Monday, October 12, 2015

It's Not Over

Game 4 in Houston just ended and boy did that feel familiar.

A giant, raucous crowd of Houstonians standing in anticipation of a relatively easy series defeat of the uber-talented Kansas City Royals, all the momentum on Houston’s side, all the calls going to the home team. It felt like a dream.

It’s difficult to accept today’s loss because so much good happened in this game that it almost causes a mental syntax error.

The Astros were up 6-2. Six outs away from advancing to the American League Championship Series after a delirious bottom of the seventh that saw Carlos Correa, the 21-year-old phenom who is using up all the superlatives one can possibly obtain, go yard for a giant two-run home run – his second of the game, only to be immediately followed by Colby Rasmus and his fourth “ColbyJack” of the postseason.

Lance McCullers pitched 6.1 innings of mentally tough baseball uncharacteristic of someone his age.

The kids came to play.

Then the bullpen happened. Will Harris, Tony Sipp, and Luke Gregerson were nickel and dimed into submission in the eighth inning – five runs on five hits, with two walks mixed in. All five hits were singles, none of them hit particularly well.

In the ninth, with Royals cyborg/closer Wade Davis in the middle a six-out save, and KC clinging to a one-run lead, Eric Hosmer thumped a two-run shot into the Astros bullpen; a symbolic gut shot to baseball’s last standing bad bullpen.

So here we stand. The series, which was so close to being over and sending Houston into a miracle ALCS, will now go back to the rabid environment of Kauffman Stadium on Wednesday night. The Royals, their fans, and their organization – they’ve been here before. Their desperation led to an improbable come-from-behind win in the American League’s roughest road park, and now they’ll go into Game 5 supremely confident and loose, with dreams of hosting Texas or Toronto in the next series.

But I assure you – this series is not over.


Some people have made references to the 2005 Astros in regards to the 2015 version. Aside from the presence of Chad Qualls, I don’t really see many similarities.

The 2004 and 2005 Astros were veteran clubs built with the intent of competing for a World Series in the time that they did compete for it. In many ways, the 2004 team was the better of the two, but as fans, when the 2005 team went, it felt owed to us. Of course we all elevated into hysteria regardless, but it felt past due, like this should have happened not only last year, but in 1998 and ’99 too.
Everything about the 2005 Astros felt real. They were really in the playoffs and they were really in the World Series.

This Astros team has been a dream since Opening Day.

It hasn’t been without its bumps and occasional nightmare episodes, but it’s been a joy for six months. If you had Carlos Correa, Jose Altuve, George Springer, Dallas Keuchel, Lance McCullers, Evan Gattis, Colby Rasmus, Carlos Gomez, Collin McHugh, and Marwin Gonzalez on your team, you too would have as much fun watching baseball as I, and so many other Astros fans, have these past six months.

We’ve watched a superstar take shape before our eyes, an ace come into his own in dominant and historic fashion, the shortest guy on the field continue to stand taller than most in his accomplishments, a former waiver wire pick-up become a 19-game winner, a crazy no-hitter from a new guy who had never even thrown a complete game, five months of winning and one seriously depressing September swoon that culminated in an exciting, frenetic race to the finish that landed the Astros an improbable postseason berth.

Then came the Wild Card game at Yankee Stadium, a dream scenario turned euphoric as Dallas Keuchel helped baseball’s oldest roster to their chair for the rest of the postseason. He might have nasty stuff, but never call Dallas Keuchel impolite.

The Astros entered the ALDS as large underdogs to the suddenly-veteran Royals. That didn’t matter to them; the Astros jumped ahead quickly in Game 1 at Kauffman Stadium and earned a decisive 5-2 win. The story looked to be taking a similar shape in Game 2 with Houston up 4-1, but the bullpen caved in and the Astros lost 5-4.

Game 3, just yesterday afternoon, marked the first time that postseason baseball had been played at Minute Maid Park since Game 4 of the 2005 World Series. Thanks to the heroics of unlikely heroes in Jason Castro and Chris Carter, the swing game of this series went to Houston.

None of this seems real.

Even today’s massive letdown, gut-wrenching as it is, has a feeling of “oh well” to it.

One of the best back-handed compliments this team has received in recent weeks has been that they’re so young, and so inexperienced, that they’re simply too dumb to know how big this all is. How important each win – and each bruising loss – really is.

They’ll give the media the lip service, but they simply haven’t lived this. They don’t have baggage, and they likely have no idea how cursed Houston fans feel when it comes to their teams.

That’s a good thing.

Maybe they’re still stupid enough to not realize how tough Game 5 will be.

In retaining just a little bit more of that innocence, perhaps the Astros can jump on Johnny Cueto again and hold on.

As I said, this season has not been without its nightmares. For all intents and purposes, the Astros should have run away with the AL West championship. After five consecutive winning months and 139 days in first place, a single four-game sweep at the hands of the Texas Rangers cost the Astros a division title.

Still, with Toronto currently on track to tie up their best-of-five series with Texas after falling behind 0-2, the Astros still got into the playoffs and could end up advancing while Texas goes home in brutal fashion. It’s all still possible.

All season long, these young Astros have dazzled us, wowed us, and frustrated us. They should have so much more, but they still get it done in the end.

They should have swept the Royals, but the bullpen can’t stop a nosebleed. So, much like their entire season, the Astros will go the hard route and attempt to clinch an ALCS berth on the road against the favored Royals.

After six months of trials, tribulations, blood, sweat, and intercostal strains, does it really make sense for the ride to end here?

This isn’t over.

We’re on to Kansas City.