Faced with injuries and an improving AL West, Astros were ‘playing from behind the whole season’


HOUSTON (AP) — Coming a win shy of reaching the World Series would be considered a successful season for most teams.

Not for the defending champion Houston Astros, who lost all four home games of the AL Championship Series to the Texas Rangers and came up short in their quest for a third straight trip to the Fall Classic.

“Not a success,” catcher Martín Maldonado said. “I think the ultimate success is winning the World Series, but we gave everything we could.”

Manager Dusty Baker is proud of his team for fighting through a difficult season to get as far as it did.

“We overcame a lot of stuff… so you hold your head up high, and you think about what you’ve accomplished versus what you’ve lost,” he said.

After coasting to the AL West title in the previous two seasons, the Astros spent most of this season chasing Texas in the standings. A late swoon by the Rangers helped Houston and Texas finish with identical 90-72 records, and the Astros took the division again by winning the head-to-head tiebreaker.

The Astros beat Minnesota in four games in the AL Division Series to reach the ALCS for a seventh straight season.

But the home woes which had plagued them all year were at their worst in the ALCS, where they lost Games 1 and 2 at home before moving a win shy of the World Series by sweeping three games in Arlington.

Instead, their pitching fell apart as the Astros were pummeled for 20 runs in two games, and their season ended with the Rangers celebrating on their home field Monday night.

“Obviously, we would have liked to get it done here, and there’s no simple answer as to why we didn’t play great at home,” ace Justin Verlander said. “Just stinks. Obviously, we would have liked for it to have gone different.”

The Astros traded for Verlander in July to try and boost their bid to repeat as champs. The three-time Cy Young Award winner left Houston to sign with the Mets in the offseason, before returning mere months later after New York faded from contention.

He went 7-3 with a 3.31 ERA in 11 regular-season starts after the trade. Verlander had three starts in the playoffs, getting the win in Game 1 of the ALDS by throwing six scoreless innings.

He took the loss in a 2-0 defeat in Game 1 of the ALCS and didn’t factor into the decision in Houston’s thrilling come-from-behind win in Game 5.

The 40-year-old Verlander will be back next year with one season remaining on an $86.7 million contract he signed with the Mets in December. New York is sending just over $35.5 million to Houston to cover much of Verlander’s contract and would send another $17.5 million if he plays under a $35 million option for 2025

“That’s obviously one of the reasons I wanted to come back here was because we weren’t set up for success just the rest of the season, but moving forward,” he said. “There’s still a good window available. But it’s a little early to say I’m excited for next year. Still dealing with this.”

The Astros came on late to win the division despite dealing with a spate of injuries. Star second baseman Jose Altuve didn’t make his season debut until May 19 after fracturing his right thumb in the World Baseball Classic and missed three weeks in July with an oblique injury. Slugger Yordan Alvarez was out for six weeks this summer with an oblique injury.

Houston was also hit hard by injuries to its pitching staff. Luis Garcia made just six starts before Tommy John surgery, José Urquidy sat out three months with a shoulder injury and Lance McCullers Jr. missed all season with a forearm injury.

Baker pointed to Houston’s injuries when asked why the Astros were unable to become the first team to repeat as World Series champions since the New York Yankees won three straight from 1998-2000.

“We’re playing from behind the whole season, like it was a grind,” he said. “When you lose Altuve before the season even starts, he plays 80-something games, and you lose Alvarez, and he plays 60 something. You lost Garcia. … We lost Urquidy. And we’re out there with a bunch of kids that didn’t have much experience. … When you’ve got young players, it makes it very difficult.”

The 74-year-old Baker said Monday he hadn’t decided if he wants to return next year after wrapping up his fourth season with the Astros. He was hired after manager A.J. Hinch was fired in the wake of the team’s sign-stealing scandal.

“I haven’t had time to evaluate or think about my future because I’m down the list,” he said. “I don’t want to steal the spotlight or anything from these guys. You’ve got to savor what we did. You’ve got to think about how we can get better. And then I’ll evaluate my situation and my life.”

Despite the loss, the Astros are confident that they’ll be back in the mix next season.

“There’s a small margin of error when you’re competing against the best teams in the world,” third baseman Alex Bregman said. “We didn’t execute well enough. We failed plenty of times in this game, so it keeps you hungry and keeps you coming back for more. It lights a fire in you to continue getting better.”


AP MLB: https://apnews.com/hub/MLB

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