How they got there: Astros back in ALCS

October 10th, 2020

Somewhere between the end of the regular season and the start of the playoffs, the Astros emerged from their late-season slumber and suddenly became the October juggernaut we’ve been used to seeing the past four years.

The Astros, despite finishing with a sub.-500 record (29-31) in the regular season, are back in the American League Championship Series for the fourth year in a row after sweeping the Twins in the AL Wild Card Series and eliminating the A’s in four games in the AL Division Series, going on to face the Rays. Houston joins the 1998-2001 Yankees, the 1995-99 Braves and the 2011-14 Cardinals as the only teams to reach the LCS four straight years in the Wild Card era.

The defending AL champs have been beset with injuries, with 2019 AL Cy Young Award winner Justin Verlander making one start, '19 AL Rookie of the Year Award winner Yordan Alvarez playing in two games and '19 AL saves leader Roberto Osuna hurt in the first week of the season. Still, the Astros had enough to grab the second playoff spot in the AL West.

When the postseason started, the Astros played flawlessly for a couple of close wins over the Twins in the AL Wild Card Series before their offense blossomed in the ALDS, scoring 33 runs in 35 innings to overwhelm the A’s, who had won seven of 10 head-to-head meetings and ran away with the division by seven games.

How they were built:

Amateur Draft: RHP Brandon Bielak, 3B Alex Bregman, SS Carlos Correa, RHP Josh James, RHP Lance McCullers Jr., CF George Springer, OF Myles Straw, 3B Abraham Toro, LF Kyle Tucker

International signings: 2B Jose Altuve, RHP Luis Garcia, 1B Yuli Gurriel, RHP Cristian Javier, RHP Enoli Paredes, RHP Jose Urquidy, LHP Framber Valdez

Free agents: DH/LF Michael Brantley, RHP Luis Garcia, C Dustin Garneau, C Martín Maldonado, RF Josh Reddick

Trades: INF Aledmys Díaz, RHP Zack Greinke, RHP Ryan Pressly, LHP Brooks Raley, RHP Andre Scrubb, RHP Cy Sneed, LHP Blake Taylor

Postseason standout: Correa’s puzzling loss of power this summer is a distant memory. After recording five homers and 25 RBIs in 58 games in the regular season (.383 slugging percentage), Correa is hitting .500/.615/1.100 with four homers and 12 RBIs in 20 at-bats in the playoffs. He’s crushing the ball and brimming with confidence, while contributing his usual Gold Glove-caliber defense. He’ll go down as one of this generation’s greatest big-game performers.

October surprise: Rookie Javier was thrust into action this year sooner than expected after injuries to the pitching staff. Javier had a solid season, going 5-2 with a 3.58 ERA in 12 games (10 starts) with 54 strikeouts in 54 1/3 innings. Manager Dusty Baker deployed him as a long reliever in the first two rounds, and he threw 6 1/3 scoreless innings across three outings with eight strikeouts, proving to be perhaps Houston’s most valuable pitcher so far.

Memorable playoff moment: Correa’s three-run homer in the bottom of the fourth inning in Game 4 on Thursday -- a no-doubt shot that traveled 427 feet at 111.6 mph off the bat -- capped Houston’s five-run outburst in that frame and gave the Astros a 5-3 lead. The image of Correa screaming into Houston's dugout with the bat in his hand will burned into Oakland’s psyche in the winter. The Astros outscored the A’s by five runs (6-1) over the following four innings -- including two more RBI hits by Correa -- and put the series away.

Key offseason acquisition: After trading for Maldonado at the Deadline in 2018 and ’19, the Astros signed the catcher to a two-year contract prior to the ’20 season. Including the playoffs, Maldonado has started behind the plate for 52 of the team’s 66 games, navigating a young and inexperienced pitching staff through an unprecedented season and playoff chase. During the regular season, he was tied for third on the team in on-base percentage (.350), and he ranked first in walks (27).

Managerial decision: Hired shortly before the beginning of Spring Training, Baker hasn’t tried to change a whole lot. He took over a team that won 107 games last year and was eight outs shy of winning its second World Series in three seasons, so he didn’t feel the need to do something to put his stamp on this team. In some ways, this may be one of his most difficult jobs, considering the number of injuries the Astros had to deal with to the pitching staff, but the club has generally underperformed across the board. It may be hard to pin that on Baker, though, during what has been an unprecedented season because of the coronavirus and injuries.

Defining season stretch: A five-game losing streak in early August dropped the Astros to 6-9 and put them in peril considering their schedule was a quarter of the way finished at that point. Houston rallied to win nine of its next 10 games, including an eight-game winning streak. The team averaged six runs per game during that stretch, and its starting pitchers posted a 1.61 ERA with seven quality starts to put it firmly back in the playoff chase.

Breakout player: Coming into Spring Training, one of the biggest questions was how many at-bats Tucker was going to get. With Alvarez missing most of the year and injuries sidelining Springer and Brantley for some time, Tucker started nearly every game (58 of 60) and bloomed into the kind of player the Astros had hoped for when they selected him with the No. 5 overall pick -- three picks behind Bregman -- in the 2015 Draft. Tucker hit .268 with nine homers in the regular season, and he led the club in triples (six) and RBIs (42). He didn’t slow down in the playoffs, going 10-for-25 (.400) through the first two rounds.

Calling card: Before the Astros turned into the 1927 Yankees in the ALDS, the team's identity in the regular season had little to do with its offense. Because of injuries and underperformance, Houston wasn’t the offensive juggernaut it was last year when it set a Major League record with a .495 slugging percentage. In the regular season, the club had an .889 OPS with runners in scoring position in wins and .581 in losses. The Astros rarely blew anyone out like they did last year, going 10-14 in one-run games in 2020, so the challenge almost nightly was whether their young bullpen could protect a tight lead. Fifty of their 60 regular-season games were decided by three runs or fewer.

Memorable moment: The Astros came alive in the ninth inning at Dodger Stadium on Sept. 12, scoring five times in the ninth inning to stun the Dodgers -- who finished with the best regular-season record in baseball -- with a 7-5 win. Baker called it “the win of the year,” and he wasn’t overstating things. Houston arrived in Los Angeles having lost eight of nine on an 11-game West Coast trip.

“You know I hope we look back on this as a turning point,” Baker said. “This is a team that doesn’t quit. I'm really proud of these guys tonight.”