You always go back to something the late Frank Cashen, a great baseball man, once said. It was 30 years ago this summer, and Cashen's Mets had won 108 regular season games and eight more in the playoffs the year before and finally won the World Series in seven games against the Red Sox, mostly because crazy things -- Mookie things, Buckner things -- happened in the bottom of the 10th of Game 6.
Cashen had built those Mets, not just for one year, but a lot of years. They had young talent and veteran talent and pitching. Then Dwight Gooden started the '87 season in rehab and there were all these injuries to their other starters, the last to Ron Darling in September when they had somehow gathered themselves to make one last run at the Cardinals.
So there was a day in the Mets dugout when Cashen was talking about that, and about the vagaries of baseball, really about how you can never take anything for granted.
"You only get so many chances to win in this game," Cashen said, talking about a team that did win one Series, but never won another.
The Astros have a chance to win this season. They are young and deep and brought in veterans like Carlos Beltran and Brian McCann and Josh Reddick to prop up all the young talent in the room. The Astros absolutely looked like the champion of the regular season until the Dodgers caught them and passed them and got to 70 wins first. And maybe the Astros, despite their own injuries, despite the fact that Carlos Correa is hurt right now and their ace Dallas Keuchel has been on the disabled list twice already, might still catch and pass the Dodgers now that Clayton Kershaw is hurt and Kershaw's manager, Dave Roberts, says there is no timetable for his return.
This is the moment, clearly, for the Astros to make their run, not just to the American League West title, but deep into the playoffs. It would be some payoff to the fans who keep pouring through the turnstiles at Minute Maid Park, and a payoff on all the promise they have shown over the past couple of years.
But the Astros need pitching, even at 67-33. They need starting pitching and they need another relief pitcher. It hardly makes them unique in the season we are watching. But after the 100 games they've played, they need to make some real noise this October. You only get so many chances to win.
There are so many teams, as always, with big decisions to make about themselves before the Trade Deadline. But the Astros, who have been so much fun to watch so far, more fun than anybody, might have the biggest decision of all to make about their postseason prospects, and which farm-system prospects they might be willing to deal as a way of dealing themselves deep into October. They don't want to win the West going away, and then lose in the first-round to the AL team that wins the Wild Card Game, or to anybody.
After the 100 games they have played this season, the last thing the Astros want to be is one of those 100-win teams that couldn't do the job when the money was thrown on the table.
The boneyard in October is littered with teams like that, most notably Lou Piniella's 2001 Mariners, who finished that regular season with a record of 116-46 and then not only didn't make the World Series, didn't make it past the Yankees in the AL Championship Series. Piniella's Mariners never won, and the Indians of the 1990s, who were loaded, never won even though they made it to the World Series twice. The Washington Nationals were so sure they were built to last that they didn't let Stephen Strasburg pitch in the postseason of 2012 because of an innings count. The Nationals didn't make it out of the first round against the Cardinals, because they decided that their plan for Strasburg's long-term health was more important than giving themselves their best chance at the title that year.
Strasburg later got hurt anyway. The 2017 Nationals are knocking on the door again. They have their own decisions to make over the next week.
The Yankees, who are also being built to last, aren't waiting around. They already made one deal, for Todd Frazier and David Robertson and Tommy Kahnle, and are supposed to be in it big with the A's for Sonny Gray. The Dodgers are one of the teams to which Yu Darvish's name has been attached. The Nationals are apparently looking for pitching everywhere except Robert Mueller's team.
But you keep coming back to the Astros, and how much they might be willing to pay to get the kind of payoff, this year, that their fans not only expect, but demand. Keuchel has gotten hurt. Lance McCullers Jr. seems to have hit a wall, and gotten hit. Charlie Morton pitched a terrific game against the Phillies on Tuesday night. But you keep looking at this staff, and you have a right, if you're an Astros fan, to worry about it getting picked off in a five-game series.
The Astros might not have as many needs as some of the other contending teams. But they still have a need. To do something. Now.
Here is what the owner of the team, Jim Crane, said back in April about general manager Jeff Luhnow's program:
"When we sat down to hire him we figured it was going to be at least five years. The first year we really couldn't do much of anything and each year we've made some improvement; now the expectation is to get into the playoff position every year and stay in it."
Luhnow was hired in December of 2011. He has, by any measure, done a fine job building his baseball team. The Astros have Jose Altuve, the best all-around player in the game, and Correa and George Springer. Everybody knows about the Biblical stretch of losing the Astros had as this team was being built. Now they are in the sixth year of the process, in first place by a lot, an even better show so far than the Dodgers have been.
Twelve years ago the Astros made a run to the World Series, the only World Series appearance in franchise history. The year before, they had gone to Game 7 of the NLCS because they'd brought Roger Clemens and Andy Pettitte to Houston, and traded for Carlos Beltran in-season.
By the way? They know in Houston there are no guarantees even if you make a very big play. The Astros did that with Randy Johnson in 1998. He went 10-1 for them -- the team ended up winning 102 games and still lost in the first round of the playoffs to the Padres.
Now the Astros are back, in a big way. They are exciting, a joy to watch. It does seem to be their time, even if they contend for a long time. This era in Houston baseball started in 2012, the year that the Nationals didn't win it all because they didn't have Strasburg in October.
So the Nationals found out, the hard way, you only get so many chances. A lot of hard decisions this year, for a lot of teams. None harder than the ones in Houston.