KANSAS CITY, Mo. – For the first time in a dozen days, no music played. The Houston Astros’ clubhouse tends to rollick with laughter and pranks and other such frivolity that’s the natural outgrowth of 20-something men who spend a majority of their waking hours of the day together, and over the last two weeks – the last two months, really – it had a postgame accompaniment of music, which signified another victory. Eleven in a row. Forty-two in 58 tries. On pace for 117, more than any team ever.
Then came Tuesday night, one in which baseball’s natural order reminded that 11-game winning streaks are freakish and fluky even for the game’s best teams. And though by now all of Major League Baseball understands the Astros are one of those, a collection of precocious kids and just-the-right-kind-of-crusty veterans and keen management from the bench and the very same from the front office, a lead can evaporate, an out-of-hand game can still get away and an incredible run can die a lamentable death.
So went the Astros, ahead of the Kansas City Royals by six runs at 8:22 p.m., walking off the field almost exactly two hours later with the scoreboard reading Royals 9, Astros 7, heading for a postgame meal bathed in silence. Which wasn’t the worst thing by any means, considering their ascent to the top of the baseball kingdom, with no team thus far in a phylum or class near them.
This was always the plan, from the moment the Astros made an art of tanking, and to see it work in such dominant fashion is simultaneously breathtaking and harrowing. What the Chicago Cubs were last year – that’s these Astros, in more ways than one.
Pure numbers do a good job of explaining how good Houston has been. The Astros have scored more runs than any team in the game (326) and allowed the second fewest (222). Coming into Tuesday, they held a 14-game lead in the American League West – the single largest divisional lead in their franchise’s 56-year history, which, though impressive in and of itself, is exponentially more so considering it’s the first week of June. Here’s a good one: Their utilityman, who has played first base, second base, third base, shortstop, left field and right field, is hitting .314/.409/.636.
His name is Marwin Gonzalez. He is a 28-year-old switch hitter appreciated in baseball circles far more for his versatility than his bat. He always asked how he could play more. The response never changed: Improve your approach. So Gonzalez worked to erase a small hitch in his swing, found an appreciation for the strike zone and has nearly tripled his walk rate while cutting his strikeouts by almost a quarter.
He’s so good that manager A.J. Hinch shuffles his everyday lineup around to ensure Gonzalez a spot – and this, it turns out, is the other way in which they’re so similar to the Cubs. Not the skillful resourcefulness but the method by which Hinch will deliver it. As much as history will paint Theo Epstein and his lieutenants as quants at heart, the hiring of Joe Maddon as manager and the focus on players’ personalities was paramount to building the organization that won the World Series. Certainly they didn’t fully embody a character-first model – importing Aroldis Chapman at the trade deadline showed that – but that wasn’t the point. It was that analytics struggle to measure what they can’t quantify, and the Cubs recognized that and valued it anyway.
Hinch’s hiring in 2014 highlighted the Astros’ ability to function not merely as machine. Their metrics were the limo that took them to prom; Hinch was their date. And quite the catch: funny and intelligent, serious when he needs to be and ridiculous when he does. Like with playing Gonzalez. Earlier this season, Hinch called Alex Bregman, one of the Astros’ finest young talents, into his office. Hinch told Bregman he wasn’t in the lineup that day. Bregman did not take kindly to this, not out of disrespect but because, like Carlos Correa and Jose Altuve, he carries himself with a competitive mean streak that imbues the Astros with the sort of attitude reserved for teams stocked with graybeards.
To explain, Hinch turned around and grabbed his Astros cap. He told Bregman that Gonzalez needed to play, and in order to figure out who would sit out, he put the candidates’ names in the hat.
“So you picked my name?” Bregman said.
“No,” Hinch said. “I picked Correa’s, but there was no way I was sitting him, so I put it back in.”
And with that, all was well in the Astros’ world.
It’s easy to be savage when you’re playing .700 baseball, easy to be yourself, which Hinch finally believes he is. He has lived an interesting baseball life, seeing the world from the perspective of a backup catcher, the view of a front-office shot-caller and, first with Arizona and now the Astros, the seat of the manager. His tenure with the Diamondbacks was rocky. It’s also happened to make him perfect for these Astros.
“I think you evolve to understand it’s your job as a manager to reach the player,” Hinch said. “And they’re not all the same. Some need attention, some don’t. Some need conversations, some don’t. Some respond via text, some love the social media, some need a kick in the ass. So you have to be a little bit of everything. That means you need to be relatable to a lot of characteristics in the clubhouse.”
One look around the clubhouse and it’s obvious what he means. Whereas the 2015 Astros surprised even themselves in their ability to compete, the 2017 incarnation is the Astros fully realized. It’s not that the front office didn’t understand or respect the idea of balancing a clubhouse of kids with a group of older players comes with benefits. It’s that general manager Jeff Luhnow and his lieutenants recognized just how perfectly Brian McCann fit as catcher and Josh Reddick as right fielder and the ageless Carlos Beltran as designated hitter – and the fact that McCann and Beltran, in particular, could serve as not only the team’s elder conscience to offset Altuve and Correa and George Springer’s bedazzling presence but be Hinch’s check and balance made them all the more attractive.
“Guys always like to say their doors are open,” McCann said. “He truly means it. You can voice your opinion.”
McCann is 33 years old and in his 13th season. Never has he played past the division series. Beltran is 40 and in year No. 20. The only ring he has that matters is from his wedding. Even in the silence of the loss after Mike Moustakas hit a walk-off home run, they look around and shake their heads, amazed by what surrounds them daily. It’s Altuve and Correa and Springer siphoning MVP votes away from one another on the regular. It’s Dallas Keuchel pitching like the Cy Young winner he was two years ago and Lance McCullers Jr. doing so like he wants some hardware, too. It’s the bullpen that blew Tuesday’s game still striking out an inconceivable 11.6 hitters per nine innings, like it’s a seven-headed Randy Johnson. It’s Marwin Gonzalez hitting like Juan Gonzalez.
“I look position by position, and I see guys coming into the prime of their careers,” McCann said. “And I just hoped they would take their next step forward. Then you see their work ethic and how great they want to be, and we have that recipe. They’re all young. And they’re dynamic. It’s very scary.”
Scary is the right word because this may just be the beginning. The entirety of the core is here for at least this year and next. Houston’s farm system keeps churning out gems, either to add to a lineup that doesn’t need them or trade for a player they might need this October. Even with free agency on the horizon for Keuchel (after the 2018 season) and Altuve (2019), the Astros’ window is wide open for two years and shows no sign of shutting soon after that.
Nights like Tuesday will happen. The Astros won’t win 117 games. Both are quite all right. They are here, finally, in full, ready for that music to play far more often than it doesn’t.
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