HOUSTON – The Houston Astros overcame injuries to several top stars and dealt with the fallout from their sign-stealing scandal to come a win shy of reaching the World Series for the third time in four seasons.
Now they’ll deal with an uncertain future, with Justin Verlander out all next season and George Springer and other key starters set to become free agents.
The Astros fell into an 0-3 hole in the AL Championship Series before beating the Tampa Bay Rays in three straight games to force a Game 7. But their powerful offense was stifled by former Astros pitcher Charlie Morton in a 4-2 loss, and the Astros are heading home instead of to their second straight World Series.
“It’s frustrating, but these guys fought,” manager Dusty Baker said. “They fought to the very end ... this team is a bunch of fighters with a tremendous amount of perseverance and fortitude. One thing is for sure. We’ll be back in this position next year.”
That’s a nice sentiment from the 71-year-old Baker, who was hired to help this team regain credibility after its sign-stealing scam cost manger AJ Hinch and general manager Jeff Luhnow their jobs and made the Astros the most reviled team in baseball. But it will be a tall task for the Astros, who lost the 2019 World Series to Washington in seven games, to remain among the league’s elite with all the upheaval they’re facing this offseason.
Verlander, who pitched just one game this season, won’t play in 2020 while recovering from Tommy John surgery and Houston’s entire starting outfield could be gone with Michael Brantley and Josh Reddick joining Springer as free agents.
“Some guys that we love really much, and we’ve been playing with forever hopefully they come back, but if they don’t, we’re going to miss them forever,” shortstop Carlos Correa said.
For Springer, it was too early to ponder his future just after the loss.
“I haven’t really thought about that yet,” the 2017 World Series MVP said. “Our season just ended. I’m more focused on kind of what’s happening now, what happened here (Saturday), and I’ll cross that bridge when I get to it.”
Despite the questions about what’s next for the Astros, they take pride in their accomplishments this season and coming so close to reaching the World Series again amid all the adversity. Houston lost ace Gerrit Cole in free agency before losing Verlander, last year’s AL Cy Young winner, after his opening day start.
The Astros soon put reigning AL Rookie of the Year Yordan Alvarez on the injured list with a season-ending knee injury and closer Roberto Osuna pitched just four games because of an elbow injury as one of several relievers who were shelved with injuries.
Those factors contributed to the Astros finishing with a 29-31 record in the pandemic-shortened season. After reaching the postseason with a losing record, many counted them out as a serious contender this year.
But instead of wilting under the playoff pressure, Houston’s core of Correa, Jose Altuve, Alex Bregman and Brantley rediscovered its power to stabilize a young pitching staff and the Astros got on a roll. First, they swept the Minnesota Twins in the wild-card round before moving past the AL West champion Oakland A’s in four games in the division series to advance to the ALCS for the fourth straight year.
“We did a good job of just focusing on what we could control, and that was showing, playing hard and fighting until the end,” Bregman said.
The Astros were undoubtedly helped by playing in empty stadiums. After being heckled and mocked by fans mercilessly in the first spring training, the team was certain to get an earful everywhere it went this year.
Even though they couldn’t enter the ballparks, some fans still managed to show their disdain for these players, who weren’t suspended for their roles in illegally stealing signals during their run to the 2017 World Series title and again in the 2018 season. A group of fans taunted them with signs and boos outside of Dodger Stadium on their visit there this summer, and a man on a balcony that had a view into Petco Park during the ALCS had a megaphone and called them out for being cheaters one by one.
But those incidents were rather tame compared to what they would have faced in packed stadiums around the country. While Correa outwardly dealt with the venom directed at the Astros, most of the team kept quiet about being thought of as baseball’s villains. And it was up to the respected veteran Baker to keep the team from letting outside perceptions shape what went on in his clubhouse.
“They’ve been through a whole bunch other than on the ballfield, and these guys can forget whatever problems that they’ve had that’s out there and come together as a group, and these guys will be forever friends,” Baker said. “When they have the 2017 team back, these guys will cherish these moments and have these moments for the rest of their lives.”
More AP MLB: https://apnews.com/MLB and https://twitter.com/AP_Sports