Reigning champion Astros better than last year

October 8th, 2018

CLEVELAND -- The floor was soaked and the air had that, uh, effervescent stench of victory, and let's just say was in a talkative mood.

"To be honest with you," Bregman said, assessing these 2018 Astros, "[Jose] Altuve goes down, [George] Springer goes down and [Carlos] Correa goes down, and we win 103 games. If those three don't go down and play a full season, you're looking at the most wins in the history of the game. We're going to be honest. You are."

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Bregman turned to Astros special assistant to the general manager Kevin Goldstein.

"Am I wrong?" he asked.

"You're wrong," Goldstein replied, "but I love you."

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Bregman, the Majors' hottest hitter this side of , might very well be wrong about the best-record-in-history boast, but you didn't have to be swept up in the celebration, as the Astros were after completing the 11-3 Game 3 victory on Monday afternoon at Progressive Field that sent them back to the American League Championship Series against either the Yankees or Red Sox, to make some dynamic declarations.

Here's one: The Astros are better than they were a year ago.

You know, when they won the franchise's first World Series?

Now, that doesn't mean the Astros will become the first back-to-back champs since the Yankees' dynasty of 1998-2000, because this tournament has a way of presenting some pinball-worthy quirks and caroms. But it does mean that their rotation is better, their bullpen is better, their lineup is relentless as ever, and, well, they've got that look in their eye, for whatever that's worth.

On Monday, they outlasted the tension that hovered over Game 3 until the back-breaking seventh. They outlasted the crowd that left in droves before the ninth. And yes, they outlasted the Indians, who ran out of answers to every question this loaded Houston roster proposed.

It's funny (and a bit embarrassing) to reflect on our ignorance and innocence now, but a week ago, some of us actually thought this might be the best series of the postseason. These were two of the best starting staffs in the Majors. These were the two toughest teams to strike out. These were the past two AL champs. These were two of the game's more respected skippers in AJ Hinch and Terry Francona. These were two teams that deserved each other, in the best sense possible.

And it was a mismatch basically from the beginning. The Astros took it to Tribe ace , wrangled Cleveland's lineup with the strikeout artistry of and , beat up on what's left of the Indians' bullpen and supposed X-factor , and then cut through all the clamor of this road date in front of a desperate fan base by shaking off some heroism and burying the home nine in the late innings.

With the way it ended, it's hard to believe Game 3 was ever an actual ballgame. Oh, but it was. In the third inning, facing Mike Clevinger, hit a long fly ball to right that, instead of going left of the foul pole for a game-changing grand slam, sailed wide right, into the area in front of The Corner Bar, where frazzled fans probably needed a drink after such a close call. Clevinger somehow escaped that inning unscatched, and, in the bottom half, the Indians got the game's first run on a sacrifice fly.

And even after the Astros tied it in the fifth on a solo shot from , whose name keeps climbing up the all-time postseason homer ranks, the Indians got what felt like a galvanizing moment in the bottom of the inning, when Lindor literally clocked the digital clock that hangs above the left-field porch -- a 446-foot poke off that made it 2-1.

If teams fold after taking a 2-0 lead in a Division Series, that's about when they fold. They break in a big spot. They invite the other team -- and, just as importantly, its crowd -- back in the best-of-five series. They lose their killer instinct.

In case the final score doesn't make it clear, the Astros didn't do that. And in fact, they rarely do.

"They do a really good job of playing until the game's over," Indians manager Terry Francona said. "It's been noticeable for a while. Sometimes, when you beat them, they just run out of time. You gotta have talent, but when you have talent and you play the game the right way, they have a lot of ways to come at you."

To Francona's point, no team in this postseason field had fewer blowout losses (defined here as five runs or more) this season than the Astros' eight. They're a tough team to put away, period.

"Not to be, like, cocky at all, but it's really, really tough to blow us out," Bregman said. "I don't remember those eight times, but it must have been, like, the [worst] day of all time for us."

So a little thing like a clock-clanging, potentially season-saving dinger from Lindor wasn't going to affect the Astros much. They just waited around for the seventh, when they got to Bauer's head and his pitches, with his two throwing errors advancing runners and with Gonzalez smacking his four-seamer above the zone into left for the two-run double that changed this game for good.

That the Astros were relentless (six runs in the eighth, another totally unnecessary insurance run in the ninth) was befitting of a ballclub that has posted a plus-459 run differential over the past two regular seasons -- the highest in a two-season span since the aforementioned 1998-99 Yankees.

"They keep coming, regardless of whether they're up, down or even," Bauer said.

And they're better than a year ago in that most key of October areas -- the pitching staff. Does anybody want any part of Verlander and Cole in succession in a Game 1 and 2 scenario right now? They front a starting staff that posted an adjusted ERA+ 30 percent better than league average this season -- by far the best in the Majors. That starting staff then hands it over to a bullpen that, a year ago, survived on Hinch's creativity (with and Charlie Morton memorably closing out the LCS and World Series rounds) and now survives on the straight filth dealt by in-season acquisitions and , the convincing conversion of , and the re-emergence of lefty .

"When you look down my card, I'm like, 'Man, I've got something for everybody in different areas of the game,'" Hinch said. "It's comfortable. These games aren't comfortable, but it's a comfortable feeling knowing I've got a couple cards to play when the time matters the most."

Every team has imperfections, and with Correa's back still hindering his hitting and Altuve limping around the bases after tweaking his right knee, the Astros will welcome their earned respite.

"The best thing we did today, for our team, was keep our foot on the gas pedal and finish it in three," Bregman said. "So that way, the guys who are banged up, which is 50 percent of this clubhouse, can get some time off."

But as Bregman said, this team has already overcome some jarring injury issues to put together a special regular season. And in holding the Indians to a team-wide average (.144) only a bit better than your average pitcher posted for the year, it has just made a convincing case that the starting and relief situation are in fairly decent shape.

This, in short, is not your basic back-to-back bid. And you don't have to be soaked in champagne to see or say that.