Last year’s World Series saw the end of a 108-year-old curse. In 2017, it was the fulfillment of a three-year-old prophecy.
Back in June of 2014, Sports Illustrated graced its cover with a presumptuous headline that was greeted with a collective derisive shock from most of the sports world. The Houston Astros, it declared, were “baseball’s great experiment,” “the game’s next big thing”… and the 2017 World Series champions. At the time it seemed hard to believe. Sure the ‘Stros were stocked with a boatload of young talent in the likes of five tool prospects George Springer and Carlos Correa, a burgeoning (if presumed to be overachieving) All-Star in Jose Altuve and two potential future aces in lightly bearded lefty Dallas Keuchel and 20-year-old righty Lance McCullers. But they were also below .500 and in the midst of one of the worst multi-year stretches in MLB history coming off three consecutive 100 loss seasons. With baseball’s seemingly random success rate on developing prospects, it seemed absurd to suggest that the team would be in a realistic position to compete on the biggest stage in just a few years time. Well nobody’s laughing anymore.
Fielding a hard hit grounder into the shift from the Los Angeles Dodgers’ Corey Seager, Altuve made the easy throw to first to secure the Astros’ first World Series victory in franchise history. It capped an epic seven game series that did damn near everything it could to live up 2016’s Cubs-Indians (which, for what it’s worth, might have been the greatest Fall Classic every played). Springer, the featured athlete on the now-prophetic SI cover, was named the MVP of the series after he bat .379 with a record-tying five home runs. He also set WS records for extra-base hits (eight) and total bases (29). And he did all that despite finishing 3 for 30 in the Astros hard-fought seven game victory over the Yankees in the ALCS (I promise I’m not bitter) and going 0 for 4 with four strikeouts in game one! So much for negative momentum.
Don’t be fooled though, Houston’s path to the title was so much more than a one-man effort. Jose Altuve capped off a likely MVP season by morphing into a 5’6” version of Rogers Hornsby, batting .400/.600/.775 through the first two rounds including a three homer game in the ALDS. Justin Verlander, perhaps baseball’s best pitcher of the last ten years not named Clayton Kershaw was traded to the Astros for a bag of peanuts in late August. Though he wasn’t at his best against Los Angeles, he almost singlehandedly willed Houston past the Yanks in his two starts of the second round, allowing a single earned run in his 16 innings pitched. Alex Bregman made a number of outstanding heads up plays at third base throughout the playoffs. Journeyman starter Brad Peacock earned his first career save in game three by twirling 3.2 innings of no hit ball, then shutout the Dodgers for two more crucial frames in game seven. Charlie Morton, once dismissed as a nothing prospect because of a lack of velocity, made like Goose Gossage and blew 98 mph fastballs by everybody in sight over the final four innings of the deciding game.
Lest you think that there was some black magic or MLB-SI collusion at play here, be assured that this World Series was no sure thing. Sports Illustrated has reported that there was division on the editorial staff over making such an unlikely claim in a headline and the Houston Chronicle even went so far as to call it a “tongue-in-cheek projection” back in 2014. The Astros themselves have made plenty of mistakes along the way that easily could have come back to haunt them. J.D. Martinez, dropped outright by the club in March of 2014, has gone on to become one of the game’s premier sluggers. Former top prospect Jon Singleton is currently languishing in the minor leagues following a battle with marijuana addiction. They traded the farm for Carlos Gomez, apparently never getting the memo that the talented centerfielder is also the most petulant clubhouse cancer in the game. They whiffed entirely on their first round picks in 2013 and ‘14, selecting two guys, Mark Appel and Brady Aiken, who have yet to sniff the major leagues.
Fortunately, none of that matters now. Errors in judgment and reasonable expectations be damned, the Astros are world champs. And perhaps best of all, the city of Houston finally has something to smile about.