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Grit, determination define Astros under Hinch

MLB.com @RichardJustice

HOUSTON -- Three years ago, when winning the World Series was still a distant dream for the Astros, new manager A.J. Hinch had two important conversations with second baseman Jose Altuve.

One was a get-to-know-you chat after Hinch's hiring following the 2014 season. It dealt with routine stuff. Only in attempting to change the culture of the Astros, nothing was routine.

HOUSTON -- Three years ago, when winning the World Series was still a distant dream for the Astros, new manager A.J. Hinch had two important conversations with second baseman Jose Altuve.

One was a get-to-know-you chat after Hinch's hiring following the 2014 season. It dealt with routine stuff. Only in attempting to change the culture of the Astros, nothing was routine.

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"We talked a lot about getting better," Hinch said. "We talked about the 100-loss seasons. We talked about the grind that had taken its toll. I asked him one question: 'Why don't we talk about winning?'"

Hinch steered every conversation with a player, coach or executive in that direction. In the end, everything had to be about that. By the time Houston won Game 7 of the World Series on Wednesday night at Dodger Stadium, those chats had come full circle.

"We had this little burn in us that never stopped, and that raises the bar even higher," Hinch said. "We're going to talk about winning a lot now. Obviously, as we go into next season, we're going to have to handle success equally as well, if not better, than we handled the failure. That for me is one of the most exciting challenges."

Hinch's other memorable talk with Altuve occurred after the Astros had been eliminated by the Royals in Game 5 of the American League Division Series in 2015.

"He walked into my office and said, 'This is on me. I feel it's my fault,'" Hinch remembered.

Hinch assured him the Astros get nowhere near the playoffs without the man who is now a three-time AL batting champion and favorite to win the 2017 AL Most Valuable Player Award.

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In four seasons (2011-14) before the '15 playoff appearance, Houston averaged 104 losses. To go from that low point to winning the franchise's first World Series will be remembered forever by the people who made it happen.

"Our players were really at the end of their gas tank [last week]," Hinch said. "This is a lot of baseball. There wasn't a single guy that felt good, including the coaching staff. We're all beat up at the end of this run because of the emotional roller coaster you go through, the physical grind that happens.

"To a man, these guys played through a lot of different things. But you'd have to rip these dudes off the field for them not to be able to play. I love how our guys posted at the end."

For Hinch, the joy -- both personal and professional -- is something he's still wrapping his mind around.

"That's the best feeling in the world as a coach," he said. "This was the biggest smiles, the best celebration, the best hugs you can possibly imagine on a baseball field. It's thrilling. There's nothing like it.

"To watch George Springer go from having to talk about strikeouts after the first game to winning the World Series MVP, there's a lot of emotion involved in that when you're in charge of leading 'em on the field.

"The moment that these guys run in the dog pile in the middle of the field, that first champagne that comes on after we get into the clubhouse, it's hard to describe because it's hard to get that feeling. I loved every second of it, and I want to do it again."

Among the hundreds of text messages Hinch received since Game 7 were those from former managers, coaches, players, etc. All of them offered advice. Actually, the same advice.

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"This is new for me, for all of us really," Hinch said. "The texts were telling me to soak up, to take a lot of pictures and videos, because at some point this thing passes and you move into the future and you want to enjoy this as much as you can. It does represent a lot of hard work and a lot of people spending years in this organization."

And there was this memory:

"Think about this picture," he said. "We have two televisions in the dugout to see each bullpen. I have Dallas Keuchel and Justin Verlander warming up in Game 7 of the World Series. Both as relievers. Both may be coming in for one out apiece to win the World Series.

"I'm looking out at Charlie Morton pitching his heart out. Our front office was steadfast that he was going to be a difference-maker on our team coming off an injury-riddled season.

"That never happens. Our two top pitchers warming up in case another one of our pitchers needs some help in the ninth inning of the seventh game of the World Series. I'll forever remember that picture and that feeling as part of this process."

When Morton finally did get the last out, Hinch saw Astros legend Enos Cabell weeping on the field. He saw the two Hall of Famers -- Craig Biggio and Jeff Bagwell -- with the same joy the current players had. He saw the parents of players crying.

"I think that's what starts to resonate with players is how many people represented them and supported them," Hinch said, "and Astros alumni celebrating from around the world."

Even if Houston wins the World Series again -- or multiple times -- nothing is likely to be as meaningful as this first one. That's the part the Astros are still getting their minds around.

Richard Justice has been a reporter for MLB.com since 2011. Read his columns and follow him on Twitter at @RichardJustice.

Houston Astros