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With playoff run, Astros defy expectations in '15

HOUSTON -- The Astros went farther in 2015 than anybody thought was possible, and that includes the Astros. It may be hard to get anyone to admit that now, but coming within six outs of advancing to the American League Championship Series was an achievement no one could have expected two years removed from 111 losses.

It was a season to remember for the Astros and perhaps only a stepping stone for the future of a franchise that's on the rise with a solid young core and money to spend in free agency. The Astros, under first-year manager A.J. Hinch, were one of baseball's biggest surprise stories this year, going 86-76 and getting the second Wild Card in the American League.

They beat the Yankees in the AL Wild Card Game presented by Budweiser and lost in five games in the AL Division Series to the Royals, blowing a four-run lead in the eighth inning of Game 4. Along the way, they produced the likely AL Cy Young Award winner in Dallas Keuchel and Rookie of the Year in Carlos Correa.

Video: McMaster, Nelson on Astros AL Wild Card Game win

"Coming off of a 19-game improvement, we really felt we had another large improvement inside of us, and we accomplished it during the season and it got us into the postseason," general manager Jeff Luhnow said. "Right now my feeling is that's made us all hungrier to advance even further next year. Expectations will be higher, clearly, based on what we accomplished.

"We're pleased with the progress of the team, we're pleased with the progress of the organization. A.J. and his staff did a tremendous job of allowing the players to be themselves and be the best players they could be this year, and the result is what we saw on the field."

Keuchel, three-time All-Star second baseman Jose Altuve, and 19-game winner Collin McHugh all had great seasons once again, but it was the newcomers that pushed the Astros to the next level.

Correa and starting pitcher Lance McCullers Jr. were two of the top rookies in the game, and the additions to the bullpen -- Will Harris, Luke Gregerson and Pat Neshek -- paid off. Three players the Astros acquired in the winter -- Evan Gattis, Colby Rasmus and Luis Valbuena -- gave the Astros thunder up and down the lineup.

"I think as we reflect on this season, the bullpen was a strength of this team," Luhnow said. "Even though it doesn't look like a lot of bullpens, especially the ones you see in the postseason, where guys are throwing mid-to-high 90s, our guys to an end performed well this year and really exceeded our expectations in some respects. They slid back a little bit in September and during the postseason there were bumps along the road, every bullpen has some issues. But as a whole, our bullpen performed well."

Video: Luhnow, Hinch happy with Astros' season, future

The Astros took over first place in the AL West in mid-April and didn't relinquish it until a six-game losing streak at the All-Star break. They were back in first shortly after the break, and saw their division lead slip away when they were swept in four games in Arlington in September by the Rangers, who won the division.

"We had a lot of contributions from guys who weren't expected to do much this year and guys who were expected to do a lot really did a lot," Keuchel said. "Any combination of those two things, you have a chance to do something special. We were six outs away from the Championship Series and it just wasn't meant to be. We'll look to build on this next year and hope to make some progress."

Hinch set high expectations in spring, and to come within five wins of the World Series only validated it.

"When you put it in that respect, that's a pretty productive, positive season," he said. "We're very proud of what we did, what we accomplished, how we came together as a team, being in Game 5 of the Division Series, but hungry enough to be devastated that the season came to an end."

Record: 86-76, second place, American League West.

Defining moment: The Astros won 14 of 15 games, beginning April 18 and ending May 3, and roared out to an 18-7 start that served notice they were for real. The only game they lost during that 15-game span was a 3-2 defeat at Seattle that was their only blemish on an 8-1 road trip, though winning on the road would later prove to be difficult.

After the 14-1 spurt, the Astros played sub-.500 baseball the rest of the season, but still managed to remain in first place for 139 days. They opened up a seven-game lead at one point in May, and had a four-game lead entering September before an 11-16 month cost them the division and meant they had to settle for the second AL Wild Card.

Video: HOU@ARI: Altuve on the Astros making the playoffs

What went right: Plenty. New manager Hinch proved to be a perfect fit for a club with a mix of veterans and young players on the come. Hinch set a relaxed but business-like theme in the spring, but demanded the best from the players. They responded to him from the start. He never put too much pressure on them and set a consistent tone in the clubhouse that bred winning.

Keuchel (20 wins) and McHugh (19 wins) set the tone in the rotation, with Keuchel making a strong Cy Young Award case. The emergence of rookie shortstop Correa and starting pitcher McCullers Jr. was huge. Correa, 20 years old for most of the season, hit third on a playoff team en route to likely winning AL Rookie of the Year, and McCullers emerged as a contender to be a top-of-the-rotation starter next year.

Video: HOU@KC Gm5: Hinch on Keuchel in ALDS, strong season

The Astros upgraded their bullpen in the winter, and it paid off. The additions of Gregerson, Neshek and Harris gave Houston one of the top bullpens in the AL for much of the year, though the bullpen's September struggles probably cost the Astros the division.

The additions of sluggers Rasmus, Gattis and Valbuena helped the Astros finish second in the AL in home runs,  with all three setting career highs in homers. Correa, Altuve, infielder Marwin Gonzalez and rookie outfielder Preston Tucker also set career highs in homers as the Astros flashed power up and down their lineup.

Altuve, who won a batting title and set a club record with 225 hits last year, proved 2014 wasn't a fluke. He became the first player in Astros history to reach 200 hits twice and finished third in the AL batting race. He also led the AL in steals for the second year in a row.

What went wrong: After starting 15-7 on the road, the Astros had trouble away from home. They went 18-41 on the road from the end of May, though they did go 4-2 on a season-ending road trip in which every win was crucial. And, of course, they beat the Yankees in the AL Wild Card Game and won Game 1 of the ALDS in Kansas City, putting their road woes in the rearview mirror.

Video: HOU@KC Gm1: Altuve on taking Game 1 on the road

The bullpen's struggles in September cost the Astros a shot at the division title, which went to the Rangers. The Astros also blew a four-run eighth-inning lead in Game 4 that would have clinched the ALDS and sent them on to the AL Championship Series.

Starting right fielder George Springer missed two months with a broken wrist. The Astros went 26-27 with him out of the lineup. The team traded for center fielder Carlos Gomez in July, but he appeared in only 41 games because he was dealing with a strained intercostal muscle in the final three weeks of the season. Starting pitcher Scott Feldman was limited to 18 starts because of midseason knee surgery and a shoulder injury that cost him the final month of the season.

Biggest surprise: Harris. Sure, Altuve, Keuchel and Correa were terrific, but was anyone really surprised by their performances? Harris, a waiver pickup, set career highs in almost every category, posting a 1.90 ERA in 68 games. The last Astros relief pitcher to post a lower ERA than Harris was lefty Billy Wagner (1.57) in 1999.

Hitter of the Year: Altuve. The 25-year-old was named to his third All-Star Game and led the AL in hits (200) and steals (38) for the second year in a row. He was the only Major Leaguer to reach 40 doubles, 15 homers and 35 steals, and he batted .313 with career highs in home runs and RBIs (66).

Video: HOU@KC Gm1: Altuve goes 3-for-5, makes diving snag

Pitcher of the Year: Keuchel is the likely AL Cy Young Award winner after getting voted AL Pitcher of the Month three times. He went 20-8 with a 2.48 ERA in 33 starts, becoming the Astros' first 20-game winner since Roy Oswalt in 2005 and only the second lefty to win 20 games (Mike Hampton in 1999). He led all AL pitchers in groundball-to-flyball ratio (2.29), wins, WAR (7.2) and innings pitched (232) and was second in ERA and opponents' batting average (.217).

Rookie of the Year: Correa. He hit .279 with 22 homers and 68 RBIs. He set records for franchise rookie homers and most by a shortstop in club history. Despite being the youngest position player in the Majors and only playing 99 games, he led all shortstops in homers, OPS (.857) and slugging (.512) while ranking fourth in on-base percentage (.345). He also stole 14 bases.

Brian McTaggart is a reporter for
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