2018 - Season Recap
by Bob Hulsey
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Winning the World Series was heady new territory for the Astros which meant new perks and distractions. They began a 100-city tour with the championship trophy in January including a ceremony with Governor Greg Abbott in Austin. Despite the pleas of some, the club visited the White House and were addressed by President Donald Trump. The group included owner Jim Crane, key front office people, manager A.J. Hinch and most of the players.
Back in Houston, seemingly everyone connected with the team received World Series rings that flashed the "Star-H" logo and a circle of diamonds. Southeast Texas glowed with warmth at finally having bragging rights in the baseball world. It must have been difficult to focus on winning games again.
Not much needed to change on the roster but the Astros wanted to bolster their rotation. In January, they swapped three players to Pittsburgh for righthander Gerrit Cole. The former overall top draft choice challenged Justin Verlander for the league lead in strikeouts while winning 15 games.
Starting pitching, in fact, took the lead the first months as Houston set the pace in the AL West with a 20-10 record through April 30th. Verlander, Cole, Charlie Morton and Lance McCullers led a solid staff that allowed two runs or less in eight straight games. The only starter having trouble getting untracked was Dallas Keuchel.
May became a speed bump with home-and-away series against the playoff-bound Yankees and Indians then a home series against league-leading Boston. After a 9-3 loss to Boston on June 3rd, Houston stood a game behind Seattle for the division lead.
A record 10-0 road trip was part of a 12-game winning streak in June that tied the franchise record. Despite a 19-8 month, the Astros made only modest ground in the West, leading the division by 1-1/2 games. Fans waited for the take-off that would let them coast to a division title.
Instead, the Astros limped through a 27-23 record the next two months. Seattle fell off the pace but low-budget Oakland stayed close and, after Houston lost to the Angels, 3-0, on August 31st, that division lead was again at 1-1/2 games. Contributing to the malaise was a rash of injuries. Shortstop Carlos Correa hurt his back in late June and was out for two months. Once he returned, he batted just .180 the rest of the regular season.
Jose Altuve injured his knee in July and sat out a month. After he returned in mid-August, he hit .276 the rest of the way, which is like a slump for him. In March, Altuve became the first home-grown Astros star to sign a major contract extension when he agreed to a $151-million deal to cover 2000 through 2024.
George Springer lost time with a thumb injury and McCullers hurt his elbow. Morton also missed a couple of starts with shoulder woes. As most of the injured returned, the Astros put on a finishing kick, taking the final 21 of 27 games to claim the division, ultimately topping Oakland by six games. The last weeks missed some of the normal drama because the schedule had Houston playing East division teams at the end. The Astros did not see Oakland or the Rangers in the season's final month. The Astros clinched the flag while sitting in a Toronto hotel in the wee hours when the Mariners shocked the A's in extra innings.
Despite the hardships, the Astros set a franchise record by winning 103 games, one more than the 1998 squad. They posted an incredible 57-24 record on the road (.704), better than their 46-35 (.568) mark at home - a trend that would continue into the postseason.
Starting pitching dominated. Verlander (16-9, 2.52 ERA) led the league in strikeouts (290) and finished second in the Cy Young Award voting. Cole (15-5, 2.88) was fifth in the Cy Young voting. Morton (15-3, 3.13) and McCullers (10-6, 3.86) had solid years despite injuries. Keuchel (12-11, 3.74) rebounded during the summer from a slow start. Those five started 152 of 162 games as Houston won the league ERA total (3.11) by more than half a run over second-place Tampa. Late-season starts by Framber Valdez (4-1, 2.19) and Josh James (2-0, 2.35) kept up the excellence.
Before the season, the Astros replaced reliever Luke Gregerson with free agents Joe Smith and Hector Rondon. They joined holdovers Will Harris, Chris Devenski, Tony Sipp and expected closer Ken Giles in the pitching staff. Giles (0-2, 4.99, 12) struggled on the mound and his immaturity wore thin. Rondon (2-5, 3.20, 15) gradually took over the closer role.
At the end of the trade deadline, the Astros pulled a controversial trade. Giles was sent to Toronto in return for their suspended closer Roberto Osuna (2-2, 1.99, 12) who was charged with domestic violence in Canada. Once the suspension ended, Osuna took over the closer role and was cemented in it by season's end. His charges in Canada were dropped in return for a plea deal. It was a gamble that GM Jeff Luhnow took with the former All-Star that could have failed miserably or created team dissension.
Manager A.J. Hinch seemed to exchange set-up roles among the hot relievers, whether it was Smith (5-1, 3.74), Harris (5-3, 3.49), Devenski (2-3, 4.18, 2), Sipp (3-1, 1.86), mid-season acquisition Ryan Pressly (1-0, 0.77) or any of the others mentioned.
All of this success on the mound disguised a big drop in offense. The team batting average sunk from .282 to .255. Home runs fell from 238 to 205. Runs scored dropped from 896 to 797. With the glaring exception of Team MVP Alex Bregman, the fall-off infected the entire lineup.
Catcher Brian McCann (.212, 7 homers, 23 RBIs) was sidelined by a knee injury. Max Stassi (.226, 8, 27) led the team in games caught. A mid-season trade brought Martin Maldonado (.231, 4, 12) from Anaheim and he got most of the starts down the stretch.
Suspension and injury delayed Yuli Gurriel's (.291, 13, 85) season. Altuve (.316, 13, 61) missed out on 200 hits for the first time in five seasons. Correa (.239, 15, 65) lost power after his back injury. Utility wizard Marwin Gonzalez (.247, 16, 68) struggled after a career season the year before. Outfielder Josh Reddick (.242, 17, 47) dropped 70 points in his average from 2017. Springer (.265, 22, 71) continued to be a hot-and-cold hitter. DH Evan Gattis (.226, 25, 78) was also prone to long droughts.
Bregman, on the other hand, stayed hot practically all year. The third baseman (.286, 31, 103) continually carried the offense. He was never hotter than June when he struck seven extra-base hits (two homers and five doubles) within a 24-hour span, including a walk-off homer June 27th to defeat Toronto. Bregman and Springer homered in the All-Star Game with Bregman taking the MVP in an 8-6 American League triumph. He was also the ringleader in several pranks and stunts, particularly in the dugout after home runs. The dugout staredown became a late-season staple of celebrations. Bregman finished fifth in league MVP voting.
Coming off the bench were outfielders Tony Kemp (.263, 6, 30) and Jake Marisnick (.211, 10, 28) along with infielder and DH Tyler White (.276, 12, 42). Others were tried including top prospect Kyle Tucker (.141, 0, 4) and Derek Fisher (.165, 4, 11) who could not take advantage of opportunities.
Springer opened the season with a home run for the second consecutive year. He later had a 6-for-6 performance during a 16-2 destruction of Oakland on May 7th, the second time in franchise history and the first time in a nine-inning game. Gattis also teed off on Oakland pitching during a June 12-13 road trip where he drove home five runs in consecutive games while smashing three homers.
The division wasn't clinched until the wee hours of September 26th so the team had only a week to rest and retool. There were questions about who would be put on the playoff roster to face Cleveland. Peacock and Rondon were among those left off despite being major contributors. Hinch went with hot hands including James and speedster Myles Straw (.333, 1, 1) who made their big league debuts in September.
The ALDS... (Full Recap)
No problemo. The Astros blew through the Central Division champs in three straight without much challenge. A four-homer parade by Alex Bregman, George Springer, Jose Altuve and Martin Maldonado led a 7-2 thumping in Game 1 with Justin Verlander outdueling Corey Kluber. In Game 2, Gerrit Cole gave up a solo homer to Francisco Lindor but held on until Houston scored three times for a 3-1 victory. Marwin Gonzalez spanked a two-run double in the sixth then Bregman tacked on a solo homer in the seventh. The story was no different in Cleveland where George Springer went deep twice in an 11-3 Game 3 clincher. Carlos Correa added a three-run homer late to nail the Cleveland coffin.
The ALCS... (Full Recap)
The Astros broke out of a 2-2 tie for a 7-2 Game 1 triumph in Boston and Houston's confidence could not have been higher. However, momentum changed in Game 2 and the Red Sox rode it into a three-game sweep in Houston and 4-1 series victory to move onto the World Series. Springer's bat stayed hot in Game 2 and Marwin Gonzalez went deep before the bullpen began to show cracks in the 7-5 setback.
In Game 3, Dallas Keuchel dueled Nathan Eovaldi to a 2-2 tie before ex-Astro Steve Pearce homered off Joe Smith then Jackie Bradley smashed a grand slam against Roberto Osuna for an 8-2 Boston final. In a back-and-forth donnybrook, the Red Sox outlasted Houston in Game 4, 8-6, where Bradley again had a key homer. Astro fans will point to the two-run homer taken away from Altuve on what was called fan interference in the right field stands. The Astros loaded the bases in the ninth only to end with a diving stab by left fielder Andrew Benintendi that gave Boston a 3-1 series lead. David Price outpitched Verlander in Game 5 to complete Boston's series win. They would go on to defeat the Dodgers in the World Series.
The Astros had to rebuild a roster where seven players left in free agency. Fans pondered about a team that won more than any other in franchise history yet never seemed to find their stride as they had the year before.
1st Place, AL West
Dec 11, 2017 - Signed Tim Federowicz (C) as a free agent
Dec 13, 2017 - Signed Joe Smith (P) as a free agent
Dec 15, 2017 - Signed Hector Rondon (P) as a free agent
Dec 20, 2017 - Traded Preston Tucker (OF) to ATL-N for PTBNL
Jan 13, 2018 - Traded Colin Moran (IF), Michael Feliz (P), Joe Musgrove (P) and minor leaguer Jason Martin (OF) to PIT-N for Gerrit Cole (P)
Jul 6, 2018 - Traded James Hoyt (P) to CLE-A for minor leaguer Tommy DeJuneas (P)
Jul 16, 2018 - Traded minor leaguer Patrick Sandoval (P) to LA-A for Martin Maldonado (C)
Jul 26, 2018 - Designated Tim Federowicz (C) for assignment, opted for free agency
Jul 27, 2018 - Traded minor leaguers Jorge Alcala (P) and Gilberto Celestino (OF) to MIN-A for Ryan Pressly (P)
Jul 30, 2018 - Traded Ken Giles (P), David Paulino (P) and minor leaguer Hector Perez (P) to TOR-A for Roberto Osuna (P)