Astros advance to seventh consecutive ALCS as faces change, culture remains

MINNEAPOLIS, Minn. — Teams aren’t supposed to shed superstars and maintain stability. The Houston Astros scoff at such an absolute. They’ve worn the sport’s scarlet letter, seen organizational overhaul and watched countless clubs try to catch them. A roster of former players lost to more lucrative contracts could compete for championships. Those still with the team would discover a way to defeat them.

“There’s been a culture established here that hasn’t faded away. It’s still very present, and that’s a testament to the guys that were here before and the guys that remain here and the guys that are leaders of this ballclub,” ace Justin Verlander said. “They don’t allow slacking off, but they do it in a respectful manner. They expect the best of everyone because they’re giving their best every single day. What a great way to lead by example.

“I think our culture is something not tangible. Funny that (for) one of the most analytic-forward teams in baseball, something that makes this team so special is something that’s not measurable.”

Modern baseball can be beholden to everything that is, but the 2023 Astros benefited from breaking away. Their journey to another American League Championship Series is the antithesis of the six that preceded it.

Injuries to irreplaceable players threatened their season, only for unheralded understudies to keep them afloat. Faith never wavered in a first baseman authoring a brutal introduction to a new franchise or the catcher who can’t hit but controls everything else, even when all quantifiable data suggested otherwise.

“There are times when you just have to rely on faith and rely on a guy’s background,” manager Dusty Baker said. “I was always taught that water seeks its own level.”

Wednesday night, Baker’s team brought itself back to the only level it will accept. A 3-2 win against the Minnesota Twins secured the Astros’ seventh consecutive trip to the American League Championship Series. Four wins against their intrastate rival Texas Rangers separate them from a third straight trip to the World Series.

Houston is the first American League franchise to reach seven consecutive League Championship Series. Two general managers, one manager and too many players to count departed in between, but the dominance did not cease.

Culture can withstand changing faces, as long as some constants can maintain it. Verlander, Alex Bregman, Jose Altuve and Lance McCullers Jr. continue to perpetuate it. Catcher Martín Maldonado, too, even if he didn’t arrive until mid-2018.

“Top to bottom, going from Breggy to Jose to Lance to JV, it’s just the mentality they have. I don’t think a lot of people quite understand that until you’re in the clubhouse and you see it,” said closer Ryan Pressly, present for six of the seven appearances. “The camaraderie that we have in there, picking each other up day in and day out is something that we strive for.”

Pressly procured the final three outs for his 13th career postseason save. His strikeout of Max Kepler kept Carlos Correa on deck to end the game. No sight felt more apt: a departed superstar watching the team he left celebrate at his expense. Houston inflicted similar misery on Gerrit Cole during last season’s American League Championship Series, too.

Standards don’t dip due to a talent drain. This franchise expects excellence, even if it must be creative in cultivating it. Much of the regular season did not meet it. Houston won 16 fewer games than it did last season. The team’s defense took a downward spiral. Regression plagued the pitching staff. Inconsistency infiltrated the lineup.

“When it’s October, end of the year, and we need to show up and start playing clean, we can do that,” outfielder Chas McCormick said. “I think we have a switch to be able to turn it on, just like that. That’s why it feels so good right now. With all the ups and downs we had this past year, just kind of not knowing our identity at the time.”

Only in the postseason does this team’s true self seem to appear. Houston homered nine times against one of the American League’s best pitching staffs. Yordan Alvarez and José Abreu accounted for seven of them, forming a menacing middle of the order the Astros missed for so much of this season.

Before Wednesday’s game, Abreu approached Houston strength coach Hazael Wessin. As the two men finished pregame preparations, Abreu mentioned he never celebrated twice in any of his nine seasons in Chicago. Last winter, he signed a three-year $58.5 million contract with the Astros to change that

Only two major-league players took more regular-season plate appearances than Abreu and finished with a worse bWAR. October can clean slates and author redemption arcs. Consider one in progress for the slugger they call Pitó.

Abreu finished the series 5-for-12. He struck three home runs and had eight RBIs. His two-run, opposite-field home run against Caleb Thielbar in the fourth inning of Wednesday’s game proved the decisive blow.

José Abreu’s two-run home run Wednesday was the difference. (Jesse Johnson / USA Today)

“The only thing I can say is thank you. The person that’s not grateful with what life has given them isn’t going to reach many goals. I can’t say anything other than thank you. I’m just very grateful to be here,” Abreu said through an interpreter.

“I think in life we need to understand it’s a different year. Life will put some challenges out there for you and make it difficult for you, but this group of guys, they’re all warriors. When they’re warriors, there’s nothing to worry about.”

Abreu is new to the Astros’ annual assault on October. Others who are not joined him in stepping up. Starters Cristian Javier and José Urquidy unleashed the best versions of themselves after tepid regular seasons. The two men teamed to throw 10 2/3 innings of one-run ball across these two wins at Target Field.

“We were confident with all the guys on this staff. These guys have done it before. They pitch in big games, rise to the occasion,” pitching coach Josh Miller said. “We felt good with both of them against this lineup. They both executed their secondary pitches enough to keep them off the fastball. They pitched really well and we expect them to do so going forward.”

Wednesday, Urquidy only had enough stamina for around 75 pitches. He tossed 82 across 5 2/3 innings. Two of the Twins’ three hits against him left the ballpark. Royce Lewis launched a flat changeup 398 feet into the left-field seats in the first inning. Edouard Julien took another to the opposite field during the fifth, whittling Houston’s lead to one.

No Twin struck a hit between the two bombs. At one point, Urquidy struck out five consecutive Twins. He flummoxed the free-swinging lineup with his sneaky four-seam fastball, some better-executed changeups and a clear plan to manipulate the pitch clock.

Urquidy allowed the timer to tick down during select moments. He strolled around the mound, stretched his legs or bent down to grab some dirt before returning to the rubber and beginning his delivery with either three or two seconds remaining. Hitters must be engaged at the eight-second mark.

Three relievers appeared after Urquidy exited. They teamed to strike out seven of the 11 Twins they saw. Astros pitchers permitted 13 runs and punched out 52 Twins across the four-game series, exploiting a lineup that struck out more than any in baseball during the regular season.

“There’s nothing better than experience, and we have experienced guys in the postseason,” general manager Dana Brown said. “These guys have been here before, have the heartbeat for this and, at the end of the day, they got the job done.”

Brown is another new face still familiarizing himself with this rite of passage. He often asks whether his team or players “have the stomach” for such high-stakes situations.

This team has that and then some. None of the six playoff runs before it have tested Houston’s mettle like this one.

Verlander acknowledged it afterward in his clubhouse address, congratulating the team for “f—ing grinding” through injuries and inconsistency. He implored teammates not to take something for granted they make seem so routine, requesting they wait until he counted to seven and then start the celebration.

“I know that we’ll probably look back at this and (realize) how more special this is, but this is special,” Michael Brantley said. “You don’t take it for granted ever. It’s a tribute to a lot of guys that work hard every day in this locker room.”

(Top photo: Jesse Johnson / USA Today)

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