HOUSTON -- The expectations began to soar 11 months ago, when the Astros traded for veteran catcher Brian McCann and signed veteran outfielder Josh Reddick. Carlos Beltran soon joined the club, and an up-and-coming Houston team filled with promising young players was a juggernaut in waiting.
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The Astros jumped out to a 42-16 record and led the American League West by 10 games by the end of May, and they never looked back. Houston battled a rash of key injuries all summer -- all five starting pitchers were on the disabled list at one point -- and endured a devastating hurricane in late August before an Aug. 31 trade for Justin Verlander turned everything around.
A September to remember gave way to a remarkable October that still isn't over yet. The Astros are going to the World Series presented by YouTube TV after beating the Yankees, 4-0, in Game 7 of the AL Championship Series presented by Camping World on Saturday night at an electric Minute Maid Park.
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Four years after losing a club-record 111 games -- the low point during the team's extensive rebuilding project under general manager Jeff Luhnow -- the Astros are four wins away from winning their first World Series title. Game 1 of the Fall Classic is Tuesday night against the Dodgers in Los Angeles.
"As a team, since Spring Training, we set the tone on doing things right," Beltran said. "We got together and we created an environment in the clubhouse, a fun environment, and I'm proud. I'm proud of the whole team. Everybody has gone out there and did their job. We have gone through ups and downs, but we have been able to overcome the tough situations."
Even in the ALCS, Houston was tested. The Astros fell behind, 3-2, in the best-of-seven series after the Yanks punished them for three games in a row at rowdy Yankee Stadium, but they never stopped believing.
"A lot of people counted us out and said, 'Hey, you guys are down 3-2 and the whole momentum shifted,' and we knew as soon as we set foot in Houston, the momentum shifted back to us and we were ready," third baseman Alex Bregman said.
The Astros beat the Yankees, 7-1, in Game 6 on Friday behind another dominant performance by Verlander, who improved to 9-0 in nine games since coming to Houston from Detroit. And they couldn't have mapped out their pitching any better in Game 7, with Charlie Morton (five innings) and Lance McCullers (four) combining to shut out the Yanks. Evan Gattis and Jose Altuve added homers, and McCann's two-run double was the final blow.
"Almost too perfectly," Astros manager A.J. Hinch said of the way Game 7 came together. "The game [Friday], that's almost how we mapped it out. We win, and Game 7 we map it out, and we won. These guys keep performing this way and it makes my job pretty easy."
Reddick, Beltran and McCann were the missing pieces for an incredibly talented young core that includes Bregman, Altuve, Carlos Correa, George Springer, Dallas Keuchel and Chris Devenski. The Astros' depth was tested when they were rocked by injuries in the summer, but their belief in each other never wavered.
"You have to come together as a collective unit and really want it," McCann said. "What I witnessed this year is 25 guys showing up on a daily basis trying to win that game, that day. I'm speechless. I'm emotional. This is one of the best days that I've ever had. On to the next. That's our motto -- it's on to the next, and we're going to be ready for the Dodgers come Tuesday."
For Keuchel, Altuve, Brad Peacock and Marwin Gonzalez -- the four holdovers from the 111-loss team of 2013 -- the stinging of champagne in the eyes and weariness from an aching body that's been playing baseball since mid-February has been worth it.
"I honestly didn't know after the 2012-13 seasons if I'd ever be a part of something like this," Keuchel said. "That's the human element. You doubt when there's no light at the end of the tunnel. A lot of us hung in there. There's not a lot of us left from those years, but the guys who are left showed some grit, showed some determination.
"Man, we had some quality, quality ballplayers in those years who are still here. It means the world to myself to be in this situation with these guys, going to the World Series."