'The Greatest Team I've Ever Seen': Astros Playing for History in World Series

Scott Miller@@ScottMillerBblNational MLB ColumnistOctober 22, 2019

Houston Astros' Jose Altuve, right, and starting pitcher Justin Verlander celebrate after winning Game 6 of baseball's American League Championship Series against the New York Yankees Saturday, Oct. 19, 2019, in Houston. The Astros won 6-4 to win the series 4-2. (AP Photo/Matt Slocum)
Photo by Cooper Neill/MLB Photos via Getty Images

History comes packaged in all sorts of shapes and sizes, and one of its oddest landed in manager A.J. Hinch's mailbox following the Houston Astros' 2017 World Series title.

It was an Iowa license plate from Floyd County, personalized "AJHINCH," courtesy of a man named A.J. Hintgen (pronounced HINCH-en). The accompanying letter read in part:

"I got replacement plates (still AJHINCH) a couple of years ago. I have one of the old ones on the wall in my office and this is the other one. I never thought about sending it to you until this happened again the other night coming out of the grocery store. A woman stopped me and told me that she took a picture of my truck and sent it to her husband with the message: 'I think he's at Hy-Vee.'

"She explained that she was related to you and was excited that you might be home for Thanksgiving. Honestly, she seemed really disappointed that it wasn't you."

Born in Iowa, Hinch had moved to Oklahoma as a young boy, and his visits to the Hawkeye State are not regular. But his father is buried in Waverly, Iowa, and he estimates he still has some 40 or so relatives in the area.

"The World Series is a coming-out party for a lot of people," says Hinch, who isn't exactly the type of person who would drive around with a vanity plate featuring his own name, anyway. "You don't really think of it that way, but we're on TV so much on the highest stage."

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Now the Washington Nationals present the final obstacle between Hinch's Astros and a place in history that stretches far beyond Houston or, yes, even a grocery store parking lot in Iowa.

Already, these Astros have smashed their franchise record with 107 regular-season wins. Their pitchers recorded the most strikeouts in the majors (1,671), and their hitters recorded the fewest (1,166). Their offense set an MLB record with a .495 slugging percentage, and its .848 OPS tied for 10th all-time.

Increasingly as summer gave way to fall, the Astros were being spoken of with a reverence belonging to just a few ballclubs throughout history.

"They're the greatest team I've ever seen," says one American League manager who, like so many who took their lumps from the Astros this season, would only talk in private because he prefers not to genuflect in public.

"I'd agree with that," one longtime American League scout says. "Definitely one of the greatest teams I've ever seen. The way they hit, pitch … there are no weaknesses."

In truth, it's hard to find any when you win 100 or more games in three consecutive years. Previously, only five MLB franchises had done that: the Yankees (2002-04), Braves (1997-99), Orioles (1969-71), Cardinals (1942-44) and Philadelphia Athletics (1929-31). And if the Astros can win four more games, they will join those Cardinals and Athletics as the only teams to win two World Series in the three years they topped the century mark.

Season-long murmurs about the Astros' potential for all-time greatness turned into a buzz by the time they added Zack Greinke to a rotation led by Justin Verlander and Gerrit Cole at the July trade deadline. They finished the season with a stunning five hitters carrying a .900 or higher OPS: Yordan Alvarez (1.067), Alex Bregman (1.015), George Springer (.974), Carlos Correa (.926) and Jose Altuve (.903). They just missed a sixth (Yuli Gurriel, .884) and seventh (Michael Brantley, .875).

Alex Bregman helped anchor a lineup that posted a major-league record .495 slugging percentage this season.
Alex Bregman helped anchor a lineup that posted a major-league record .495 slugging percentage this season.Chris O'Meara/Associated Press

To post such staggering slugging numbers while striking out so little is one of the greatest tricks an offense can turn. And in this Big Strikeout era, contact plus slugging is one enormous key to the Astros' success.

"It's big," Bregman says. "Guys try to throw up good at-bats whether it's grinding out a long at-bat or hitting a homer or getting a two-strike hit the other way. Whatever it is, guys are just trying to pass the torch to the next guy. And when we do that, our offense is lethal."

As they blasted their way toward a franchise record for victories in September, there was a distinct sense around the Astros that they were keenly aware they are playing for something more than simply another World Series title. They are playing for a place in history as potentially one of the greatest teams ever assembled.

"We know there are a lot of expectations about being great, and we want to be better than people think we are," Bregman said during the season's final week in September. "Every day when we show up, we want to win that game, and we think we can win.

"But it's no easy task because there are some great teams."

The Astros boxed up and sent home the Yankees on Saturday night, eliminating them from the ALCS for the second time in three seasons. And this year's Yankees won 103 games.

Bregman thinks the current Astros are the best team on which he's ever played…but with a qualifier.

"We already had a team that won the World Series in 2017," he said on that September day. "So I'll put this team ahead of them if we win."

Indeed, winning validates everything. The 1998 Yankees set an American League record with 114 wins, but few remember that the 2001 Seattle Mariners broke that mark with 116 wins. Unfortunately for those Mariners, they're easily forgotten because they were bounced from the postseason in the ALCS by the Yankees. Not with a bang, but with a whimper…

Following every significant win this season, the Astros privately acknowledged the moment in a brief clubhouse tribute that included a testimonial and the awarding of a wizard-like robe to the player who achieved a milestone. The ceremony not only kept them in the moment; it also educated them about the importance of the achievement and what it meant to the player who accomplished the feat. What these guys know and appreciate about each of their teammates is extraordinary. Different folks define the term "good teammate" in their own ways, but one universal aspect of the definition is being self-aware enough to acknowledge what others accomplish.

The Astros have made a point of celebrating not only their signature wins, but also acknowledging the accomplishments of individual players, an effort geared toward allowing the team to appreciate the success it is enjoying.
The Astros have made a point of celebrating not only their signature wins, but also acknowledging the accomplishments of individual players, an effort geared toward allowing the team to appreciate the success it is enjoying.Bob Levey/Getty Images

Talk to Correa and he'll tick off the list of teammates with an OPS above .900. Talk to Verlander and he'll cite some of Cole's top numbers—numbers that are so close to Verlander's that the two likely will finish one-two in this year's AL Cy Young voting. (With Bregman having closed fast on AL MVP favorite Mike Trout and Alvarez the clear favorite for the AL Rookie of the Year Award, the Astros could become the first team to employ all three of the major award winners in a single season.)

"We just have really special players, [and] not just from a statistical standpoint, but [guys like] Jose Altuve, what a storybook career," Cole says. "Three years of losing 100 games followed by three years of winning 100 games. Alex Bregman being the type of player that he is. Having the greatest Cuban hitter [in a rookie season, Alvarez] on our team, and Nolan Ryan reincarnated…"

Cole pauses here and nods his head in the direction of Verlander, who threw his third career no-hitter at Toronto on Sept. 1, as he name-checks the Hall of Famer Ryan, who now serves as an adviser to team owner Jim Crane.

"They already won one World Series," Cole says respectfully, a tacit reminder that he was pitching for Pittsburgh at the time. "It just seems to be part of their legacy."

As for Cole, he's making a legacy of his own. He is 19-0 in his past 25 starts and has not lost a game since May 22. It is the longest winning streak in 107 years, since Rube Marquard started 19-0 for the New York Giants in 1912. Each of his wins (20) and strikeouts (an MLB-leading 326) this season, though, came against the backdrop of a sobering thought: His time here likely is short. Acquired in a trade with Pittsburgh before the 2018 season, he is a free agent this winter, and clearly has positioned himself to command a David Price type of deal (seven years, $217 million), one the Astros may not be willing to extend to him.

As they chase historical greatness, the Astros are painfully aware of how fragile any place in this game can be, that history is earned, not automatically awarded. They do not need the 2001 Mariners to remind them of this.

"We learned that last year," Bregman says quickly, referencing a game-turning play in Game 2 of last year's ALCS that helped doom Houston with Cole on the mound. "Gerrit's pitching and a ball rolls along the wall in Fenway.

"I've never seen anything like it."

For a team to truly be remembered across the ages, Bregman correctly notes, "the ball's got to bounce your way and everybody's got to stay healthy and you've got to play your best baseball at the end of the year."

So, yes, if they can blow through Max Scherzer, Stephen Strasburg and the rest of Washington, the Astros will accomplish a feat that hasn't happened since the '44 Cardinals, when Stan "The Man" Musial was on the field and Franklin Delano Roosevelt was in the Oval Office.

Indeed, the pressure is on. Of the four 100-win teams in the majors this season, the Astros are the only club left standing. But the Astros have been trying to heed one of new Angels manager Joe Maddon's pet sayings when he was guiding the Cubs: "Never permit the pressure to exceed the pleasure."

Hinch has tried to pass on a similar philosophy to his club.

"If you don't enjoy it while it's like this, I don't think you'll ever enjoy it," Hinch says. "I had a really good conversation with [former Yankees manager] Joe Girardi in 2017 when we eliminated them in ALCS. He stopped by my office, had his own run of success and reminded me as manager to continue to enjoy it.

"I've had that advice from Tony La Russa, Charlie Manuel, Dusty Baker, even Bobby Cox way back when I first started managing. This has been a common theme among managers that I hope to someday give advice to a different manager: When you have a team like this, despite that nothing is guaranteed, you have to enjoy every bit of this. Celebrate every accomplishment.

The 19-game win streak Gerrit Cole will bring into the World Series is the longest in the majors in more than 100 years.
The 19-game win streak Gerrit Cole will bring into the World Series is the longest in the majors in more than 100 years.Elsa/Getty Images

"And we do that all the time when somebody wins their 20th game, Gerrit Cole's 300th strikeout, Zack Greinke's 200th win, Altuve setting the record for home runs among Astros second basemen. All of that and more needs to be brought to light in a clubhouse of very accomplished guys."

All of that and more is being brought to light daily, once again, in this postseason as the Astros have powered their way past the Rays and Yankees.

Now, four more wins over the Nationals, whose 74-38 mark since May 24 was bettered only by Houston's 74-37, and that light will turn eternal.


Scott Miller covers Major League Baseball as a national columnist for Bleacher Report. Follow Scott on Twitter and talk baseball.

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