Three Innings Short Of A Perfect Season

added 11/06/2019 by Bob Hulsey

A woebegone franchise with a litany of playoff failures had the ride of their lives in 2019. I'm not talking about the World Champion Washington Nationals who won it all for the first time in their history dating back to their 1969 birth as the Montreal Expos. I'm talking about the Houston Astros.

While 2015 was a coming of age and 2017's title was a surprise to many, 2019 was the year the Astros appeared to have it all, particularly when they stunned the baseball world by acquiring 36-year-old Zack Greinke, a former Cy Young Award winner with a massive contract most presumed would make him untradeable. Instantly, the Astros were the presumed favorite to win the World Series.

How special was the 2019 season? It's rare for a team to experience two no-hitters in a single year. The Astros had two and Greinke almost made it three late in September. Only once in their history had the Astros scored 20 runs in a game. In 2019, they did it twice. No other team in the majors had a 20-game winner. Houston had two (Justin Verlander and Gerrit Cole). No other team in the majors had a pitcher strike out 300 batters. Houston had two (again, Verlander and Cole).

Then add to this the most exciting rookie to join the league in Yordan Alvarez, a slugging dynamo who could hit homers to unexplored regions of Minute Maid Park. One homer found the third deck of seats down the right field line. In the 20 years of the stadium, that had never happened. In batting practice, Alvarez once knocked out a section of the massive scoreboard above the second deck in right field. Ouch.

Verlander and Cole are currently up for the American League Cy Young Award. Surely, one of them will win it. Alvarez will likely win the A.L. Rookie of the Year Award.

But that's just the start. Alex Bregman became the first Astro to mash 40 or more homers since Lance Berkman in 2006. Former MVP Jose Altuve, recovered from a knee injury, fell short of batting .300 for the first time since 2013 but he set a career high with 31 homers. Cuban import Yuli Gurriel had his best season yet, batting .298 with 31 homers and 104 RBIs. Free agent signee Michael Brantley was among the league leaders in batting average. George Springer bashed 39 dingers.

Do you get it? This team was as loaded as a marine's AK-47. A rash of injuries from mid-May to mid-June slowed the Astros down a bit but they still had a winning record every month. A late-season injury bug to the pitchers had a similar effect but Verlander, Greinke and Cole were around to make sure any losing streak was held to a minimum.

Houston outlasted Oakland by 10 full games even though the Athletics won 97 games. The Spacemen outlasted the Yankees and Dodgers to win an MLB-best 107 games, also a franchise record. This was going to be Our Year, Part Two.

The postseason started as predicted, winning two games from the Wild Card Tampa Bay Rays. However, the much-disparaged Tropicana Field has been a house of horrors for Houston over the years. The Astros lost both games there, including a 10-3 blowout in Game 3. Now facing elimination, the Astros won at home behind Cole, 6-1, to advance to the LCS. The swag was beginning to wear off.

The Yankees had an exceptional year considering all the injuries and suspensions they endured. They pushed the Astros to six games as an 11th-inning homer by Carlos Correa in Game 2 and a ninth-inning homer by Altuve in the clinching Game 6 were the difference makers. The Astros had reached the World Series but they seemed a mentally-tired bunch that had been through a lot of pressure situations in October.

Facing the 93-win Nationals was supposed to be easier, despite Washington sweeping the Cardinals for the National League crown in four straight. Washington taking the first two games at Minute Maid changed the entire outlook of the World Series. Few teams overcome an 0-2 deficit at home but the Astros went to Nationals Park and swept all three games in DC. Now, all the momentum was on Houston's side.

The Astros lost Game 6 at home as Verlander's World Series jinx continued. They still had Greinke for Game 7.

The veteran Greinke, who often seemed to run out of gas in the fifth or sixth inning, had breezed through six shutout innings of one-hit ball. Houston led, 2-0. Manager A.J. Hinch chose to let Greinke start the seventh but, one out later, Greinke gave up a homer to Anthony Rendon and walked the next batter.

Down in the bullpen was Cole, ready to give Hinch at least an inning in this no-tomorrow contest. Hinch chose reliever Will Harris instead who had experienced a masterful postseason up until Game 6.

Harris threw a slider low and outside to Howie Kendrick. It was supposed to be a pitch to entice the batter to swing at while it darted away from the strike zone. This was Harris' bread-and-butter pitch and he located it perfectly. Except that Kendrick chased it and flicked it down the right field line where it clanked off the foul pole for a two-run homer. Cole fumed in the bullpen. Now momentum was on the Nationals' side and they followed it to a 6-2 clinching victory. For the second time in two years, the powerful Astros were defeated by a Team of Destiny.

If used in relief, starting pitchers don't like coming into a situation with runners on base. They like to begin an inning as if they had showed up to their own start a little late. Hinch thought he could get another inning out of a spectacular effort by Greinke and then turn to Cole for the eighth and bridge to closer Roberto Osuna for the ninth. I'm sure that was the plan.

Instead, the Nationals pulled with a run, had a runner on base and the call went to Harris who is used to pitching out of jams. It almost worked but it just wasn't Our Year after all.

2019 was like being the most drop-dead gorgeous girl at the beauty pageant but taking second prize to a tattooed honk-nosed Miss New Jersey because some mobster had bribed the judges to make it so. That's not to say the Nationals cheated, only to say that the 107-win team looked far more pretty than the 93-win wild card team from the other league. That's how life goes.

With Cole likely leaving in free agency and the Astros surely rubbing up against the luxury cap for the forseeable future, I'm not sure the Astros will ever have a better year than this one. It may yet happen but many of the key players are passing age 35 and these aren't the young wide-eyed kids we saw overachieving in 2015. They've grown old quickly.

Cherish our second American League pennant as perhaps our greatest season despite the imperfect ending. It's worth savoring for awhile before spitting out like a mouthwash so you can taste the first fruits of the 2020 season. It was a heck of a ride.