HOUSTON -- When the Astros swiped three bags in Game 1 of the American League Division Series on Friday, it tied their season high and was the most they’ve had in a playoff game since Game 6 of the 2004 National League Championship Series against the Cardinals.
Astros manager AJ Hinch said he has a “love-hate” relationship with aggressiveness on the bases. He loves it when it works like it did in Friday’s win over the Rays and hates it when it results in an out on the bases. But Hinch said you have to play the game aggressively and not dwell on negative outcomes.
“I like pressure,” Hinch said. “I like making them make plays. And that comes with a little bit of risk. And yesterday, when it works out for us, it's great. I assume they're going to look at that a little bit more today, and they have a left-handed pitcher [Blake Snell], which changes your thought process a little bit.
"But 90 feet matters. If you can steal it, all the better.”
The Astros attempted 94 stolen bases in the regular season, which ranked 17th in the Major Leagues. It’s actually the fewest attempts they’ve had in one season in their history, which has more to do with the offensive philosophy in the game today with teams relying more and more on home runs.
“Nowadays, it's funny,” Hinch said. “I think the Rays tried seven or eight stolen bases against us during the regular season. If I said that five years ago, that would not be very many. I say that now and it's like they're running all over us.”
Brantley still making contact in swing-and-miss world
In an era where strikeouts are at an all-time high, Astros outfielder Michael Brantley remains somewhat of a throwback. Brantley remains one of the best contact hitters in the game, ranking second in the Major Leagues during the regular season in percentage of swings where the ball was put in play (50.5 percent).
“Pitch recognition is huge for Brantley,” Hinch said. “His balance in pitch recognition is elite. We have two of the top, over the last couple years, two of the top guys of making contact when they swing [Brantley and Yuli Gurriel]. When he chooses to swing, he's going to make contact. Sometimes it's a foul ball, sometimes it's in play. But he doesn't miss very often. He doesn't chase a lot.”
While Brantley is a proponent of video work and learning strategy of opposing pitchers, he says contact comes down to pitch recognition and being able to see the ball, which isn’t something all players can be taught.
“That goes back to the basics for me and trying not to put too much information and data into it and still be a baseball player at the same time,” he said.
From 2016-19, the Astros had four players ranked in the top 14 in the Major Leagues in percentage of swings in which the ball was put in play -- Brantley is fifth (49.9 percent), Gurriel is sixth (49.8 percent), José Altuve is 13th (46.3 percent) and Alex Bregman is 14th (46.1 percent).
“As a manager, you always want to defend your players,” Hinch said. “When Michael Brantley or Alex Bregman argue with the umpire after a strike-three call or a strike-two call or a strike-one call, I believe them. They're right. And not to say the other guys aren't, but that comes with that confidence that they know the strike zone.”
Harris now a bullpen mainstay
It’s hard to fathom now that the Astros left veteran right-hander Will Harris off last year’s AL Championship Series roster against the Red Sox, considering how well he’s pitched this year. Harris, the 35-year-old dean of Astros relief pitchers, had the best season of his career, posting a career-best 1.50 ERA to lead the AL.
Harris has clearly been Houston’s most consistent and effective reliever all season, and teams up with Ryan Pressly and closer Roberto Osuna as the three arms that would get the final nine outs for the Astros if everything falls in place. Harris was on last year’s ALDS roster against Cleveland and pitched in one game before being dropped in the ALCS, along with outfielder Myles Straw, in exchange for relievers Héctor Rondón and Joe Smith.
“I'm always pretty motivated, trying to pitch as well as I can,” Harris said. “I wasn't really surprised [when he was left off last year]. Nowadays, a lot of playoff teams stack their lineups pretty well. They make [Trade] Deadline acquisitions and things like that. So we had a really competitive bullpen last year and added Ryan and Roberto at the Deadline. So it was crowded and, you know, I was disappointed, but I understood it. So just kind of the way it goes.”
Brad Peacock and Chris Devenski, who were two of Houston’s key relievers in the 2017 run to the World Series, were left off the ALDS roster against the Rays but could be added next round. They threw a simulated game prior to Saturday’s Game 2 with rookie pitcher Bryan Abreu. Harris expects the bullpen to have some changes next round if Houston advances.
“They look at the matchups and dissect it a thousand different ways and then come out with who they think gives us the best chance to win,” he said. “If we're fortunate enough to move on to the next round, they'll do that whole process over again. So we had guys that got left off last year in the first round that were on it and pitched against Boston in the second round.
“As for me, I was on it and then came off for the second round. If we would have won that series and gone on to play the Dodgers, I may have been put back on. It's kind of the way that it's done now, I think, probably throughout baseball. We have an organization that has as many good players as we have, it just kind of is the nature of the beast.”
Wagner makes his return
Billy Wagner, the Astros' closer for eight seasons from 1996-2003, threw out the ceremonial first pitch before Game 2 of the ALDS at Minute Maid Park on Saturday. It was his first trip back to Houston since he retired following the 2010 season, and he said even stepping into downtown from his hotel was strange, because everything looks so different.
Downtown Houston certainly has evolved in the past decade, and so have the Astros, as Wagner noted when he met with reporters minutes before throwing out the pitch.
"It's electric," he said. "It's fun to be a part of something like this. The energy, the team, their success. You feed off of that and can be excited for these guys."
Wagner, who pitched in four postseasons with the Astros (1997-99, 2001), noted how much different the game is today than when he played. Notably, the strength and size of the average player has increased, as has the velocity of most of the pitchers. In his day, Wagner was one of the few relievers who could touch 100 on the radar gun. That's changed.
"They don't draft anybody other than Altuve, Biggio and me that are under six foot," Wagner said. "Everybody else is 6-3 or better. If you're not over that, you're not getting a shot. These guys are bigger, stronger, faster. They're built different than we were. It's fun to watch them."
Wagner summarized his trip to Houston as nostalgic. The memories rushed back to him as soon as he arrived.
"A lot of great moments," he said. "Kids being born here and really, starting my life here. To get back for a small moment, it's priceless."
Brian McTaggart has covered the Astros since 2004, and for MLB.com since 2009. Follow @brianmctaggart on Twitter.
Alyson Footer is a national correspondent for MLB.com. Follow her on Twitter @alysonfooter.