The 2019 Houston Astros are the buzz saw that ran into a bigger, sharper and more destiny-infused buzz saw.
Consider what's left of them in the immediate aftermath of the 2019 World Series. Though they returned home to Minute Maid Park with a 3-2 series lead after outscoring the Washington Nationals 19-3 in Games 3, 4 and 5, the Nats straight-up tore them to shreds in Games 6 and 7.
The latter was a 6-2 loss on Wednesday night that managed to simultaneously punch the Astros in the gut, break their heart and pull their pants down.
Veteran ace Zack Greinke seemed to have things in hand with six scoreless innings out of the gate, but his 2-0 lead quickly evaporated in the seventh by way of a solo home run by Anthony Rendon and a two-run doink job by Howie Kendrick:
The Nationals tacked on three more runs on RBI singles by Juan Soto and Adam Eaton in the eighth and ninth innings, but they weren't needed. The Astros went quietly, putting only one runner on base in their final three turns at bat.
Three cheers for the Nationals. Their 2019 campaign began as an apparent transitional season following the loss of Bryce Harper to free agency, and it initially looked like as much when they got off to a 19-31 start. But they then won 74 of their next 112 games, and that comeback theme played out over and over again in the postseason en route to the first World Series championship in the franchise's 51-year history.
“You just don’t really know the outcome until you show up and you play the games,” Astros reliever Will Harris, who served Kendrick's game-breaking homer, told reporters, including MLB.com's Brian McTaggart. “They earned it. They beat us four times here, which is not easy to do. I just give them all the credit in the world.”
It would be understandable, however, if none of the Astros actually feel like the better team won.
After all, this particular Astros team was arguably better than even the 2018 iteration that won 103 games and the 2017 iteration that won 101 games and the World Series.
The '19 'Stros not only won 107 regular-season games, but they did so with an MLB-best plus-280 run differential. Such things were the inevitable results of an offense, defense, starting rotation and bullpen that all rated as elite.
The Astros will likely produce the MVP (Alex Bregman), Cy Young Award (Gerrit Cole) and Rookie of the Year (Yordan Alvarez) winners for the American League. Elsewhere on their roster are two previous Cy Young Award winners (Justin Verlander and Greinke) and one previous MVP (Jose Altuve) and Rookie of the Year (Carlos Correa) apiece. Then comes a parade of All-Stars including George Springer, Michael Brantley, Roberto Osuna, Will Harris and Ryan Pressly.
Yet the shine began to wear off the Astros when the Tampa Bay Rays pushed them to their limit in the American League Division Series. Though Houston escaped courtesy of a shutdown start by Cole in Game 5, the series proved the Astros were as capable of bleeding as your standard Predator.
Further trouble found the Astros in the American League Championship Series opposite the New York Yankees. Altuve's ninth-inning blast off Aroldis Chapman in Game 6 gave the Astros the final say, but their performance in the series was more so defined by an inability to hit in the clutch. They went just 5-for-46 with runners in scoring position.
Rather than wither up and die, those roots continued to grow in the World Series. In their three wins at Nationals Park, the Astros offense came through with 11 hits in 28 at-bats with runners in scoring position. But in their four losses at home, they went 4-for-29 in such situations.
Everything culminated in a masterclass in how not to hit in the clutch in Game 7. Beyond going 1-for-8 with runners in scoring position, the Astros also stranded 10 runners on base.
Much of their bumbling took place against Washington ace Max Scherzer. He had neither his best stuff nor his best command, and the Astros had him on the ropes numerous times in the process of getting to him for seven hits and four walks in five innings. But in the end, the three-time Cy Young Award winner Houdini'd his way into coughing up only two runs.
The deterioration of Houston's offense in the ALCS and the World Series only put more pressure on the club's allegedly unparalleled rotation trio. Cole did his part with two superb starts in three tries. Verlander, however, mostly stumbled in his four outings. Greinke did little better in three starts before finding his rhythm on Wednesday.
Sans their typical overwhelming offense and uniquely overpowering 1-2-3 punch, the Astros of October simply didn't resemble the Astros of the regular season. It's thus perhaps not a wonder that they flopped in Game 7, but rather that they even lasted that far at all.
Now comes a winter in which the Astros will have major work to do, perhaps starting up top.
Assistant general manager Brandon Taubman lost his job after directing offensive comments at a group of female reporters amid the club's ALCS victory celebration, yet questions about the kind of ship GM Jeff Luhnow is running persist.
Indeed, there was a whiff of extreme cynicism when the Astros acquired Osuna despite his suspension for violating the league's policy on domestic violence, sexual assault and child abuse in 2018. After Taubman used the Osuna situation to taunt reporters, the smell that accompanied the Astros' initial urge to protect him was downright toxic.
No matter how well these smells are cleared out, the Astros will eventually have to fill holes left by their key free agents: Cole, Harris, Robinson Chirinos, Wade Miley, Joe Smith and Collin McHugh. Though they ought to be ready to back up a truck for Cole, owner Jim Crane notably got ahead on tempering expectations in September.
From what Hunter Atkins of the Houston Chronicle gathered after Game 7, Cole himself doesn't seem so sure about a return either:
Granted, it's hard to see any scenario in which the Astros' slow disintegration throughout October undoes the very foundations upon which they're building their dynasty. Though there are bound to be changes, they're almost certainly going to be a candidate for another 100-win season in 2020.
Until they win another World Series, however, the one they didn't win in 2019 is bound to keep hurting.