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 will have some new rules to adjust to in 2023. Composite image by Brandon Strange.

If you are savvy enough to read next week’s column, you will be doing so with spring training underway in Florida and Arizona. Hip, hip, hooray! Astros pitchers and catchers have their first workout scheduled for next Thursday, with the full squad due early the following week ahead of games starting February 25. Spring training baseball is not meant to be exciting, but the major rules changes that will take effect this season will be in full effect in the Grapefruit and Cactus Leagues, making spring games more interesting to follow.

The biggest change is the death of infield shifts. As reminder or to get up to speed, the first and second baseman must now always be aligned on the first base side of second while the shortstop and third baseman must both be on the third base side of second. Plus, all infielders must have both feet on the dirt of the infield.

There are legitimate points to be made as to why shifts should be allowed, and also why modifying the rules makes sense. I get the argument that if hitters can’t take advantage of an open side of the infield, shame on them. However, taking advantage of a shift is not as easy as it looks.

The best argument against shifts is that they clearly more penalized left-handed hitters. You think Kyle Tucker and Yordan Alvarez will miss losing some hits on balls smashed on one hop 30 or 40 feet into the outfield only to have a second baseman make the play? If once every other week Tuck or Yordan picks up a hit that the shift would have taken away, over 500 at bats, that’s about a 25 point difference in batting average. Defenses couldn’t shift in the same fashion against right-handed hitters because unless the batter/runner has Martin Maldonado or Albert Pujols level (non)speed, throwing guys out at first from 30 or 40 feet out in left field is not viable.

Welcome the pitch clock. There will be griping from some pitchers and hitters. Suck it up buttercups! Adapt or die. In the minor leagues the pitch clock knocked off 20-25 minutes from the average game length. The average big league game should not take more than three hours. For darn sure a 3-1 or 4-2 game shouldn’t take more than three hours.

With no runners on base a pitcher has 15 seconds from when he gets the ball to start his motion, with runner(s) on base 20 seconds. Failure to comply is an automatic ball. It’s called the pitch clock but batters are on notice too. There is simply no need for batters to be stepping out of the batter’s box to contemplate the meaning of life every pitch or two. Batters not in the box and ready when the clock gets down to eight seconds get an automatic strike. There are several exceptions, such as a batter gets one timeout per plate appearance,

The bases themselves are 20 percent larger. Instead of 15 inches square they are now 18 inches square which serves a couple of purposes. There will be a bit more space for infielders to avoid baserunners at the bags. That’s sensible. We’ve all heard “Baseball is a game of inches.” Legendary General Manager Branch Rickey is credited with coining the phrase. Rickey is also the guy who brought Jackie Robinson to the Major Leagues, and the guy who basically invented the farm system.

Anyway, back to game of inches. The larger bases shorten the distance between first and second, and second and third base, by four and a half inches. A massive change it is not, but a meaningful change it is. Think of the close calls on stolen base attempts, or a runner going from first to third on a single. It’s not mastering advanced calculus to get that a shorter distance between bases makes it easier to successfully get to the next one. Anything that increases the value of speed in the game is a good thing.

Base stealing will also be impacted by the new pickoff limitations rule. Say Jose Altuve leads off with a single. Up comes Jeremy Pena. The pitcher gets two “disengagements” during Pena’s at bat. Pickoff attempts and stepping off the rubber both count as “disengagement.” A third disengagement not resulting in a pickoff is an automatic balk. Does Altuve take a huge lead to draw pickoff throws knowing that after two non-pickoffs he gets a big advantage?

Might any unintended consequences result from the rules changes? Let’s find out.

Can I interest you in an Astros podcast?

Stone Cold ‘Stros is the weekly Astro-centric podcast I am part of alongside Brandon Strange and Josh Jordan. On our regular schedule it airs live at 3PM Monday on the SportsMapHouston YouTube channel, is available there for playback at any point, and also becomes available in podcast form at outlets galore. Such as:

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