There’s so much to like about the Houston Astros.
We’re not even talking about how they’ve buoyed the spirits of a hurricane-ravaged city, though that certainly adds to the appeal now that they’re just two wins away from their first World Series championship.
No, this is about a team that not so long ago endured three straight 100-loss seasons, the result of its very conscious decision to strip down to nothing at the big league level, take a lot of lumps, and stay true to a painful but necessary course to rebuild the franchise totally from scratch.
If they ever make a movie about this team, it should be called ”All The Right Moves (Mostly), Part II.”
They built around an undersized second baseman, Jose Altuve, who’ll likely be the AL’s Most Valuable Player. They stuck with once-struggling sinkerballer Dallas Keuchel, who won the Cy Young Award two years ago and went 14-5 this season. They drafted shortstop Carlos Correa and third baseman Alex Bregman, who now comprise a dynamic left side of the infield. They drafted Lance McCullers Jr. and traded for Brad Peacock, who got the win and the save in Game 3 Friday night. They plucked first baseman Yuli Gurriel out of Cuba, signed outfielder Josh Reddick, traded for designated hitter Evan Gattis, and picked up veteran catcher Brian McCann for peanuts coming into this season.
Then, just before the deadline for postseason eligibility, Houston acquired ace pitcher Justin Verlander to bolster its October hopes.
How’s that working out?
Verlander was 5-0 with a 1.06 ERA in his last five starts of the regular season, and he’s won four more games in the postseason .
”I’m pretty proud of these guys,” said Peacock, who pitched 3 2-3 hitless innings for the save. ”It’s a special team, a special lineup, a special group of guys. I’m just glad to be part of it.”
It wasn’t a special team back in 2012, when I sat down with Jeff Luhnow in his office at the Astros’ then-spring training stadium in Kissimmee, Florida, not long after he was hired as general manager.
Disney World was right up the road, but it sounded as though Luhnow was selling an even bigger fantasy .
The Astros were coming off a 106-loss season.
Things would get even worse before they got better.
Luhnow knew this.
He also knew it was the best way forward.
”We want to shake the system, shock the system, to change that mentality,” Luhnow told me that day. ”If we change that mentality, the results will eventually track your mentality. We have to figure out a way, and we’re already doing it, to make everybody expect that we’re gonna win every game, we’re gonna win every series. Eventually, when you start to do that, it builds on itself.”
With a roster that looked more like an expansion team, the Astros went 55-107 in Luhnow’s first season.
In 2013, they fell to 51-111 – the worst record in franchise history.
Now, here they are, just four years later, leading the mighty Los Angeles Dodgers two games to one in the World Series after a 5-3 victory .
What makes this even more appealing is the Dodgers have baseball’s biggest payroll, well past the $200 million mark, while the Astros went into the season ranked 19th at a relatively paltry $122 million.
No GM gets `em all right.
Certainly, Luhnow has a few clunkers he’d like to have back.
Heading into the 2014 season, Luhnow decided to cut outfielder J.D. Martinez, who started out as one of the cornerstones of the rebuilding effort but didn’t develop as the Astros were expecting. He wound up in Detroit, where he hit 38 homers with 102 RBIs and made the All-Star Game in 2015. This season, splitting time between with the Tigers and the Arizona Diamondbacks, he hit 45 homers with 104 RBIs in just 119 games.
Houston also had a chance to draft Kris Bryant with the top overall pick in 2013. Luhnow used that selection on pitcher Mark Appel, who never made it to the big leagues and is no longer with the Astros. Bryant was taken No. 2 by the Chicago Cubs and led their run to a World Series championship last season.
But the Astros certainly have more hits than misses.
Again, I’m reminded of that conversation with Luhnow in the early days of what became a remarkable rebuilding job.
He brought up the 1991 Astros, a team that finished 65-97 but laid a foundation for the future with burgeoning young stars such as Craig Biggio, Jeff Bagwell, Luis Gonzalez and Curt Schilling.
”A lot of those players maybe weren’t well known at that point, but they became well known,” Luhnow said. ”It’s fun to watch guys go from virtually unknown to household names. We have those same kind of players in our organization, like Jose Altuve. He’s a great story. He’ll always be the underdog because of his size. But if he has success this year, people will be saying they know who plays second base for the Houston Astros as opposed to, `Who are those guys?”’
Yep, we know who they are now.
A team that’s two wins away from a much-deserved championship.
Paul Newberry is a sports columnist for The Associated Press. Write to him at pnewberry(at)ap.org or at www.twitter.com/pnewberry1963 . His work can be found at https://apnews.com/search/paul%20newberry
For more AP baseball coverage: Hometeaminsider.com