2017 - Season Recap
by Bob Hulsey
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This was the season all Astros fans had waited for. Whether they had cheered on the ballclub for 55 seasons or only five, this was the year Houston climbed all the way to the top and, along the way, conquered three of the most storied franchises in baseball history. Bragging rights were finally theirs.
There were obstacles both on the field (a hobbled starting rotation) and off (Hurricane Harvey dumped a small ocean on the Texas coast that cost many their homes and led to the rallying cry of "Houston Strong" that symbolized the community's resilience).
Following a disappointing year, General Manager Jeff Luhnow identified the weaknesses and addressed them. He knew his core lineup was solid but it was also dominated by right-handed hitters so he allowed most of his lefty hitters to leave (Jason Castro, Colby Rasmus, Luis Valbuena) and replaced them with hitters who would offer better plate discipline and higher averages.
He claimed outfielder Norichika Aoki from Seattle, a veteran contact hitter. Then Luhnow replaced Doug Fister with righthander Charlie Morton. In maybe his biggest move, he traded two prospects to the Yankees for veteran catcher (and Astro-killer) Brian McCann, negotiating a salary discount from New York to help pay his contract. Free agent outfielders Josh Reddick and 40-year-old Carlos Beltran were later added to the mix.
The Astros broke camp for the first time from their new West Palm Beach (FL) center they shared with the Washington Nationals and their only injury concern was starting pitcher Collin McHugh, who was nursing a sore right elbow. To take his spot, the Astros kept injury-prone Brad Peacock as the last member of their pitching staff.
The catchphrase echoing through the Houston clubhouse was "Earn It", a challenge to themselves to push harder for a division title - something the Astros had not won since 2001. After a 4-4 start which included two walk-off victories, the ballclub took off like a rocket. On April 14th, Dallas Keuchel's 7-2 win over Oakland put the Astros ahead of their division to stay. They ended April with a 16-9 mark then seemed unstoppable in May with a 22-7 record, posting the best start in the franchise's history.
While the pitching struggled at times, the potent lineup was bludgeoning opponents. In May, they topped ten runs or more five times, including a month-ending series in Minnesota where they hammered the Twins by scores of 16-8, 7-2 and 17-6. Reddick kept the players pumped up with his infectuous WOO! chant, borrowed from professional wrestler Ric Flair.
Next up were the devilish Rangers who had dominated them so often in past years. The Astros swept them in Arlington to take six-of-seven in their head-to-head matchups thus far on the year. A 7-3 win in Kansas City behind Mike Fiers marked Houston's 11th straight victory and a 14-game division lead.
However, the cracks of a long season were beginning to show. McHugh was shelved for a longer stay than expected. Keuchel was 9-0 but was sidelined with a neck strain. Lance McCullers was pitching well until he was put on the disabled list with back problems. It was Morton, Fiers and the surprising Peacock who picked up the slack while rookies Francis Martes and David Paulino filled in. The Astros skidded through a 4-8 patch in mid-June due to the pitching struggles and the strain it put on the bullpen.
The bats exploded again in July with wins of 8-1, 16-4, 10-4, 12-2 and 19-1 before the All-Star Break. Houston placed six players on the All-Star Game squad (Jose Altuve, Carlos Correa and George Springer as starters - Keuchel, McCullers and Chris Devenski as pitchers, although Keuchel could not play).
With a 16-1/2 game lead in the AL West at the break, the Astros raised their sights higher. The club had the best record in the majors during the first half of the season. Eventually, they would be overtaken by the Dodgers and then the Indians in the second half. Extended injuries to Springer and Correa were partly to blame for the fall-off.
The Astros knew they needed help from the left side of the bullpen and one more solid starting pitcher if they were going to be the caliber of a World Series team. There was open disappointment when Luhnow could only add aging Francisco Liriano from Toronto as bullpen help. Liriano proved as unreliable as Tony Sipp, the incumbent bullpen lefty. It probably did not help the clubhouse mood that they were dominated by Justin Verlander and the Tigers, 13-1, on the day before the trade deadline.
Houston slogged through an 11-17 month of August, made worse by the arrival of Harvey into Rockport (TX) on August 25th. Harvey was not a monster as hurricanes go. He was more of a major nuisance as he spent the better part of a week dumping boatloads of rain until bayous, rivers, reservoirs and dams overflowed and major swaths of the Gulf Coast were buried in flood waters. Then Harvey backed up, returned to sea and puffed his way through the Golden Triangle before dumping on Louisiana and the mid-South.
The Astros were on the West Coast when the storm came ashore and asked the Rangers if they could swap home dates for a series later in the season. The Rangers refused. With visions of Bud Selig and the Hurricane Ike debacle of 2008 dancing in their heads, the Astros arranged to move the Rangers games to neutral Tampa (FL) which would soon gets its own visit from Hurricane Maria. A tired and dejected Astros squad lost 12-2 and 8-1 before news came that they could come back to Houston for a revised series with the Mets that weekend.
After spending September 1st checking in on family and friends, the Astros returned to work by bashing the unfortunately-named Matt Harvey, 12-8, to begin a day-night doubleheader. It began a 21-8 run to close the regular season and clinched the AL West title going away.
Another huge encouragement was a last-second trade pulled off by Luhnow with Detroit. The Astros sent three top prospects to the rebuilding Tigers in return for Verlander, who needed some last-minute coaxing from Keuchel to agree to the swap. The agreement hit New York offices with literally seconds left before the trade deadline expired. The former Cy Young Award winner and MVP was a huge addition and seemed to lift the mood of the entire community.
Verlander, with supermodel fiancee Kate Upton often nearby, instantly proved his worth to his new employers. He was 5-0 in five starts with a 1.06 ERA, causing Houston fans to recall what Randy Johnson did for the 1998 Astros.
The same day they added Verlander, the Astros claimed speedy outfielder Cameron Maybin off waivers from the Angels in a head-scratching move. Houston already had reserve outfielder Jake Marisnick on the bench, blasting 16 homers when he could get in the action. However, Maybin drilled key homers in two of his first four games as an Astro and Marisnick was lost for the year during a bothced slide in mid-September which made the move seem prophetic.
What marked this Astros team more than any other was depth. It's stunning to think that the Astros won 101 games, led the AL in hits, runs, batting average, total bases, and OPS plus were second in wins, saves, strikeouts and home runs yet not one pitcher crafted 15 victories or more and no batter drove in more than 90 runs. Only Springer belted 30 or more homers. Yet the Astros often scored runs in buckets and only asked their pitchers not to surrender the same. It was a formula that contradicted conventional wisdom but it worked to perfection.
Altuve became the second Astro in franchise history to capture the league MVP award, doing so with a league-leading .346 average, his fourth-straight season of 200 or more hits, 24 homers and a .957 OPS. Springer, moved to the leadoff spot, smacked 34 homers to lead the club. Correa, batting from the cleanup spot, batted .315, drilled 24 homers and compiled a .941 OPS. The trio were the unquestioned stars of a potent lineup but they received a great deal of support.
McCann (.241 average, 18 homers, 62 RBI) was a significant upgrade from Castro's offense while Gurriel (.299, 18, 75) blossom in his first full season in the majors while holding down first base. Likewaise, Bregman (.284, 19, 71) prospered in his first full major league season. Gattis (.263, 12, 55) split time between DH and catching chores. Reddick (.314, 13, 82) chewed up right-handed pitching.
The two big surprises on offense were utilityman Gonzalez (.303, 23, 90) who played all over the field but settled into left field after Aoki (.272, 2, 19) was dealt to Toronto, and Marisnick (.243, 16, 35) who feasted on lefthanded pitching and filled in for Springer when he was injured.
Beltran offered guidance to the Hispanic stars while batting .231 with 14 homers and 51 RBIs in the DH role. Lured away from Houston after a monster 2004 season, Beltran was like a prodigal son returning to boost the team he left in the lurch and finally secure his own World Series ring to cap a 20-year career.
From the pitching side, Morton (14-7, 3.62 ERA) and Keuchel (14-5, 2.90) led the club in wins while McCullers (7-4, 4.25), McHugh (5-2, 3.55) and Fiers (8-10, 5.22) had their strong moments. Peacock, the last man to make the club, turned in a 13-2, 3.00 ERA mastrpiece that nobody expected from him.
Giles (1-3, 2.30, 34 saves) anchored the bullpen but often left Astros fans jittery with his wildness. Chris Devenski (8-5, 2.68) was dominant at times before tiring. Will Harris (3-2, 2.98) was another key bullpen arm. Luke Gregerson (2-3, 4.57) and Tony Sipp (0-1, 5.79) struggled to produce as in seasons past. James Hoyt (1-0, 4.38) had up-and-down moments.
A group of young arms contributed as both starters and relievers. Joe Musgrove (7-8, 4.77) found a home in the bullpen after making the rotation to begin the season. Francis Martes (5-2, 5.80) got his first taste of the majors as did David Paulino (2-0, 6.52) before he was suspended for using a banned substance. Michael Feliz (4-2, 5.63) was a frequent bullpen piece. The Astros made frequent use of the new 10-day Disabled List to juggle pitchers on and off the pitching staff when rest was needed.
Overall, this was a team that crushed opponents when they could and silenced opposition batters infrequently. That is, before Verlander came to town. With injured players healing and the final piece of the puzzle in place, the Astros were poised to peak in the playoffs.
After coasting through the regular season, some wondered if the Astros had the mettle to survive the pressure of the postseason. A four-game tune-up at Fenway Park to end the season gave the Astros a taste. Houston won three-of-four and were still able to rest their best pitchers for the best-of-five Division Series. The first two games were in Houston and the Astros wasted little time lighting up the scoreboard. Alex Bregman, playing in his postseason debut, drilled a first-inning homer off Chris Sale then Jose Altuve followed with a blast of his own.
Boston briefly tied the score against Justin Verlander in the fourth but Marwin Gonzalez countered with a two-run double into the right-center gap that put the Astros ahead to stay. Brian McCann ripped a two-run single in the sixth while Altuve flexed his MVP credentials with solo homers in the fifth and seventh as Houston pulled away for an 8-2 victory.
Game Two went the same way as the first game. Carlos Correa exploded with a two-run homer in the first off Drew Pomeranz. George Springer went deep in the fourth and Houston added five more runs to support Dallas Keuchel in another 8-2 triumph.
The Red Sox answered when the series shifted to Fenway for Game Three. Correa capped a three-run first with a two-run bomb off ex-Astro Doug Fister. Boston pecked away at Brad Peacock before the bullpen melted down in a 10-3 loss.
Game Four proved the Astros were battle tested. Houston produced single tallies in the first two innings while Boston answered with a solo homer from Xavier Bogaerts off Charlie Morton. Verlander came in to relieve Morton in the fifth and gave up a two-run shot to Andrew Benintendi before settling down. Boston nursed the 3-2 lead until the eighth.
Bregman stunned the Fenway crowd with a solo shot off Sale down the left field line to tie the score. Later in the frame, Josh Reddick spanked a ground single to left that plated pinch-runner Cameron Maybin with the tying run. Carlos Beltran added an insurance run in the ninth.
Ken Giles entered in the ninth to close out but Rafael Devers smacked a liner off the Green Monster in left that was misplayed into an inside-the-park homer. Houston still led, 5-4. Giles retired the next three batters to finish the series, three-games-to-one. Altuve completed the series with a .533 average (8-for-15), including three homers.
The New York Yankees survived a five-game pressure cooker with the Cleveland Indians which gave the Astros the home field advantage in the League Championship Series. Houston's home magic continued with nail-biting 2-1 victories in the first two games. Keuchel and Verlander each won their starts. Correa was the hero in Game Two with a double in the ninth off Aroldis Chapman that plated a sliding Altuve with the winning run.
Back at Yankee Stadium, New York took Game Three easily, 8-1, and Houston appeared to have Game Four in hand with a 4-0 lead, but the Yankees battered Giles and the bullpen to rally for a 6-4 decision that tied the series. An admittedly intimidated Astros club lost Game Five to Masahiro Tanaka, 5-0, and the World Series dream appeared to be down to its final breath. Returning to Houston, the Astros would have to keep their undefeated postseason home record intact to move forward.
Verlander was excellent in Game Six and the offense cracked open a close game late for a 7-1 victory, forcing a seventh game. Altuve blasted a homer and drove in three while Bregman drove in a pair and made a great throw home to save a run.
The Astros would need a special outing from a pitcher not named Keuchel or Verlander for Game Seven. They got it from Morton and Lance McCullers who combined for a three-hit shutout to win the American League Pennant. Evan Gattis homered for the first Houston run, Altuve cracked a solo shot and McCann blasted a two-run double to complete the 4-0 clincher. Verlander was named the ALCS Most Valuable Player.
The World Series
For the second time in franchise history and the first time as an American League representative, the Astros made it to the World Series. The previous time, in 2005, they were swept in four games. This time would be different. The fabled Los Angeles Dodgers, an old National League rival, were their opponents.
Clayton Kershaw kept the hex going in Game One with a 3-1 Dodger outcome. The Houston offense mustered just three hits against the Los Angeles ace. Game Two was shaping up to be another downer as the Dodgers' Corey Seager smashed a two-run homer off Verlander in the sixth for a 3-1 lead. Correa narrowed the lead in the eighth then Gonzalez surprised closer Kenley Jansen with a lead off homer in the ninth to tie the score.
It looked like Houston would win when Altuve and Correa belted back-to-back homers in the tenth off former Astro Josh Fields but Giles gave the lead back on a homer by Yusiel Puig and an RBI hit from ex-Astro Kike Hernandez. Springer untied it with a two-run homer the next inning and the Dodgers scored once more but Houston prevailed, 7-6, in 11 innings. The game showcased the never-say-die attitude found on both clubs.
The Astros jumped on nemesis Yu Darvish early for four runs in Game Three back in Houston and coasted to a 5-1 triumph behind McCullers and Peacock. The Dodgers broke open a 1-1 tie in the ninth in Game Four to claim a 6-2 decision that tied up the series.
Game Five will long be remembered as a World Series classic. It was a see-saw affair in which the Dodgers led 4-0, then were tied at 4-4, then Los Angeles led, 7-4, then Houston rallied again to tie and took an 11-8 lead before the Dodgers scored three in the ninth to tie it up at 12-12. There were seven home runs, including five by the Astros. The five-hour plus game finally ended when Bregman drove home pinch-runner Derek Fisher with a single to short left. The Astros returned to L.A. with a 3-2 series lead, neading one win to hoist the World Series trophy for the first time.
Los Angeles thwarted Verlander in Game Six, 3-1, as five pitchers shut down the Astros, building up to a concluding seventh game. Darvish was the starting pitcher for the Dodgers and it was over early. Houston pelted him for five runs, including a two-run homer by Springer in the second. Meanwhile, the Astros got five shutout innings from a combination of hurlers before Morton entered in the sixth and carried the Astros the rest of the way to their first world's championship! Celebration ensued at Dodger Stadium and then continued in victory parades and celebrations throughout the Houston area.
1st Place, AL West
To be added later.
Nov 3, 2016 - Granted Free Agency to Jason Castro (C)
Nov 3, 2016 - Granted Free Agency to Doug Fister (P)
Nov 3, 2016 - Granted Free Agency to Colby Rasmus (OF)
Nov 3, 2016 - Granted Free Agency to Luis Valbuena (IF)
Nov 3, 2016 - Claimed Norichika Aoki (OF) from SEA-A
Nov 4, 2016 - Traded Pat Neshek (P) to PHI-N for PTBNL or cash
Nov 16, 2016 - Signed Charlie Morton (P) as a free agent
Nov 17, 2016 - Traded minor leaguers Albert Abreu (P) and Jorge Guzman (P) to NY-A for Brian McCann (C)
Nov 23, 2016 - Signed Josh Reddick (OF) as a free agent
Dec 5, 2016 - Claimed Ashur Tolliver (P) off waivers from LA-A
Dec 5, 2016 - Signed Carlos Beltran (OF) as a free agent
Dec 15, 2016 - Signed Juan Centeno (C) as a free agent
Feb 2, 2017 - Signed Dayan Diaz (P) as a free agent
Jul 31, 2017 - Traded Norichika Aoki (OF) and Teoscar Hernandez (OF) to TOR-A for Francisco Liriano (P)
Aug 13, 2017 - Traded PTBNL or cash to CHI-A for Tyler Clippard (P)
Aug 31, 2017 - Claimed Cameron Maybin (OF) off waivers from LA-A
Aug 31, 2017 - Traded minor leaguers Franklin Perez (P), Daz Cameron (OF) and Jake Rogers (C) to DET-A for Justin Verlander (P)
Sept 4, 2017 - Dayan Diaz (P) claimed off waivers by LA-A