff opponent.
What’s changed? The calendar’s flipped to the postseason.
It’s the Astros’ time of year. Still.
“They know how to win,” Baker says. “They take pride in what they do. They take pride in wearing the Astros uniform and also take pride in having Houston, the city of Houston. You know, H-Town. I hear them talking about H-Town all the time.
“Now I know what they mean.”
The rest of baseball suddenly has a big reminder, too.