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Elite closer missing puzzle piece for Astros

MLB.com @MikeLupica

When the Astros won their first World Series last year, the most important closers in baseball didn't turn out to be Aroldis Chapman or Craig Kimbrel or Kenley Jansen. The two most important closers turned out to be Lance McCullers Jr. in Game 7 of the American League Championship Series and Charlie Morton in Game 7 of the World Series. Neither one simply pitched the ninth inning of those games, normally a closer's office. McCullers pitched four shutout innings against the Yankees. Morton pitched four innings of one-run ball against the Dodgers.

This wasn't just closing. This was door-slamming, in the two biggest games of the postseason. It didn't matter in the end, and at the end of those games, that the Astros didn't have an elite closer. They won, anyway. Maybe they can do it again that way. It's sort of not the way to bet.

When the Astros won their first World Series last year, the most important closers in baseball didn't turn out to be Aroldis Chapman or Craig Kimbrel or Kenley Jansen. The two most important closers turned out to be Lance McCullers Jr. in Game 7 of the American League Championship Series and Charlie Morton in Game 7 of the World Series. Neither one simply pitched the ninth inning of those games, normally a closer's office. McCullers pitched four shutout innings against the Yankees. Morton pitched four innings of one-run ball against the Dodgers.

This wasn't just closing. This was door-slamming, in the two biggest games of the postseason. It didn't matter in the end, and at the end of those games, that the Astros didn't have an elite closer. They won, anyway. Maybe they can do it again that way. It's sort of not the way to bet.

The Astros, I believe, would be the most complete team in baseball, especially in light of having the best starting rotation in all the land, if they had an elite closer. They do not. I don't believe they can make it back to the World Series without one. Their general manager, Jeff Luhnow, one of the best and most creative minds of this generation in the big leagues, ultimately won the Astros the World Series in 2017 with one of the most important in-season trades in recent baseball history, for Justin Verlander.

Before Luhnow did pull off that trade with the Tigers, there was so much chatter across the summer that he was fixed on getting Zach Britton of the Orioles who, when healthy, had been a permanent part of the conversation about the dominant ninth-inning guys anywhere. The trade was never made. Luhnow went for a starter instead, A.J. Hinch went with starters in both Game 7s, and Astros made baseball history in Houston.

They could make more by repeating. They can't do that without reinforcements at the back end of the bullpen, at least not off the season we have seen them play so far. All you have to do is look at the two series they have played against the Yankees, first at Minute Maid Park, and the past few nights at Yankee Stadium. The Yankees ended up winning five of the seven games the two teams played, three in the ninth.

Video: Must C Clutch: Sanchez's go-ahead shot KO's Astros

In one of them, in Houston, in a scoreless game during which Verlander had been pretty splendid, Ken Giles gave up a three-run homer to Gary Sanchez in the top of the ninth. Game ended up 4-0, Yankees. On Tuesday night, Chris Devenski tried to close out a 5-3 win for the Astros at Yankee Stadium, and gave up a two-run homer to Brett Gardner in the bottom of the ninth instead. Yankees ended up winning in extra innings.

Oh, and by the way, in the last game of that four-game series in Houston at the start of May, the Yankees came back to win 6-5 with three in the ninth against Will Harris and Brad Peacock.

So there were three ninth innings like that just in the month of May for the Astros against the Yankees. Or maybe they would be 5-2 against the Yankees, whom they won't meet again until the playoffs, and maybe not even then if the Astros don't have better late-inning pitchers by then.

"I effed up today," Giles said after giving up that home run to Sanchez and then giving himself a punch to the head on his way back to the dugout. "It's all on me."

Video: NYY@HOU: Giles shows frustration after leaving game

The other day, when the Astros had that big lead against the Indians before blowing it and losing another one in extra innings, all the troubles in their world started with Jose Ramirez finally doubling off Giles after a pretty epic 17-pitch at-bat.

Britton is starting his own road back to the big leagues after an offseason training injury to his Achilles tendon. He pitched an inning for the High-A Frederick Keys on Wednesday night. He's going to be even more available this summer than last summer when he's healthy; going to be for sale because just about everybody is in Baltimore. Same in Kansas City with Kelvin Herrera, a closer with 12 saves on a bad team and a 0.83 ERA. Who knows, maybe the Padres put Brad Hand, 18 saves and a 1.93 ERA, in play at the Trade Deadline if they think the price is right.

Point is, there will be options for the Astros. They're deep and talented and young and have that rotation. But the Yankees are better. The Red Sox are better. So are the Mariners and the Angels. The Indians are starting to come on now, perhaps propelled by that game they got off the Astros bullpen on Memorial Day. I still think the Astros would be better than all of them with a real closer. Don't have one. Need to get one if they want to repeat.

Mike Lupica is a columnist for MLB.com. He also writes for the New York Daily News.

Houston Astros