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17 of 2017: Best Houston sports moments of the year, part III (5-1)

Houston Astros' Jose Altuve, center, and his teammates celebrate during a rally honoring the World Series baseball champions Friday, Nov. 3, 2017, in Houston. (Brett Coomer/Houston Chronicle via AP)

By Paul Muth

This is part III of a three-part series.

Part I can be found here.

Part II can be found here.

2017 was spectacular for every Houston sports fan with a pulse. It had something for everyone. It paid homage. It rewarded patience. It inspired. It captivated.

In all honesty, it actually took me a minute to realize just how insane this calendar year was for Houston sports. There were so many individually great moments that the thought of taking a step back and assessing the year as a whole never crossed my mind until now. As one does, typically…

…at the end of a year.

Whatever, I’m doing it now, and that’s what matters.

When I started considering the idea of writing this, I assumed it would be easy to come up with a few moments, toss them in a list and call it a day. But as I brainstormed, I realized just how many great moments there were since January 1 and I couldn’t in good conscience whittle the list down.

Poetic, it seems, that the number landed on 17. So, without further ado, I present the top 17 moments of 2017.

5) The Greatest Super Bowl Ever

tom-trophy-simon-bruty.jpg

Fact: Houston can host the hell out of a Super Bowl, and I was half-dead from a week’s worth of partying as a result by the time the game finally kicked-off. It was one of the craziest weeks I had ever experienced as a football fan, and it culminated with the craziest Super Bowl of all time. Not an opinion. Another fact. We heard the jets scream over the house as they completed their fly-over for the national anthem, and it was time for some tackly-ball.

The Falcons jumped ALL OVER the Patriots. They did everything right. That was their game to win as they headed into the locker room up 21-3. The casual fans at the watch party I was at rightfully assumed it was all but over and turned their attention to conversation amongst one another.

Nah, bruh. We’re talking about the Patriots. And when you play the Patriots, you never, ever, ever take your foot off the gas.

Atlanta, up 28-3, did just that. And when the last second expired in the fourth quarter, they found themselves in a tie ballgame with the G.O.A.T. and the hoodie. And then they lost. IN OVERTIME! IN THE SUPER BOWL!

I slept for several days after that game.

4) Kate Upton moves to Houston, forces athlete husband to find jobWORLD_SERIES_ASTROS_DODGERS_BASEBALL_46941822.JPG

As the trade deadline approached mid-summer, the question was never if the Astros were going to pick up another starting pitcher. The question was who. As the big names linked to Houston slipped off the board and onto other teams, players and fans alike began looking around the room trying to figure out what exactly was going on.

Why weren’t they picking anyone up?

The non-waiver trade deadline passed July 31, and when the dust settled there were two new unreliable faces in the bullpen. Nothing else.

No Sonny Gray, no Jose Quintana, no Gerrit Cole, no Yu Darvish, and no Justin Verlander.

The Astros front office had always assured Houston fans that once the rebuild was over, once the team was winning again, that they would have no issue opening up the checkbook to push the team over the top. On the day of the deadline, the Astros held a 69-37 record, yet an unwillingness to overpay was, in fact, a key contributor to their lack of movement that day. The fans and players both felt betrayed.

The proverbial gut punch was noticeable in the locker room and on the field. The Astros finished the month of August 11-17, with zero momentum and a hurricane-ravaged city they were delayed from returning to.

It was the hurricane, however, that turned everything around. Feeling a need to give back to the decimated city, Astros owner Jim Crane instructed his general manager, Jeff Lunhow, to make a deal for the only remaining pitcher available: Detroit Tigers ace, Justin Verlander.

The two sides volleyed offers across the table, and with 3 hours remaining before the waiver trade deadline a deal was finally agreed upon. It was now up to Verlander to decide whether to waive his no-trade clause and become an Astro or void the trade. The deadline was midnight.

Verlander waived his no-trade clause and the trade was verified at 11:59:58.

When Verlander arrived, the relatively young and loose Astros squad all sat up straight in their classroom seats. You could tell through their body language that the team collectively respected him and it seemed as if they were afraid to let him down. The Astros finished the month of September 22-8, and Verlander finished the season with an ERA of 1.06 in his final 5 starts as an Astro.

He would go on to post a 2.21 ERA in his dominating post season run, but my most memorable moment of Justin Freakin’ Verlander will always be Game 2 of the World Series when he returned from the locker room to, uh, encourage the team (I’ll get into it later).

The Justin Verlander trade was one of the biggest reasons the Astros won the World Series. And speaking of Game 2…

3) Game Two of the World Seriesgonzalez_jansen.jpg.size-custom-crop.0x650.jpg

Astros fans had little time to dust themselves off, after a game one dismantling proved just how difficult it would be to defeat Clayton Kershaw and the Los Angeles Dodgers. Houston entered game two with an 0-5 World Series record, knowing they would need to steal at least one game in Los Angeles to have a shot. The bedlam that followed would unknowingly set the tone for the entire series.

Tom Verducci of Sports Illustrated put it best:

“When curators come for the preservation of the first World Series victory in Houston Astros history, they better skip the white gloves and acid-free paper and opt for hazmat suits and liquid helium.”

In the top of the third, Houston drew first blood. With 2 on Alex Bregman fired a sharp line drive up the middle. Center fielder Christ Taylor dove for the catch, and while his glove and body missed the ball, his hat—yes the brim of his hat—did not. The ball bounced off of his hat, deadening its momentum and turning what would have been a bases clearing double or triple into an RBI single and a simple mop up job for left fielder Joc Pederson.

With that, the Astros had given Verlander some breathing room. He continued cutting through the Dodgers lineup until his first mistake pitch was sent over the fence by Pederson in the bottom of the fifth. Astros fans grew nervous, but were reassured by the presence of our most dominant postseason pitcher on the mound.

One inning later Verlander gave up his second hit of the game, which happened to be a two-run blast to shortstop Cory Seager. It was now 3-1 Dodgers, and Houston’s mighty savior had been cut down. The situation looked bleak. Verlander’s night was over.

During the regular season I wouldn’t have blinked at a 2 run deficit. The Astros had bats for days and all it would take was one pitch to hang for Houston to climb back in the game. But this wasn’t the regular season. These were the Dodgers, and they were 98-0 all season when leading heading into the eighth inning. Their bullpen hadn’t allowed a run in 28 consecutive innings. That 3-1 lead might as well have been 8-1.

Third baseman Alex Bregman dug in to start the eighth. Facing Brandon Morrow, Bregman took a 1-1 offer into right field for a ground-rule double after a failed diving attempt by Yasiel Puig allowed the ball to bounce into the stands. The garish right fielder threw a tantrum, and spiked his blue glove in the dirt. This was the glimmer of hope the Astros needed to spark a run.

Morrow was immediately pulled from the game, and the ball was placed in the hands of the most dominant closer in all of baseball in 2017. Kenley Jansen took the mound, and hope began to fade once again as the eventual AL MVP Jose Altuve was immediately retired for out number one.

Then Carlos Correa dug in and hit a ground ball into center field, scoring Bregman. The Dodgers, it finally seemed, could bleed too. Jansen retired the remainder of the side in order. 3-2 Dodgers.

In the top of the ninth, Jansen once again took the mound. He had been asked to deliver a six out save only once all season, but this was the World Series so I guess the playbook didn’t matter. He set to work on his first batter, Marwin Gonzales, and put him in a two strike hole early. Until this point, Jansen had not allowed a home run in his last 82 at bats when hitters were put in an 0-2 hole.

Jansen pitched. Gonzales swung. Game tied, 3-3.

The bar patio I was watching from erupted from our collectively sunken, despondent postures into a mosh pit of pure adrenaline. We suddenly had ourselves a game. Ken Giles entered the bottom of the ninth and retired the side in order.

At the top of the 10th, Jose Altuve led off with a home run to retake a lead lost 5 innings ago. Correa followed with a home run of his own and the bar was completely unhinged at this point. Back-to-back home runs had never occurred in extra innings of a World Series game. Houston ended the inning 3 outs away from their first World Series game victory.

To the chagrin of the diehard fans now pacing back and forth around the bar patio, Ken Giles returned to the mound. Puig dug in and poetically atoned for his fielding error, smashing a home run into left center field. The lead was down to one, and Giles notched two more outs before walking Logan Forsythe. Enrique Hernandez would drive Forsythe home on a single that turned into a double on a bad throw, tie the game at 5-5, and send Giles packing.

Chris Devenski replaced Giles and fate itself seemed to step in to make amends for Taylor’s hat deflection earlier in the game. In a poorly executed pickoff attempt, the ball sailed wide left of Correa’s reach. It would have died in shallow center and possibly sealed a Dodgers victory, had it not bounced off of second base umpire Laz Diaz. The inadvertent backstop kept Hernandez at second, and the roller coaster continued (side note: Diaz will probably never have to buy a beer in Houston again). Devenski retired the side, but a beast had been woken.

From the locker room emerged a fiery Verlander, seemingly enraged by the blown lead. The cameras zoomed in as he barked at the team from the top locker room step like the hype man in the middle of a football huddle just before kickoff. No one was going to take this win away from him. The grizzled vet then descended back into the tunnel. His teammates all claim that it was positive encouragement, but it certainly didn’t look like it. Didn’t matter. Whatever he said worked.

Cameron Maybin stepped into the box, stared down the Dodgers last available reliever, and kicked off the inning with a single. His legend among the people was cemented soon after, when he stole second and earned free Taco Bell tacos for the entire country. Not to be outdone, George Springer dug in and clobbered a game-sealing two run homer.

The Dodgers would earn one back off of yet another home run, and two outs later the game came down to Devenski versus Puig. Puig battled for eight pitches. Devenski threw his ninth, Puig whiffed, and the game mercifully drew to a close after four hours and nineteen minutes. 7-6, Astros.

In the most preposterous, unreal performance since their 18-inning ALDS bonanza against the Braves, the Astros had won their first World Series game. Sports writers across the country were quick to label it one of the greatest World Series games of all time. Little did any of us know that this beautifully orchestrated, brilliantly executed affront to baseball was simply a preamble to the greatest game I’ve ever seen in my life.

2) Game Five of the World Seriesalex-bregman-walkoff-homerun-astros-dodgers-game-5-world-series.jpg

“Just when I thought I could describe Game 2 as my favorite game of all time, I think Game 5 exceeded that and more.”

-Astros manager A.J. Hinch. Also, me.

It was October 29th, and after a month of postseason baseball I was mentally and physically drained. The stress was making me sick, but I wasn’t about to forsake my Woodrow’s Astros crew over a scratchy throat and a measly cough. I chugged some Dayquil and headed to the bar.

The series was tied 2-2, meaning a game 5 win would essentially seal a World Series victory. The Astros couldn’t afford to lose and head back to L.A. down 3-2, and with the greatest pitcher alive taking the mound against them their odds didn’t look great.

It was Clayton Kershaw versus Dallas Keuchel. L.A.’s unhittable ace against the Astros struggling number one pitcher. Game on.

The Dodgers jumped on Keuchel immediately. A lack of command drew led to two hits, two walks, and three runs in just the top of the first inning alone. Kershaw, conversely, set down the side in order. The Dodgers were up 3-0 after one inning.

Kershaw’s brilliance continued, setting the next two inning down in order as well. L.A. added another run in the top of the fourth and the entire bar was at a loss. It looked clear to everyone that the Dodgers were about to strategically dismantle the Astros using the same flawlessly executed game plan that won them game one. Houston’s projected win probability at that moment was 12%. Then the bottom fell out.

Kershaw walked George Springer to begin the bottom of the fourth inning, followed by a single from Jose Altuve.

Followed by an RBI double by Carlos Correa. The Astros were on the board, and Kershaw suddenly looked human, and Yuli Gurriel dug in.

I would say that, throughout the playoffs and World Series, the one Astro that looked the most unphased by the pressure was Gurriel. So why would he suddenly let the pressure get to him with two runners on base and his team down three while facing the game’s most dominant pitcher in a pivotal World Series game?

Yuli don’t care.

Gurriel took the very first pitch yard, and patio at Woodrow’s exploded into mayhem.

The excitement was short-lived, however, as Colin McHugh entered the game and walked his first two batters. Cody Bellinger would capitalize on the situation, smashing a curveball into right center field and stiff arming the Astros down to another three-run deficit.

Kershaw was finally defeated after issuing two walks to begin the bottom of the fifth, and this time it would be Jose Altuve’s turn to play hero. With a full count against Kenta Maeda, Altuve tattooed a four-seam fastball out of the park and drew the Astros even once again with L.A., 7-7.

After an inning of rest, the bats reignited for both teams. Brad Peacock replaced McHugh and gave up a run on an RBI triple to Bellinger. The Astros responded in the bottom of the inning with a George Springer first pitch home run to tie the game yet again, followed by an RBI double from Altuve to give the Astros their first lead of the night. Correa would add two more runs with a home run shot to left field. 11-8, Astros.

Both teams would add another run each to the board in the eight, and Astros fans could practically taste a 3-2 series lead as Devenski took the mound with his team up three runs at the top of the ninth.

Three more outs, man. Just three more outs.

Bellinger dug in and watched as Devenski gifted him with a 5 pitch walk. After a Logan Forsythe four-pitch strikeout, it seemed as if his and every Astros fan watching’s nerves had calmed and we were back on track.

Two more outs.

Yasiel Puig, it seems, was not ready to go home and on the fourth pitch of the at bat he ambushed a changeup. The ball sailed out of the park and now the Dodgers were only down one. Devenski remained in the game.

The next batter, Austin Barnes doubled up the middle. Devenski remained in the game. The next batter would ground out.

One. More. Out.

Even still, Devenski was left to close out the game, but the gamble didn’t payoff. A single from Chris Taylor sent Austin Barnes around third for a game tying RBI. Devenski would retire the next batter, but the damage had been done. Tie game, 12-12.

Yet again the Astros and Dodgers would require extra innings to decide a World Series game, and yet again the finish was remarkable. Facing the Dodgers’ best reliever, Kenley Jansen, with two outs and two on, 23-year-old Alex Bregman stepped into the box for the biggest at bat of his life. He looked back at Correa in the on deck circle.

“It’s your time,” Correa explained.

Bregman swung at Jansen’s first offer and as the ball dropped into shallow center, pinch runner Derek Fisher slid into home and the team poured onto the field. The bar I was at descended into anarchy. My legs gave out from under me, due to equal parts euphoria and exhaustion. Five hours and 17 minutes after the first pitch, the Astros—bloody and beaten—trudged off of baseball’s biggest stage with an improbable victory.

They had taken down the best pitcher in the game, and rallied from three separate deficits, and walked off on the best closer in baseball. As ESPN senior writer David Schoenfield aptly put it, it was “…a game that was simultaneously an exhilarating baseball adventure and something Caligula invented.”

The stress of game five ultimately put my body over the edge and I succumbed to the fact that I would be unable to arrive to work on time the next day. I texted my boss to make them aware.

“Last night ran a little late watching the game, so I’ll be in a little later. I’m happy to stay late to make up for it.”

Her response?

“Same.”

I love baseball.

1) Houston Astros, World Series Champions.920x920.jpg

When the Astros won the World Series back in November, I didn’t write anything. I knew that I should have, and a lot of people expected me to, but I was unable to appropriately interpret exactly how it felt into any sort of narrative that would do it justice. I was—for once—speechless. Now that the dust has settled and the parade confetti has long since blown away, I think it’s time to give it a shot.

This was already the best year of baseball in my life, well before the trophy was lifted. It started on opening day when my friends and I went on a scavenger hunt to find where exactly our commemorative brick I had received as a Christmas gift had been installed. It continued on when myself and two of my buddies went on a four-city baseball tour that included a Friday night Astros game AT Yankee Stadium. The bullpen catcher tossed a warm up ball to us as a hat tip after the game.

This season was special because of all the time I was able to spend with great friends, game in and game out. It was gorging on $1 Hot Dog Wednesdays-special, and “Cheap Beef” chants when Astros strike outs inched us closer to a meaningless Nolan Ryan Beef coupon-special. It was 4th of July grand slams-special and Memorial Day comebacks-special. It was special because I met one of the most genuinely good people I know this season, and it was all because of baseball. Well baseball, and beer.

I remember the late night extra-inning game where the “Woo” was born. I remember the look on my nephew’s face when I took him to the team store and bought him his first Astros jersey. I remember moving into my own place for the first time in June and the only wall decoration I still have up is an Astros flag. I remember my best friend buying me tickets to sit in the Crawford Boxes for the first (legitimate) time ever.

I also remember the Astros playing the Rangers in Tampa Bay. I had stuffed my phone into a zip-lock bag so we could stream the broadcast as we waded in chest-deep water, searching houses for anyone who needed help while the hurricane-ravaged Addicks Reservoir slowly consumed the nearby neighborhoods.

I remember seeing the Houston Strong patch for the first time, and I will never forget A.J. Hinch’s speech from the mound upon their return.

I remember Verlander Day. And then I remember the Astros clinching their division for the first time since 2001.

See, my cup had runneth over well before the playoffs. Then the magic happened.

When the final out was recorded I watched grown men cry. I watched through blurry eyes, because I was crying too. As diehard fans we had been through hell for the past decade. As Houstonians we had all been through hell merely two months before. The Astros World Series victory was a welcome respite for an entire metropolitan area nearly 7 million people-strong that was still limping from its Harvey-inflicted wounds. Being “Houston Strong,” was suddenly synonymous with victory.

I was among the estimated one million onlookers at the victory parade, and even as World Series MVP George Springer hoisted the trophy above his head to the delight of the sea of orange surrounding him, the reality of what had happened still hadn’t sunk in. In many ways it still hasn’t. I still get chills when I look back at the month of October.

This season the Rockets look loaded to make a run. The Dynamo were a within arm’s reach of the MLS cup. The Texans seem to have found the answer to most difficult position in the sport for years to come. Hell, we even have a rugby team now guys (go SaberCats!).

But all of that will unfold in 2018. The year 2017, however, will always belong to the Astros.

Previous:

Moments 10-6

Moments: 17-11

 unnamed121Editor’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 

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