DON'T COUNT 'EM OUT

Ken Hoffman's grand-slam reminder that the Astros can still take it back

The Astros have proven they can win when it counts. Photo by Elsa/Getty Images

This article originally appeared on CultureMap.

Win or lose (stop worrying — the Astros have not yet begun to fight in the World Series), this has been the team's greatest, and my favorite, season ever. I've been to more games at Minute Maid Park, and watched more games on ATT SportsNet, and enjoyed every minute, all the wins and even the losses. Thankfully there were more wins, 107 of them, the most in Astros history.

Rooting for the good guys

It's corny to say the Astros are the good guys, but they really are. After they won the American League pennant, and the players' families came onto the field, it looked like parents day at sleepaway camp.

When Jose Altuve blasted a walk-off 2-run homer in the bottom of the ninth inning to send the Astros to the World Series, the ball disappearing over the fence was only the third-sweetest image of the night. No. 2 was Altuve bunching his shirt together as he rounded third base so his teammates couldn't tear it off him — "The last time they did that, I got in trouble with my wife." The best moment was Altuve's 2-year-old daughter Melanie running into daddy's arms.

Real winners

This was the year only two pitchers won 20 games, and all of them were Astros. Justin Verlander finished 21-6, including a no-hitter. Gerrit Cole was 20-5 and the last time he lost a regular season game was back in prehistoric May. One of them will be named the American League's Cy Young Award winner in a few weeks.

Yordan Alvarez is a sure shot to win American League Rookie of the Year. He socked 27 homers and batted .313 after being called up in June. And the American League Most Valuable Player Award surely belongs to Alex Bregman, who clubbed 41 homers and drove in 112 runs. They say in sports, the best ability is availability. Well, between May 25 and June 18, Astros All-Stars Jose Altuve, George Springer, and Carlos Correa all were out with injuries. Bregman played every game and carried the Astros to a 14-8 record during that stretch. And Bregman really didn't kick his season into high gear until July. That's an MVP. Yeah, he's a cocky brat, but he's our cocky brat and we love him.

The MVP, Cy Young winner, Rookie of the Year, and Manager of the Year?

It will be the first time in baseball history that one team boasted the MVP, the Cy Young winner and Rookie of the Year. But it shouldn't stop there. A.J. Hinch absolutely deserves to be Manager of the Year. The Astros lineup is loaded, sure, but it takes a calm, mature hand to keep the clubhouse together and egos in check. Hinch has a fun side, too, playing along with announcer Julia Morales for touristy vignettes in baseball cities on the road.

And when it hit the fan, and an Astros official hurled inappropriate comments toward female reporters, and Astros executives botched the team's response, and still won't come clean on details, it was Hinch who stood tall in the clubhouse and said, no, The Astros will not tolerate any behavior like this, no way, under no circumstances.

That's a leader.

Even the ballpark food is a winner

Mat Drain, the Grand Poobah of Pickles, and his Aramark staff at Minute Maid Park stepped up their game this year, too. New items included Smoked Pork Burnt Ends Topped Tots, Calabrese Shrimp Sandwich, Frito Pie Corn Dog, and my choice, a simple but elegant Prime Rib Sandwich. And for dessert, how's Kahlua Tiramisu sound?

You practically had to eat with your pinky out this year. Smoked Pork Burnt Ends Topped Tots? Might be time to for Human Resources to check Drain for performance-enhancing Blue Bell. There were 13 Dollar Dog Nights at Minute Maid Park. In Houston, fans get a regular-sized frank on Dollar Dog Night. Other cities go cheap with smaller dogs that should have a toothpick stuck in them.

Kudos to the TV team

Here's how dominant our Astros were this season. If I got home a few innings late and turned on ATT SportsNet, I was shocked when the Astros were trailing in the game. I always expected them to be up 4-1. Our broadcast team of Todd Kalas, Geoff Blum, and Julia Morales was solid from spring training to the last game of the regular season. You didn't realize how wonderful they are until you listened to how horrible the Fox announcers were.

Step up, Astros fans

Buck up, Astros fans, the World Series is not over by a longshot, which if you listen to the oddsmakers, that's what the Astros are. Mattress Mack and I are still betting on them. Me in a theoretical sense, Mack in every sports book from Mississippi to Vegas.

Altuve, the greatest Astro ever, started slowly this season due to an injury. He was hitting .262 at the halfway mark. I remember a radio caller asking the host if he thought Altuve could get back to .300 this year. The announcer said nope, we're too deep into the schedule. Oh yeah? Altuve was over .300 less than two months later and finished at .298 with a career-best 31 homers. He's clutch in the post-season, too: 13 home runs in only 45 games.

Continue on CultureMap for Ken Hoffman's final thoughts on why he's not giving up on the Astros.

Houston accused of more wrongdoing

New report of illegal sign-stealing puts Astros back under scrutiny

Jason Behnken / Getty Images

Back in 2017, the Houston Astros could be considered the darlings of the MLB. They helped pull a Harvey-ravaged city out of despair and into a celebration in a matter of months with the acquisition of Justin Verlander and subsequent World Series victory. The young team full of potential suddenly had the attention of not only fans but other MLB clubs and the league's front office.

On Tuesday, that attention reared itself yet again in a severely negative way, with the Athletic reporting (subscription required) that former-Astro Mike Fiers was alleging and confirming that his former team used illegal means to steal signs in their 2017 championship season. Fiers, along with three other anonymous sources with the team in 2017, claims that the team used cameras and other technology to monitor opposing catchers to relay signs to batters in real-time. The Astros have released the following statement:

"Regarding the story posted by The Athletic earlier today, the Houston Astros organization has begun an investigation in cooperation with Major League Baseball. It would not be appropriate to comment further on this matter at this time."

While GM Jeff Luhnow had this to say:

Another negative blow to the team's reputation

This is not the first time the Astros have been under a microscope in recent years, the most recent being less than a month ago when assistant general manager Brandon Taubman taunted reporters in the Astros clubhouse following their ALCS series-clinching win. The Astros fumbled that event, coming out with a rebuttal against the reporter, which would eventually be retracted, and Taubman terminated from his employment.

Neither is this the first time the Astros have dealt with accusations of sign-stealing and other forms of cheating. In this year's ALCS, the Yankees complained about a "whistling" noise from Houston's dugout they believed to be a method of relaying pitches to batters at the plate. Also, in the 2018 postseason, the Astros found themselves under fire for having an employee taking photos of the opposing team's dugout.

It's just part of the game until it's not

Both pitch tipping and stealing signs are things that are nearly unavoidable in baseball. With the catcher having to relay a sign to the pitcher 60.5 feet away using his hands, the opposing team will inevitably try to decipher what's coming. The same is true of tipping, where if a pitcher has a tell before a specific pitch, that information will quickly spread through the dugout.

However, there is a line teams should not cross, and that comes by way of utilizing technology to aid further the ability to steal signs, and using that to give an immediate advantage to a batter amid an at-bat. The Astros are not the first team to be alleged of this type of grievance, as the Red Sox received a fine after utilizing a smartwatch to try and steal signs.

It's a widely known and accepted fact that teams will try anything within reason to get a leg up on their opponent. However, with technology ever improving both for organizations to use and be caught by, it's no surprise that this is becoming an issue that the MLB will have to deal with, and soon.

Ramifications could loom large

Will the Astros be found guilty and made an example of to deter other teams for trying similar tactics? It appears we will have to wait for the conclusion of this investigation to find out. While it may not be an indictment of the entire team, it will bring into question the integrity and character of many of the team.

Still, no matter the outcome, the report alone and continued negativity surrounding the Astros organization has made them villains of many, a role that many would not have expected this team to play if asked just two years ago.

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