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Gurriel's hunch proves correct: He belongs

Cuban first baseman has found a niche with the Astros @JesseSanchezMLB

LOS ANGELES -- The mere possibility of playing in the big leagues in the United States had all but disappeared from Yuli Gurriel's mind, but it resurfaced one night while playing in Japan in 2014.

He lost sleep. He couldn't concentrate. It consumed him.

LOS ANGELES -- The mere possibility of playing in the big leagues in the United States had all but disappeared from Yuli Gurriel's mind, but it resurfaced one night while playing in Japan in 2014.

He lost sleep. He couldn't concentrate. It consumed him.

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The idea that, if given the chance, he might one day conquer an American field far from his own homeland followed him back to Cuba and, eventually, to the Dominican Republic where he made a decision that launched his unlikely career in the U.S. and changed his life forever.

The Astros' first baseman is a big reason why the team secured a spot in the World Series that starts tonight at Dodger Stadium. But his journey to Los Angeles began with a simple question, one he couldn't shake no matter how hard he tried.

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"I was thinking, 'Why not?'" Gurriel, 33, said in Spanish. 'Why not play in the best league in the world?' I didn't want to end my career without knowing if I could play in the Major Leagues and be successful."

In February 2016, at the Caribbean Series in Santo Domingo, Dominican Republic, Gurriel and younger brother Lourdes Jr.. defected in the middle of the night.

Yuli signed a five-year, $47.5 million with the Astros five months later. Lourdes Jr., who goes by the nickname "Yunito," signed a seven-year, $22 million deal with the Blue Jays that October, not long after his 23rd birthday.

"It wasn't about the money," Yuli said. "If it was about the money, I would have left the first time I left Cuba to play for the national team when I was 17. Like I have said before, I have a baseball family. My father was a big figure in Cuba and I was happy. Playing in the Major Leagues was something I couldn't imagine and it was basically impossible in my mind.

"But time passed and things started changing in the United States. I started thinking about playing in the United States -- where every player wants to go."

The Gurriels' departure unraveled the fabric of baseball in Cuba. They were considered baseball royalty.

Video: Carlos Pena talks Yuli Gurriel on MLB Tonight

Yuli was an Olympian in 2004, and represented Cuba in all three World Baseball Classic tournaments. He was part of Cuban championship teams at the Pan American Games, Central American Games, World Baseball Championships, International Cup and Caribbean Series.

During his 15-year career with the Cuban National Series and Japan Central League, Gurriel racked up 1,585 hits, 308 doubles, 48 triples, 250 home runs, 1,018 RBIs and scored 974 runs while batting for a .335 average with a .997 OPS.

His older brother, Yunieski, won two MVP Awards during his 16 seasons in Serie Nacional and later played two seasons playing for Quebec in the Canadian-American Association.

Their father, Lourdes Gurriel Sr., played for the national team for 15 years and won a gold medal, two batting titles and an MVP Award in Cuba. He was also a national team manager.

Every member of Gurriel's immediate family now lives in the United States.

"I know the type of player my brother is, and now the rest of the world is finding out," said Lourdes Gurriel Jr., who left Cuba as the island's top prospect. "Lots of people are surprised about his regular and postseason, but I knew he could do that. I know last year was a good experience. He saw the league and I knew he would be better this time around. He's showing the player he was Cuba."

The Astros, like every other team in baseball, followed Gurriel's career for more than a decade, but they never believed he would leave the island. Yuli was always open about his desire to play Major League Baseball, but his stance remained the same: He wanted to leave the island legally. When the opportunity never surfaced, the brothers left on their own.

The Astros held a private workout for Yuli in Miami, but it was merely a formality. They knew what Gurriel could do before he even stepped on the field, and the front office was impressed by his makeup and desire.

He continues to live up to the high expectations.

According to Statcast™, Gurriel sported a .320 batting average, and slugged .583 with eight home runs during the regular season against sliders, ranking him fifth among 66 hitters with at least 100 at-bats decided on the pitch. He also hit well against fastballs, combining to hit .308 and slugging .484 with seven home runs against four-seamers, two-seamers and sinkers during the regular season.

No matter the pitch, Gurriel hits the ball hard. He has always hit the ball hard.

Video: ALCS Gm5: Gurriel leads off the 2nd with a double

During the regular season, the first baseman tied for ninth-most hard-hit balls (exit velocity of 95-plus mph), with 204. In the postseason, he has 18 hard-hit balls, the most of anyone in the playoffs.

His average exit velocity on all batted balls during the regular season was 89.9 mph, good enough to be in the top 10 percent in that category. During the playoffs, his average exit velocity is 93.8 mph, the second-highest of any hitter who's had at least 10 batted balls.

"He did a lot for Cuba and Cuban baseball," said right fielder Yasiel Puig, who like Gurriel is from Cuba and played in the Serie Nacional. "He hit in the regular season, he hit in the postseason and he's going to hit in the World Series. If you play baseball all of your life and you are good in your country, you are going to be good in the United States, too."

The reserved Gurriel is elated for fellow Cubans like Jose Abreu, Aroldis Chapman, Puig and countless others who defected before he did in search of fame and fortune in the United States, but says that's not his story. Those players had their own questions to answer.

"I felt good in Cuba," Gurriel said. "But things happen for a reason and God wanted me to be here at this moment."

Jesse Sanchez, who has been writing for since 2001, is a national reporter based in Phoenix. Follow him on Twitter @JesseSanchezMLB and Facebook.

Houston Astros, Yuli Gurriel