By Paul Muth
Back in 2015 I sat at a bar with my baseball watching buddies and watched the Astros lose to the Arizona Diamondbacks to close out the season. In spite of the loss–and what had also turned into a bit of a skid toward the end of the season—the Astros went on to clinch a wildcard berth, ending a decade-long playoff drought prior to that.
As the Astros prepared for their wildcard game, I remember taking the same approach regarding their playoff expectations as Manager AJ Hinch echoed in the preseason:
“Let’s go out there and have some fun.”
I was just happy that they were back in the conversation, especially when no one expected the playoffs for the Astros that year.
We’re not supposed to be here, I thought. But since we are, let’s have some fun until we get caught.
My expectations that postseason echoed my typical Rockets postseason sentiment: It’s possible, but not probable. Then they played the Yankees–in New York—in a single elimination Wildcard Game…and shut them out.
They moved on to Kansas City and smacked them in the mouth with a game one 5-2 victory. They played arrogant, and unlike a lot of postseason camera frames full of neck-bearded sternly faced ball players, you could that this team was flat out having fun.
Age and experience soon caught up to the Astros that season, and they would go on to lose in game five to the eventual World Series Champions that year. It was tough to swallow, but at the same time there was consolation in knowing that we had wildly outplayed our expectations that year.
Fast forward to today. The Astros are a little over 24 hours from taking a postseason playing field since that final out in Kansas City two years ago, and the atmosphere is very different.
I’ve walked around all week with this amalgamated ball of excitement, nervousness and anxiety sitting in my stomach. Now everyone gets amped for the playoffs, I get that. But this is different. There’s more nervousness involved, and that’s because this is the first time in my life as a Houston sports fan that I honestly think we can do something legendary.
It’s not a carefree, “happy that we made it,” vibe this time, and it shouldn’t be. In 2015 we celebrated making the playoffs on the last day of the regular season. This year, I had the champagne washed out of my jersey for two weeks before game 162.
There’s no single elimination wildcard to worry about this year, because they crushed their division with a league-leading 21 game lead to end the season. They’re not heading to some enemy territory to kick off the playoffs either, because with the 3rd best record in the league, teams have to come to you.
Justin Verlander has been unhittable since he first put on the “H” star, and Keuchel remains one of the filthiest lefties in the game. With that combination, Houston is sending a Cy Young winner out for game one, and following that up with a Cy Young winner for game two. Think about that. Game three will likely go to Brad Peacock, who has been almost equally devastating to opposing bats.
There was a lot of angst pointed toward Houston’s bullpen all season, but it’s nothing to worry about. The Astros sent bad relievers out purposefully all season long to preserve our better arms. They were able to do that because they typically had a massive lead on teams. Now that the playoffs are here, almost all of the question marks in the pen have been left off the playoff roster. Starting pitchers like Lance McCullers Jr. and Joe Musgrove replaced them and have proven that in limited innings they can shut teams down late in the game.
Offensively, the Astros are among the best in baseball. They’ll be trotting out MVP favorite Jose Altuve, who became the first player in history to lead the AL or NL in hits in four straight seasons and only the 5th with four straight 200 hit seasons. He’ll fit in next to George Springer-who smashed 34 bombs in the leadoff spot-and Carlos Correa, who has become almost impossible to get out in the last two weeks. Alex Bregman is a double machine, Yuli Gurriel is a threat, and Josh Reddick is as reliable as they come. There are simply no holes on this offense. Pitchers don’t get a chance to breathe on the back end of the lineup, because everyone is a threat.
Bottom line is this: it’s time to drink the Kool-Aid, guys. It’s time to jump on the bandwagon. It’s OK to get your hopes up, because that’s where they should be this year. That’s why I’m an excited, nervous, anxious wreck at the moment. This team is the best shot Houston has in any sport of winning a championship, and tomorrow afternoon they’re kicking the damn playoff door open—guns blazing.
Editor’s note: Paul Muth is an Army vet who tends to talk a lot, so when his friends tell him to stop, he either writes or talks to a microphone and calls it a podcast. He writes better with a beard and looks better with a beer. Or something like that. Follow him on twitter at @abumnamedpaul