The Houston Astros may not win the World Series this season. May not even make it past the Indians or the Yankees. But what they reminded us of in their American League Division Series against the Red Sox, one that ended with a wildly entertaining Game 4 that saw both Justin Verlander and Chris Sale pitch out of the bullpen for their teams, is that they are the most entertaining baseball team on the planet. Watching them play hardball is like watching the Golden State Warriors play basketball.
They are Jose Altuve, whom another old Houston second baseman named Joe Morgan calls the best player in the game, and Carlos Correa. They are Verlander and Dallas Keuchel, two past AL Cy Young Award winners. They are a gifted player named Marwin Gonzalez, who seems capable of playing every position except replay reviewer, and George Springer. And vets like Carlos Beltran and Brian McCann and Josh Reddick. So they are young and old. They are the very best of modern analytics and -- really -- modern science in baseball combined with a wonderful and joyful old-school swagger.
Now here they are in the American League Championship Series for the first time in the team's history, because all the other best history for the Astros -- absent a World Series title for their city and their fans -- was in the National League. They absolutely seem to be finishing the season the way they started it. There is no tougher batting order, top to bottom, not in New York or Chicago or Los Angeles or anywhere, in baseball.
Yeah. Here they are, with a chance to catch their breath while they wait to see whether they start the ALCS at home against the Yankees or on the road against the Indians; while they continue to lift a city wounded so gravely by Hurricane Harvey.
"We got a ton of energy, we got a ton of athleticism and we have a lot of different players that are in different parts of their career," the Astros manager, A.J. Hinch, said after Game 4 in Boston. "We got some young guys getting here who came up huge. Alex Bregman's home run [off Chris Sale, eighth inning, tying the game at three-all]. And then you have some veterans with Beltran and McCann and Reddick … To see all that come together into one of the closest-knit teams I've ever been around, I'm very proud as manager because they represent the Astros, they represent the city of Houston, ultimately me as their manager. You walk into that room every day and you're happy to be there."
I saw this for myself during their first Spring Training at The Ballpark of the Palm Beaches, a wonderful facility they share with the Nationals, when it was all ahead of them. A live clubhouse isn't something you just hear, or see, it is something you feel. Now the country sees it on the field. Altuve hits three home runs in Game 1. Bregman hits one off Chris Sale when Sale started, and then hit the big one off Sale after Sale had pitched four brilliant innings in relief in Game 4. Springer hit .412 against the Red Sox. Reddick hit .375. Beltran, who knocked in what turned out to be the winning run in Game 4, hit .400. Altuve was a fast .533. And, oh by the way? The first baseman, Yuli Gurriel, hit .529 and acted as if this Division Series was his coming-out party.
Verlander still hasn't lost as an Astro, even if Andrew Benintendi took him right out of Fenway when Verlander came out of the 'pen. He and Keuchel will both be fully rested for the ALCS. The Astros were up two games on the Red Sox, won both of them 8-2, and it was all a breeze. Then they got clobbered on Sunday afternoon and got behind in Game 4. They came on then, the way they came on at the end of the regular season. Man, they are fun to watch.
In Boston on Monday, Hinch was asked a question about what the Astros had done for their city in the shadow of Hurricane Harvey and what the city had likewise done for them.
"The city of Houston is still rebuilding," he said, "and it's easy for us to look in the rearview mirror and think that the hurricane is over … [but] the rebuild is not going to stop for a long time … We're proud to wear that 'Houston Strong' patch. It was very emotional, probably the most emotion I've ever had on a baseball field the day we [came back after the storm] and played that doubleheader, when you had our city underwater."
"We want to win," Hinch continued. "We want to win for them, we want to win for us, because we showed up in Spring Training to try to win the World Series."
Most of them say that in the spring, when it is all ahead of everybody. But the Astros believed it. They were built to win this season, only then it seemed their general manager, Jeff Luhnow, a new-age executive with his own old-school sensibilities, hadn't done enough at the end of July to make them better, when just about all the other contenders had. Then, 'round midnight at the end of August, he went and got Verlander, who won Game 1 against the Red Sox as a starter and Game 4 as a reliever.
So they are in the final four now, four wins away from the organization's first World Series since 2005. And they can see how tough the field still is. They see the Dodgers playing the way they did when we thought they might win 115 games or more. They see how tough an out the Cubs still are, carving out the kind of one-run win against Max Scherzer they did on Monday after the Astros had finished off the Red Sox. They will watch along with everybody on Wednesday night to see if the Indians -- who might be out of business already if Joe Girardi had challenged that hit-by-pitch call on Lonnie Chisenhall -- can figure out a way to finish off the Yankees, who clearly believe they are playing with house money right now.
The best show out of all of them is the Astros. Young and old, top to bottom, righty ace and lefty ace, tall and short. Might they be a relief pitcher short? Yeah, they very well might be in the end. Just don't try to tell them that right now. Watching them play ball really is like watching Steph and Durant and them. Four months after the Warriors finished as strong as they did, the Houston Strong Astros try to do the same.