HOUSTON -- Describing himself as a proud and insanely jealous Astros fan, former second baseman Jeff Kent spoke admiringly about the 2018 Houston ballclub while wistfully looking back at his own 17-year Major League career.
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Kent loves what the Astros are doing these days. But he also feels pangs, as he did when they won the World Series last year, remembering how close he was to winning a title when he was a player.
"I was a Game 7 loser with the Giants [in 2002], and we were one game away from going to the World Series with the Astros," Kent said. "So yes, I'm proud and grateful that I was part of a program making transitions, but I'm jealous as all get out because I'm a competitor and I wanted it to be me [winning the World Series] and not someone else."
Kent was invited back to Minute Maid Park by the Astros to throw the ceremonial first pitch before the Astros were eliminated with a the 4-1 loss in Game 5 of the American League Championship Series on Thursday night. Accompanied by his youngest son, 15-year-old Kaeden, Kent reflected fondly on his two seasons with the Astros, who made it to Game 7 of the National League Championship Series before falling to the Cardinals in '04.
Kent hit a memorable home run that postseason, launching a walk-off three-run homer in the ninth inning of Game 5 of the NLCS that put Houston ahead in the series, 3-2.
"Some of the old folks still remember me around and talk about that," said Kent, who lives near Austin. "It's pretty special. It's not so special anymore, now that these [current] Astros have outdone us all when we were playing, winning the World Series. But yes, it's neat to talk about. It's one of maybe the top three highlights of my career."
Kent, compared to most big leaguers, had a somewhat odd, reclusive personality when he played, opting out of most of the socialization that takes place on a day-to-day basis in the clubhouse over the course of a long season. But he was also known as a fierce competitor who detested losing, and he had a laser-sharp focus that made him one of baseball's more admired teammates.
Kent heaped praise on the current crop of Astros, especially when he was asked specifically about second baseman Jose Altuve, who contributed mightily this month despite playing with a painful right knee.
"Impressive," Kent said. "His stature, his personality, the way he carries himself, the way he hustles, the way he plays through pain, the way he can shorten his swing up, make his swing big when he has to ... he has all the tools.
"I'm jealous, because I wish I had either played with him, or jealous because he's a hell of a ballplayer and he could have been better than I was. And proud, because I wore the Astros uniform, and he's doing the same thing, and he won a championship."
Altuve plays through injury
The sore right knee that has plagued Altuve for the second half of the season is so debilitating that manager AJ Hinch admitted prior to Game 5 of the ALCS that Altuve would be on the disabled list if this were the regular season.
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"If it was any other time of the year, he wouldn't be in the lineup or wouldn't be playing," Hinch said before Game 5. "He'd probably be on the DL or under different circumstances. But he's showing up every day, good spirits, ready to go, giving 100 percent of what he's got. And he should be commended and appreciated."
Altuve, last year's AL Most Valuable Player Award winner, injured his right knee sliding into second base in a game against the Rockies at Coors Field in late July and has played through pain since. The injury forced Altuve to go on the disabled list for the first time in his career, and he aggravated the injury sliding into second base during Game 4 on Wednesday.
Altuve started at second base the first two games of the series before Hinch moved him to designated hitter in Games 3 and 4 to rest his knee. Hinch had hoped to have him back at second base for Game 5, but the knee aggravation made that a non-starter.
"When we went out to see him at second base, we knew he wasn't going to come out of the game, but you've got to give him a little bit of a blow there to take a few seconds to let the pain subside and then the ovation was incredible for that," Hinch said. "So the fans appreciate him, his teammates revere him. The production that he's doing on one leg is pretty incredible. And he's trying not to talk about it. And, therefore, I am."
The Astros haven't given an official diagnosis of what's wrong with the knee, but it's possible he's headed for surgery in the offseason. Despite the injury, Altuve reached base safely in Houston's first seven games of the postseason, scoring at least one run in six of those games.
Astros pitchers walked 18 batters in 35 innings in the first four games of the ALCS. That's an uncharacteristic performance from a team that finished fourth in the Major Leagues during the regular season for the fewest walks allowed.
Hinch hinted the high walk total had more to do with the Astros pitching around the zone and the Red Sox hitters doing a good job of being patient rather than Houston's staff suffering from a lack of command.
"Sure, we want to throw perfect strikes," Hinch said. And this lineup will make you be a little more careful than perhaps the 30th-ranked offense. But I just think it's this time of year where everything is so precise and you make a few mistakes along the way and vice versa. The first part of the series, we were drawing all the walks -- Game 1 and part of Game 2. So it's a tough league, a tough series."