How the Astros went from the lowliest depths of hell to World Series glory
The Astros hit rock bottom, and then some, before beginning one of the best turnarounds in memory
LOS ANGELES -- The Houston Astros beat the Los Angeles Dodgers 5-1 , winning their first championship in their 56-year franchise history. More than that, they accomplished something no other team has ever pulled off so convincingly, going from three consecutive seasons of total hell to the top of the baseball mountain in a span of just four years.
They lost 106, 107, and 111 games over a three-year stretch. They alienated their fans so thoroughly, they drew 0.0 local TV ratings on multiple occasions. They drafted all-world pitching prospects first overall two straight years, and got absolutely nothing to show for it. Their top prospect from five years ago remains the only baseball player ever to wash out of the game because he got hooked on, of all things, weed.
They traded multiple impact prospects for Carlos Gomez, who stunk (and Mike Fiers, who ate innings but did little else). They traded a bunch more prospects who didn't pan out for Ken Giles, who entered the witness protection program this postseason after going Full Byung-Hyun Kim every time he pitched. They dumped J.D. Martinez for nothing, then watched him turn into Babe Ruth. Their scout-slashing efforts were so severe, they made Brad Pitt playing Billy Beane in "Moneyball" look magnanimous by comparison.
Between one of the ugliest and most blatant tanking efforts in history, a series of costly player evaluation mistakes, and a rebuilding process that relied on industry outsiders more than any other we've ever seen, the Astros drew ridicule and scorn from all corners of baseball. Mockery became a sport.
None of that matters anymore. Not after the Astros chopped down the 104-win Dodgers, using a blend of homegrown stars, hired guns, and under-the-radar saviors. The two pitchers who slammed the door were afterthoughts on a star-studded roster, thrust into the spotlight by circumstance and responding better than any number-cruncher could've dared dream.
George Springer led the charge in the World Series, a statement that would've sounded insane only a week ago. The Astros center fielder went 3 for 30 in the ALCS, watching his teammates storm back from a 3-2 deficit to beat the Yankees and advance. In Game 1 of the World Series, he went 0 for 4 with four strikeouts. If you believed in momentum, you might've wondered if Springer would ever hit the ball out of the damn infield.
Fortunately, momentum means nothing in baseball -- no one knows anything. Springer tied a World Series record by smashing five home runs, including bombs in each of the final four games of the series. His eight extra-base hits were a World Series record, as were his 29 total bases.
If you might have doubted him heading into Game 2 of this year's World Series, you would have thought all of this to be impossible a decade ago.
A toolsy player early in his high school career, he also weighed a wiry 175 pounds, and didn't project as anything close to a future All-Star and World Series MVP. After an exhaustive weight-training program, Springer became a force. He went from throwing the ball 83 mph as an outfielder to ringing 94 on the radar gun, making him terrifying for opposing baserunners. He went from roping singles and doubles to blasting shots over the wall. His 2008 Perfect Game profile praised his skills, but still ranked him as the 396th-best player in his class. The Twins took a shot on him in that year's draft ... but did so in the 48th round.
From his off-the-beaten path baseball beginning in New Britain, Connecticut to his time playing for a decidedly sub-elite baseball school at the University of Connecticut, Springer never seemed to have the pedigree to be great. But by 2011, he had grown into an all-around threat, big and strong and athletic, able to beat you in so many different ways. Jose Altuve and Dallas Keuchel were the first building blocks of the Astros team that would go on to win it all, both of them getting snagged as afterthoughts -- Altuve overlooked for his small stature, Keuchel for his lack of velocity.
But Springer made himself into a future franchise cornerstone before he ever played a day in pro ball. Following his junior season at UConn, he jumped back into the draft. This time he was a true blue chipper, landing in Houston with the 11th overall pick.
Springer's arrival portended an influx of top-tier talent into the organization. With the first overall pick in the 2012 draft, the Astros nabbed a teenage Puerto Rican shortstop prospect named Carlos Correa. Again, the industry lashed out in reaction, claiming that picking Correa over high-school outfield sensation Byron Buxton was a case of a cheap, cash-strapped team choosing signability over talent at the worst possible time. Among the two players, Correa did end up signing for less. And Buxton showed flashes of monstrous potential in the second half of this season. But Correa already has a Rookie of the Year award, an All-Star appearance, and a World Series ring, and he recently turned 23. Given his long list of postseason hero moments, Alex Bregman already looks like a killer pick at number-two in the 2015 draft, teaming with Springer and Correa to wipe out the stink of the back-to-back Mark Appel-Brady Aiken whiffs of 2013 and 2014. Lance McCullers Jr., a supplemental first-rounder in 2012, offered another gem from the draft.
After that came the combination of skill and luck that defines every winning franchise in every sport. Altuve went from a speedy slap hitter to a 5-foot-6, 165-pound powerhouse, leading the league in hits four times and batting average three times, but also banging out 140 extra-base hits during the past two seasons. Dallas Keuchel graduated magna cum laude from the Tom Glavine School of Finesse Lefties, turning his 89-90-mph fastball and cagey breaking stuff into lethal weapons, thanks to a relentless attack on the bottom of the strike zone. The Astros used the then-rarely spoken concept of spin rates to find a diamond in the rough in Collin McHugh. They opened the checkbook to bring in quality supplementary players like Josh Reddick, Brian McCann, and Yuli Gurriel. Hell, they acquired Chris Devenski for the proverbial player to be named later five years ago, got him in their player development program and with the sharp mind of pitching coach Brent Strom, and got a changeup-slinging All-Star out of it.
And yes, when the time came to shoot the moon, the Astros rocketed to the challenge. The battle for Justin Verlander's heart was one of the most hard-fought of the 2017 season, pitting the Astros' overtures against Verlander's sense of loyalty, as well as a fierce bidding competitor. With literally two minutes to go before the deadline, the Astros got their man, reeling in a Cy Young and MVP top-of-the-rotation workhorse who could offer that final piece of the puzzle. The other bidder that just barely missed out in the bidding? The eventual National League champion Dodgers.
Yet for all that talent, the Astros needed two more contributors to push them over the top: Brad Peacock and Charlie Morton. After giving up runs in three of his first four postseason appearances, Peacock saved the Astros' bacon in Game 3, bailing out a crumbling bullpen by firing 3⅔ innings of no-hit, shutout ball. He came up huge again in Game 7, coming in to replace a flagging McCullers in the third, then tossing two more shutout frames. Thirty-three of his 37 pitches were fastballs, mimicking his almost fastball-only approach in Game 5. Yet even with every Dodger knowing what was coming, they couldn't do anything against a pitcher who GM Jeff Luhnow and others in the organization praised as a secret weapon -- a hybrid starter/reliever who could end up saving the Astros' season before all was said and done.
As great as Peacock was, though, he took a backseat to Morton. When the Astros signed the veteran right-hander to a two-year, $14 million contract last offseason, you had a pretty quick read on the type of pitcher they had acquired: an injury-prone groundball specialist, the kind of pitcher who could produce like a fourth starter under the right conditions, but could never be fully trusted to stay healthy. Sure enough, Morton spent time on the disabled list this year, too. He also banked more starts and innings pitched than at any point since 2014.
But the most surprising outcome wasn't his relatively decent durability. It was his fastball. A 92-mph guy for most of his career, Morton suddenly started throwing 96, with gusts into the high 90s. His strikeout rate surged from subpar (17.1 percent in 2015) to elite (26.4 percent). How did he do it?
"For some reason," Morton said, "I just went out there and tried to throw the ball hard one game. I wound up throwing it harder."
If that explanation might've been unsatisfying, his Game 7 performance was anything but. Morton sailed through four innings of stellar work, allowing only one run and three baserunners, while punching out four. He maxed out at 98.5, averaged 96.8 mph on his fastball as late as the ninth, and rang up four whiffs out of the eight curveballs he threw for good measure. Watching him throw 96-mph cheese right by dangerous Dodgers outfielder Chris Taylor in the ninth, you might've thought you were watching Kenley Jansen playing for the wrong team, not a one-time soft-tosser who hadn't made a single relief appearance in nine years. Morton's performance typified the Astros' rise during the past four years, and also their magical run through the postseason -- unorthodox but effective, unexpected but dominant.
As the Astros poured onto the field after the final out, you could see the fruits of their labor frolicking on the field. The young bucks like Springer, Altuve, and Bregman who form the core of a team that could contend for World Series for years to come. The new franchise player Verlander, freed from purgatory in Detroit and getting the title his immense talent deserved. And most poignantly, Correa joyfully flying the Puerto Rican flag, with teammates Carlos Beltran and Juan Centeno and bench coach/about-to-be-Red Sox manager Alex Cora huddled around in solidarity.
For the second successive season, we saw a team stomp all over the idea of a curse. For the second successive season, years of boundless frustration finally culminated in victory.
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