Culture / Sporting Life

Championship Teamwork — By Helping Each Other, the Astros Overcome Injuries to Cobble Together a Month to Build On

Guys Dismissed as Fill-Ins Are Doing More With the Stars Sharing and Showing the Way

BY // 05.01.23

Nothing is a breeze for the defending champion Houston Astros these days. It’s more like facing an eternal headwind. Big free agent prize Jose Abreu’s home run stroke appears to have been left behind in another multiverse. Lifeline leader and lineup igniter Jose Altuve is still working to come back from that thumb injury. Should be regular centerfielder Chas McCormick is rehabbing in Corpus Christi. Veteran hitter’s hitter Michael Brantley is swinging for Sugar Land. Some nights the Astros batting order looks as thin as a brochure.

And yet, these Astros finish April with a 15-13 record, do enough to keep themselves right in the thick of everything. This is what championship heart and knowhow looks like. This is what these Astros can still do even while often looking like a shadow of themselves. Just win. It’s 4-3 over the Philadelphia Phillies on Sunday Night Baseball to salvage the last game of a three game series. And seven Ws in their last 10 games overall.

Enough to keep the season pushing forward. Enough to set the stage for another summer to cherish at Minute Maid Park.

No, it’s not an April to particularly remember. But it’s an April to build on. Which is all a contending team really needs from this often sleepy first month of the season.

“It was huge,” Astros manager Dusty Baker says of avoiding a sweep by the Phillies. “Especially a team we played in the World Series. It was huge that we didn’t lose ground today. Also we won 15 this month. It was a struggle. But you’ve got to win games when you’re struggling.”

These Astros are firing on just a few cylinders — mainly relying on the most dominant bullpen in the game and the brilliance of ace Framber Valdez and rookie Hunter Brown. But they’re still right where they need to be.

Yes, the Tampa Bay Rays are off to a 23-6 start, but they’re still playing in front of less than 10,000 fans some nights — and they didn’t exactly scare the Astros in the teams’ recent series. Yes, the Texas Rangers are 17-11 and starting to believe. But they’re still so dependent on every twinge that Jacob deGrom feels. Yes, the Braves look like the Braves. But no one is really separating themselves from the Astros. Despite Altuve’s injury. Despite Yordan Alvarez’s sudden injury disappearance from the lineup for a few games in Tampa Bay. Despite Luis Garcia and Jose Urquidy’s early inconsistency (and potential shoulder issues for Urquidy who has to leave Sunday night’s game in the sixth inning for testing).

Houston’s champs are still right there, still in position, everything that’s gone on and all. Amazon deliveries aren’t even this much on time.

This is what heart and championship knowhow can do for you. The two best stories of the Astros’ first month are arguably Mauricio Dubon turning into a hitting machine for at least 20 games and University of Houston product Corey Julks providing some early jolts as a 27-year-old rookie. And the Astros are still the Astros.

Houston’s champs are still right there, still in position, everything that’s gone on and all. Amazon deliveries aren’t even this much on time.

The success of players like Dubon and Julks, guys largely dismissed as temporary fill-ins coming into the season, isn’t some happy happenstance though. It’s come about in no small part because of the Astros’ culture of sharing and helping out teammates. Yordan Alvarez, Altuve and others welcomed Dubon into their hitting fraternity. They tried to help him see at-bats the way they see at-bats. Second year shortstop Jeremy Peña has done the same for Julks and Jake Meyers, another former minor league teammate of Julks, has pumped him up every chance he’s gotten,

It takes a together clubhouse to help create surprising performers.

“I pick their brains,” Dubon tells PaperCity. “I’ve got the best players right now. I’ve got Michael Brantley. I’ve got Alvarez. I’ve got Altuve. The best hitters in the game. It would be dumb for me to not pay attention to what they have to say about everything.

“I mean, we’ve got (another) former MVP (Abreu) too.”

Houston Astros hosted opening hosted the Philadelphia Phillies at Minute Maid Park
Jose Altuve has his cast off and this Houston Astros offense is anxiously awaiting his return. (Photo by F. Carter Smith)

The Astros Are Still The Astros

Just as importantly, these Astros just know what it takes. Much like Steph Curry knows what it takes in a high-pressure playoff game. Even when these champions aren’t close to full strength, they stay together and find a new way. It may not always be a pretty way. On Sunday Night Baseball, with another sellout crowd of more than 41,000 in Minute Maid, it takes a Jake Meyers home run, an RBI double from defensive catcher Martin Maldonado, a Peña leadoff single and three and 2/3 innings of brilliant relief from Hector Neris, Rafael Montero, Bryan Abreu and Ryan Pressly.

That quartet of arms, all with closer worthy stuff, get five of the 11 outs they need by strikeout. And the Astros post another winning month.

“It was good,” Maldonado says of the latest win. “Especially a team we played last year in the playoffs. It’s always good when you win.”

Heart and a championship mettle can help those wins stack up. Even when everything seems to be difficult. Coming together and helping each other out makes a difference. This is the Astros’ way. And it hasn’t changed during this April of playing into a headwind.

If anything, it’s gotten even stronger. Dubon knows he just needs to pay attention.

“It’s something,” Dubon tells PaperCity. “I pride myself on listening. Listening is going to work for me. So it’s been great.”

It hasn’t been a great first month for the Astros. But it’s set them up to still do great things. Maybe even championship things.

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