HARRIS COUNTY – HOUSTON SPORTS AUTHORITY INSIDER

Astros gear up for what they hope is another magical run

Can the Astros do it again? Courtesy photo

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We are just hours away from first pitch in the ALDS and the city is buzzing. Has been since, well, last October.

A World Series title will do that to you.

Think about it. That 2017 trophy has been just about everywhere in the sprawling metro area – at least once. People stood in long lines just for the opportunity to take a selfie with the iconic symbol of best in the game.

And rings? The Astros gave out a quarter of a million replica rings over the last few months and, thanks to social media, we know putting those giant rings on small fingers never gets old. Neither does trying on – or coveting – the one your neighbor just picked up at the final regular-season series at Minute Maid.

Just like their Astros, Houstonians aren’t about to settle. One title for this team? Not happening. They’re thinking at least one more.

The last team to do that? The Yankees, who won three in a row from 1998-2000.

Come this afternoon, Minute Maid will be rocking. And, if Astros president Reid Ryan has his way, the Cleveland Indians will be staring at a sold-out sea of orange. #NeverSettle orange.

When he joined Mayor Sylvester Turner, Astros owner Jim Crane and General Manager Jeff Luhnow at Wednesday’s pep rally in front of City Hall, it was hard to tell who has more excited – the fans or Turner and Ryan.

“It’s neat to see the connection this team has had with the community,’’ Ryan said. “And having all these people out here, it’s got me fired up and ready to go. So lets go play some baseball.

“I’ve seen this Astros fan base over my life. The ‘80s and ‘90s and to be able to revive this and see how much passion for this team there is in the community, it was an easy sell to ask them to wear orange.’’

It was an easier sell to pack the place.   

A year ago, the Astros started as a distraction for Harvey-weary Houstonians and became their Northern Star. No matter how tough things were in flooded neighborhoods where people lost everything, the Astros’ electric playoff run gave them hope. And something to cheer about. #HoustonStrong.

Justin Verlander, a last minute addition in 2017, was a question mark in a way. No questioning his talent, but was he a fit for Jose Altuve, Dallas Keuchel, Alex Bregman and the rest of the team? It didn’t take long to realize it was silly to even wonder about that one.

Every series at least one someone stepped up. Every game – ALDS, ALCS and World Series -- was roller-coaster scary, scream-at-the-top-of-your-lungs and don’t-dare-fall-asleep crazy. Game 2 and Game 5 of the Series? They’re probably still on your DVR along with Game 7.

Three up. Three down. Storied franchises, that is. The Yankees. The Red Sox. And finally the Dodgers – in Game 7 at Dodger Stadium.

No wonder why the Ryan-Crane-Luhnow brain trust chose #NeverSettle for this year’s motto.

The 2018 regular season wasn’t picture-perfect. There were injuries, batting slumps and bullpen questions. There were also 103 wins, Bregman and those dug-out stares, Verlander’s Cy Young-worthy stats, Altuve, George Springer, Tyler White (aka Great White Shark), Tony Kemp and, well, the whole lineup.

The big difference? Defending a title.

“I won’t lie,’’ Ryan said. “Once you’ve won it all and you realize everyone is gunning for you, the pressure to keep on top is there. It’s real. And this is a great group.

“Jeff’s not going to settle, I’m not going to settle and Jim’s not going to settle. It’s the reason we came up with that as our mantra this year. We wanted people to know we wanted to do more than win a World Series. We want to win multiple World Series.’’

Added Luhnow, “I think our players know what’s in front of them. We have enough that haven’t been there yet, who want to get back there and wanna do this. We’ve got to stay focused.

“We still have the same core, but we’re probably a more talented team than we were last year.’’

With pitching additions of closer Roberto Osuna, right-hander Ryan Pressly and surprise ALDS roster addition rookie Josh James, the Astros have an edge on the mount.

Pressly said they’re ready for the Indians.

“I’m eager,’’ Pressly said. “I’m ready to get this thing going. It’s the anticipation that’s killing me. Yes, there’s been homework. Every night been going over film, scouting reports and making sure we’re mentally prepared to get after these guys.

“Their lineup is mentally tough. They’re in the situation they’re in right now because they’re good. We’re going to go out and we’re going to enjoy it.”

A year ago, everyone took turns with big plays and big moments and Bregman gave us a glimpse of what he’s brought to the table this year – a season that even Altuve touts as an MVP one.

"He never ceases to amaze me with how controlled he is in the big moments, whether it's any part of the game, any situation, any pitcher, any pressure situation," Astros manager AJ Hinch said. "He's had a ton of walk-offs, some of the biggest in franchise history."

That’s saying something on a team that was rotating highlight reel last fall.

But the Astros know this isn’t going to be easy. Starting today.

“They’re a good ball club,’’ Kemp said of Cleveland. “They’ve played us tough all season long. It’s going to be a good series. I’m pretty sure everyone is excited for it. It’s going to be a dogfight.’’

And it’s going to be loud. Or, as Kemp said, “energy at high volume.”

“Having the crowd into every single pitch, up on their feet making it loud, making it uncomfortable for the Indians . . .’’ Pressly said  pausing. “That helps us. (They’ll) be that 12th man, 11th man, 10th man or whatever you want to call it.’’

But the key? Kemp said it’s playing Astros baseball.

“We’re going to go in with a positive mindset,’’ Kemp said. “At the end of the day, it’s another day at the playground, another day to play baseball.

“But for a bigger meaning this time.”
Like #NeverSettle.


 

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The Astros suffered a heartbreaking loss to the Yankees Thursday. Composite image by Brandon Strange.

After an impressive two-game sweep of the NL-best Mets at home earlier in the week, the Astros took to the road to begin a four-game series with the league-best Yankees on Thursday night. To little surprise, the series started with a bang (no, not a trash can bang) in more ways than one, confirming that this series should be a must-watch this weekend.

New York's comeback proves no lead will be safe

Right from the get-go, the loud Yankee Stadium faithful had their chance to rain boos down on Jose Altuve before showing some pleasure as he led off the series by being hit by a pitch. They were quickly, though only temporarily, quieted as Altuve would come in to score two batters later on a three-run blast by Alex Bregman.

Three-run homers seemed to be a theme, as New York would get one of their own to tie the game off the bat of Giancarlo Stanton to tie the game, then Yordan Alvarez continued his dominant June by pushing the Astros back in front by three with another three-run bomb in the third, making it 6-3. That lead held through to the bottom of the ninth, where instead of holding it, Ryan Pressly issued two walks to set up the fourth homer of the game to tie things again before Aaron Judge would get a walk-off single to complete the impressive comeback.

Not only will we get to sit back and watch the slug-fest between Yordan and Judge this weekend, but it looks like with Alex Bregman swinging well again to round out the top of Houston's order, the Astros may be getting closer to their full power. So far in June, these two teams sit third and fourth in on-base percentage, with the Astros at .351 and the Yankees right behind at .350. That means we should continue to see scoring opportunities on both sides that can tilt momentum one way or the other as these lineups try to battle against the opposing pitcher.

How will the aces fare

Verlander vs. Judge, and Cole vs. Alvarez, need I say more? Although we won't see Justin Verlander go up against Gerrit Cole in the same game in this series (they should go head to head next Thursday, however), they will pitch on back-to-back days, with Houston's ace going Friday night and New York's on Saturday afternoon. Verlander is coming off his worst start of the year, a three and two-thirds inning outing where the White Sox put up seven runs, four earned, against him and knocked him out early to give him his third loss and increased his ERA from 1.94 to 2.30.

The last time he faced the Yankees was in the Bronx in the 2019 playoffs, in ALCS Game 5, where he went seven frames while allowing four runs, all on two homers in the first inning, which is all New York needed to grab the 4-1 victory to make it a 3-2 Houston lead in the series, which the Astros would go on to clinch in Game 6. So, with the double dose of bad taste in his mouth, it will be interesting to see if he can use that as the fuel to get back to the phenomenal form he's had this year or if the Yankees try to jump on him early like they did nearly three years ago.

Cole, meanwhile, is fresh off of two quality starts in a row against the Rays, where he allowed just one run on six hits with nineteen strikeouts over 13.1 innings of work. He's had his share of strife this season, though, including a seven-run shelling by the Twins earlier this month, along with a start in April where he couldn't make it through two innings against the Tigers. He's had success against his former club, most notably a complete-game shutout in Houston last July with twelve K's and holding the Astros to just three hits.

If the series opener was any indication, we are in for the treat of a playoff-caliber matchup, if not a potential ALCS preview that we may see in October. The Yankees showed why they have the best record and are the hottest team in baseball on Thursday night, but the Astros were only a good outing from their closer away from having a relatively lopsided win. The rivalry is real; the competition is close, and we get to enjoy the show.

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