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5 things that changed the season for Astros

PHOENIX -- The Astros crashed baseball's postseason party, winning 86 games and clinching the second American League Wild Card berth on the final day of the regular season Sunday. No one expected them to contend for a playoff spot, much less reach the postseason for the first time in 10 years.

Like most teams, a lot had to go right for the Astros to make the postseason. Here are five things that changed their season as they head into the AL Wild Card Game presented by Budweiser tonight at 7 p.m. CT on ESPN:

:: AL Wild Card Game: Astros vs. Yankees -- Tune-in info ::

1. Emergence of bullpen
The Astros had one of the top bullpens in the AL for much of the season with the additions of Luke Gregerson, Pat Neshek and Will Harris. In 454 1/3 innings, they posted a 3.25 ERA, which was fourth best in the AL. There were a few hiccups along the way, especially in September, but Houston's ability to close out close games was a huge difference from its previous couple of years.

2. Power eruption
A club-record and Major League-record-tying 11 different players homered for the Astros this year, led by Evan Gattis with 27. Fellow newcomers Luis Valbuena (25) and Colby Rasmus (25) also set career highs in home runs, along with Jose Altuve (14). The Astros tied with the Blue Jays for the Major League lead with 230 homers.

3. Keuchel and McHugh at top of rotation
Dallas Keuchel made a strong run at his first AL Cy Young Award and become just the Astros' second lefty to win 20 games in a season. He was three times named the AL Pitcher of the Month. McHugh overcome a rough stretch in the middle of the season and wound up finishing second behind McHugh in the AL in wins with a career-high 19.

4. The kids were all right
Shortstop Carlos Correa and starter Lance McCullers came up and made huge impacts. Correa finished the season batting third and will be in the AL Rookie of the Year Award discussion, while McCullers stepped into the rotation and was leading all AL rookies in ERA, opponents' batting average and strikeouts per nine innings entering the final game of the season. Rookie Preston Tucker also made an impact.

5. The coolness of manager A.J. Hinch
Hinch set a great tone for the Astros from the first day of Spring Training, providing an even-handed, consistent presence throughout the season. The Astros, with Hinch at the helm, never got too high or too low because of the demeanor established by the first-year manager.

Brian McTaggart is a reporter for and writes an MLBlog, Tag's Lines. Follow @brianmctaggart on Twitter and listen to his podcast.
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