WEST PALM BEACH, Fla. -- We were near a back field at The Ballpark of the Palm Beaches a couple of weeks ago, when there was still a lot of Spring Training ahead of AJ Hinch. Justin Verlander was throwing behind him, and the sound of the ball in the catcher’s glove providing a perfect soundtrack to a spring morning.
Now, it is the week of Opening Day, and the Astros will be back in Florida on Thursday night, on the other side of the state. Verlander, effectively pitching with a two-year, $66 million contract extension stuffed in his back pocket, will be Hinch’s Opening Day starter against the Rays in St. Petersburg. And the Astros will consider themselves as much of a favorite to win the World Series as they were when they left West Palm Beach a year ago.
Maybe even more so, if you listen to the manager.
“I have as much confidence as I have ever had,” Hinch said in the middle of March. “I love the edge we have, and we all know what it takes to get to the finish line.”
Hinch lost Charlie Morton, one of the pitching stars of October 2017, who is now playing for the Astros' opponent Thursday night at Tropicana Field. Hinch lost Lance McCullers Jr., another star that October, to injury. Dallas Keuchel, once an American League Cy Young Award winner in Houston, remains an unsigned free agent.
The Astros's rotation added Wade Miley to the rotation, whose ’18 season began with injuries, but who finished strong with the Brewers in 16 starts, posting a 5-2 record and the best ERA of his career at 2.57 with 50 strikeouts. Collin McHugh, who has been more of a reliever than a starter for Hinch, will start the third game of the Opening Series.
But the first two Houston starters, of course, are Verlander and Gerrit Cole, who are as formidable a 1-2 punch as there is in the sport. They had a combined 31-14 record last season, and they struck out 566 batters in a combined 414 1/3 innings. That's a lot, even in a homer-or-strikeout world.
And then there's the batting order, which added Michael Brantley this offseason. The Astros still have Jose Altuve, whose right knee has been surgically repaired and who so clearly was not his MVP self against the Red Sox in the AL Championship Series. Even playing on one good leg, he got five hits in five games, scored four times, knocked in a couple runs and hit a famous non-homer in the first inning of Game 4, when umpire Joe West ruled fan interference against Mookie Betts.
To Altuve’s right is Carlos Correa, and to Correa’s right is Alex Bregman, who finished fifth in the AL MVP Award voting last season. He now holds a contract extension of his own -- five years and $100 million -- after he became a legit baseball star in 2018.
Even with the questions about the starting rotation, the Astros will likely have one of the deeper bullpens in the league. When healthy, the team has as much contact, pop and versatility in the batting order as the Red Sox do. Houston is coming off a 103-win season, second only to the Red Sox. They know how close they came against Boston with a wounded Altuve, even in an ALCS that went just five games and finished with the Red Sox sweeping the last three games at Minute Maid Park.
Altuve limping through that series would have been like Betts doing the same for the Red Sox. Start there. The Astros will always wonder what would have happened if Altuve’s ball in Game 4 is ruled a home run and they had tied Game 4 at 2-2 in the bottom of the first.
That game ended, 8-6, in favor of the Red Sox when Andrew Benintendi made a diving catch with two outs and the bases loaded -- as good a game-ending October play in the outfield as I can ever remember. If the ball gets past Benintendi, the bases would have been cleared and the 2018 ALCS would have been even at two games apiece. It was not. So Game 5 became an elimination game for the Astros. The Red Sox chased Verlander, and the Astros saw their shot at a World Series championship repeat disappear.
Hinch spoke more than once this spring about all the runs the Astros left on the bases in Game 2 at Fenway Park, where the Astros had a chance to take a 2-0 lead.
“But,” Hinch said on the back field that day, “it’s not right to talk about the what-ifs of that series without talking about what [the Red Sox] did to us.”
We talk a lot about the Red Sox and the Yankees in the AL simply because it's back to the big fight between them -- and the fact they combined for 208 regular-season victories last season. The Yankees have questions about their starting rotation. The Red Sox have faced questions about their bullpen throughout Spring Training. The Astros might not have a rotation as deep as Boston’s, but they have Verlander and Cole at the top. They don’t have New York’s bullpen, but nobody does. However, Houston is willing and ready to take on the season with theirs.
The Astros know how to win, and they thought they were ready to win again last season. They have a manager who knows how to win, they're still loaded and it would be crazy to go to sleep on them, even with the Yankees and Red Sox ready to slug it out again.
“I love our team,” Hinch said.