Jose Altuve and company made sure to soak up championship ring night. (Photo by F. Carter Smith.)
The Houston Astros defied the World Series hangover — and prove they're better than recent champs like the Chicago Cubs. (Photo by F. Carter Smith.)
Gerrit Cole heard plenty of love from Houston all season. (Photo by F. Carter Smith.)
Houston Astros general manager Jeff Luhnow with the World Series trophy. (Photo by F. Carter Smith.)
Astros pitchers Justin Verlander and Gerrit Cole seemed to be waging a strikeout competition this season. (Photo by F. Carter Smith.)
Astros shortstop Carlos Correa is feeling the postseason moment again.(Photo by F. Carter Smith.)
Jose Altuve and George Springer enjoyed plenty of moments this season. (Photo by F. Carter Smith.)
Alex Bregman relishes the biggest moments. (Photo by F. Carter Smith).
Tyler White has turned into more than a home run shark for the Houston Astros. He's a difference maker. (Photo by F. Carter Smith.)
Ring night always brings out the best in Houston Astros fans. (Photo by F. Carter Smith.)
Houston Astros manager A.J. Hinch made sure to examine his new ring. (Photo by F. Carter Smith.)
Charlie Morton and catcher Martin Maldonado take a moment. (Photo by F. Carter Smith.)
It’s the hangover of all hellacious hangovers, seemingly part witchdoctor’s curse and part professional athlete ego reality. But somehow despite throwing the most wonderful party many of us have ever seen, the Houston Astros avoided it.
Alex Bregman, Justin Verlander and Jose Altuve shrugged it off. Dallas Keuchel outright mocked it.
World Series followup seasons are not supposed to go like this. Just ask the 2017 Chicago Cubs who struggled to eke out 92 wins after finally making Wrigleyville champagne central. Or the 2016 Kansas City Royals who could only get to .500 the season after their own miracle championship. Or any of Major League Baseball’s last 16 titlists for that matter.
Yet, one year after the first championship in Houston baseball history, the Astros (103-59) go into the playoffs with the second best record in the Majors, having set an all-time franchise record for wins. Only the Boston Red Sox, who flirted with a historic regular season win total for most of the summer, won more games than the defending champs.
What World Series hangover? Alex Bregman and Company treated it more like they were hanging 10.
No matter what happens in the playoffs — and anyone who doesn’t realize just how dangerous the Cleveland Indians are in this best of 5 Division Series has never watched Francisco Lindor and Jose Ramirez hit — these Astros have proven to be a superior defending champion.
Houston’s already better than the Cubs, the Royals and all the recent champs who’ve come before them.
They took on the ultimate grind, the followup season to a historic title, and somehow ended up with more wins.
That just doesn’t happen in modern baseball. Four of the last six World Series champions didn’t even make the playoffs the next season. And it’s been nine seasons since a reigning champion has made it back to the World Series (the 2009 Phillies) let alone won it.
When Keuchel declared, “We’re not the Cubs. “I firmly believe we have better players” in early March, he turned out to more than prescient. This Houston team is much better than the Chicago dynasty that’s never been.
The Astros fought the Word Series hangover — and won by knockout.
An 103 Win Answer
These Astros defied the letdown trend by overcoming more than they ever did in their championship season. With the pressure ratcheted up, with the American League tougher than ever at the top, with the novelty fun factor gone, Houston somehow won two more regular season games than it did in 2017.
This doesn’t mean the Astros are a better overall team in 2018 than 2017. In many ways, the surprise 97-win Oakland A’s forced this year’s Astros to push themselves to win more games while the championship season offered more of a regular season glide.
But that just makes the 103 wins even more impressive.
Thank Justin Verlander, who somehow pushed himself harder than ever at age 35 coming off a grueling postseason run in which he helped carry Houston into the World Series. Maybe marrying Kate Upton is the true fountain of youth.
Thank Alex Bregman, who went from surprise playoff revelation to dominant everyday force on the strength of his relentless will (and supreme talent). On a team with Altuve, Carlos Correa and George Springer, Bregman is the one who played at a true MVP level in this year’s regular season.
Thank general manager Jeff Luhnow for outmaneuvering the New York Yankees and the much more hyped Brian Cashman to steal Gerrit Cole from the Pittsburgh Pirates. No player’s benefitted more from the Astros’ analytical, numbers based approach than Cole, who’s turned into one of the Top 10 pitchers in all of baseball in Houston. Don’t be surprised if the still only 28-year-old Cole turns out to be the Astros’ postseason ace this October either.
Thank manager A.J. Hinch, who earned every bit of that contract extension this season, tampering down potential crisis after potential crisis. Hinch did a better job of leading a defending champion in the regular season than Steve Kerr did this year. Which says plenty.
This Astros’ regular season should be celebrated no matter what happens in the playoffs, which sometimes turn out to be the ultimate roll of the dice in baseball like few other sports. The 103 wins may not have felt as carefree and fun as the summer of 2017, but that misses several important truths.
More people watched the Astros than ever before this decade (2,980,549 folks at Minute Maid Park alone) as the club saw the highest attendance increase in the Majors while most of baseball was down. Casual fans are almost always a year late to the party in pro sports — coming in droves the season after the breakthrough. But this Astros passion is not just a championship jump. It’s a new way of life in Houston.
This 2018 Astros team also has a much more dominant pitching staff. The 2017 champs didn’t even have one true ace until Verlander’s very late (one minute to spare) arrival.
This is a different level of dominance, the sign of a franchise that’s maturing into a force capable of being the first repeat champion in baseball since the Yankees won three titles in a row from 1999 to 2001.
These Astros are not a flash in the pan. They’re no year-after Cubs stumbling into the playoffs like some drunk staggering onto Addison Street after last call. These Houston Astros have staying power.