HomeSportsThe Houston Astros have brought the band back together and are poised...

The Houston Astros have brought the band back together and are poised to retake AL ​​West

NEW YORK – On November 3, 2022, 39-year-old future Hall of Fame pitcher Justin Verlander earned his first World Series win. That it took until then was a nagging oddity in his otherwise storied career. In the final start of his third Cy Young Award-winning season, Verlander worked his way through five high-traffic innings against a Philadelphia Phillies team that had charmed the country as it rode an infectious hot streak from barely making the postseason to all the way into tying the knot at two games apiece against the big, bad Houston Astros in the World Series.

But Verlander pitched well enough to put the Astros in the series, and two days later he and Houston won their second championship in six seasons combined.

It seemed to mark the likely end of his time in Houston. Verlander declined the player option in his contract, making him a free agent, and the Astros are known for their principled approach that avoids most excesses. Amid celebrations that would also serve as farewells, Verlander’s mother thanked manager Dusty Baker for letting him into Game 5 long enough to tick off that conspicuously missing career achievement.

But, Baker said this week, “I never said goodbye to him.”

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‘It’s exciting to see all the boys again’

On the day nine months after the start of the World Series, Verlander walked into the visiting team’s clubhouse at Yankee Stadium as the Astros opened a weekend series in the Bronx. On Monday, Verlander and the rest of the 2022 World Series champions will head to the White House to be honored. The Astros had trouble planning the trip, which is why it got so late—between a series in New York and one in Baltimore.

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If it had been earlier, Verlander could not have been there. Between winning the World Series with the Astros in November and starting for them on Saturday night, he signed a record-breaking contract with the New York Mets.

But when the Mets’ stunning failure this season, despite a staggering payroll, forced the team to abort at deadline, Verlander was able to reunite with an Astros team that is beginning to look a lot like the one that won the World Series. less than a year ago.

“It’s exciting to see all the guys again,” Verlander told reporters on Thursday. “It feels kind of weird because it wasn’t that long ago, so it feels like you don’t miss a beat, and you’re right back in the locker room. But then again, there’s this whole segment that happened” So here I am me then, still in my apartment in New York. It’s a really weird feeling.”

Since Verlander was the last in the team, José Abreu relieved Yuli Gurriel at first base. Mauricio Dubón plays more now that Aledmys Díaz is gone. Yainer Díaz supports regular backstop, Martín Maldonado. Rookie Hunter Brown, who had a cup of coffee last year, is now a fixture in the rotation.

But for the most part, the Astros entered 2023 with Verlander’s departure as perhaps the only high-profile change.

Well, that and the baseball executive. A day after Verlander opted out, World Series winner James Click left the Astros instead of accepting a contract offer that was never meant to be attractive enough to accept. He was replaced later in the offseason by Dana Brown, who until this week had only overseen an Astros team that did not employ Verlander.

Brown’s friend and former boss, Braves general manager Alex Anthopoulos, told him when he took the job that he had two priorities in his first year: the draft and the trade deadline.

“You have to get those two things right,” Brown told Anthopoulos. As the deadline approached, Brown thought it meant securing reinforcement for the back of a bullpen already under a lot of strain this season.

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That changed once it became clear to other teams that the Mets might sell.

“We started thinking of ways we could get him back at that point,” Brown said of Verlander.

“We need him to get to the next level”

The deal to get Verlander back is something Astros owner Jim Crane would have controlled directly. They have a pre-existing personal relationship, and Crane acted as GM during the off-season. In fact, Brown had not met or spoken to Verlander until after the deal was officially closed. Mets GM Billy Eppler sent him Verlander’s phone number.

“I texted JV and was like, ‘Hey, welcome aboard. If you get a chance, give me a call. I know you’re inundated. A thousand calls from friends and family – just give me a call if you get a chance’ said Brown.[He] called me back five, ten minutes later and we had an excellent conversation. He had been set on fire. I was excited.”

“We need him to go to the next level,” said Maldonado.

Brown, who was a scout and scouting director all his career up to the job in Houston, told Verlander, “Man, I remember as a scouting director I would have loved to have called you up, but you were taken so highly.” I didn’t get you as scouting director, but I did get you as general manager.”

Brown also got his bullpen reinforcements — most notably bringing back Kendall Graveman, who had a 1.64 ERA in the postseason for the 2021 Astros — but outside of Verlander, the major deadline-style additions were simply getting two key pieces of the line back -up in Jose Altuve and Yordan Alvarez.

This season, injuries left the Astros’ top two players last season – by fWAR or by wRC+ – both lined up for just 13 of the team’s first 101 games. They rejoined the team just over a week ago, and in eight games ago, Altuve hit .343 and Álvarez hit .413 with three home runs.

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The reigning champions have not been in first place for a single day this season. A Texas Rangers team that lost 94 games last year jumped to an early lead in the AL West and has yet to relinquish it. Since revising their off-season rotation, the Rangers have kept their foot on the gas. Days before the deadline, Verlander’s counterpart and co-ace on the Mets, Max Scherzer, was traded to Texas as part of an aggressive approach to talent acquisition that quickly turned the team around and announced the sell-out of the Mets.

However, Houston is coming. With the Astros now trailing just 1.5 games, FanGraphs projections give them a slim lead to win the division. It’s not that the Astros are inevitable – although six straight ALCS appearances make it seem that way. It’s that they are a good team that will get better over time after adding Verlander and getting Altuve and Alvarez back.

“The team that runs will probably win the division,” Brown said. “I think we’ve set ourselves up for a nice little run.”

Now in his second season, 2022 ALCS and World Series MVP Jeremy Peña said he didn’t really appreciate how incredible his rookie season was until spring training this year.

“Because then I had a little bit of time to think about everything that happened, and I thought, there are great players who go through their whole careers and don’t win a World Series,” he said.

It’s an important bit of perspective to keep, especially as you stare back at a regular six-month season. But as they enter the trajectory, the Astros are essentially back to full strength and they’re done being humble.

“I feel like we have our team now. And with this team we can compete against anyone,” said Peña. “I feel like we can compete with anyone.

“We’re thrilled to have the band back together.”

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