By Chris Emma–
CHICAGO (CBS) — Walking through the visiting clubhouse at U.S. Cellular Field pregame on Tuesday, you found a palpable energy through each corner. That’s what the Houston Astros bring each day.
Ace Dallas Keuchel was upbeat as he roamed around shaking hands with teammates, while a group of six hitters burst out in laughter while studying tape on White Sox starter Carlos Rodon. One would have no idea that this clubhouse was housing baseball’s biggest surprise — and disappointment — through the first quarter of the season.
“I don’t worry about us showing up for work every day with a short memory after tough losses or tough wins,” Astros manager A.J. Hinch said. “We have a great personality on this team. We haven’t pouted and felt sorry for ourselves.”
That same clubhouse was buzzing moments after their 6-5 win over the White Sox in 11 innings Tuesday and the customary victory party. The music was still pumping through the speakers as the hero of the night, Evan Gattis — whose two-run homer in the 11th proved to be the winner — spoke next to his locker.
“We always play hard,” Gattis said. “This team always plays hard. We haven’t been playing great as of late, but we always comes to win.”
In January 2014, Sports Illustrated declared the Astros to be 2017 World Series champions, touting their thorough organizational rebuilding process. It paralleled “The Plan” of the Cubs, who rebuilt from the ground up. Both the Astros and Cubs reached the playoffs in 2015 before falling short of the World Series.
Like the Cubs, the Astros were believed to be a World Series team in 2016, a year earlier than Sports Illustrated proclaimed. Chicago has Anthony Rizzo, Kris Bryant, Addison Russell and Jake Arrieta, while Houston has Jose Altuve, Carlos Correa, George Springer and Keuchel. Both teams throw a party after wins.
While the Cubs have tried not to suck and embraced the target, the Astros have floundered and looked like a team not ready just yet. They’re 16-24 through 40 games and occupy last place in the AL West.
Only eight teams have reached the postseason after such a slow start, and the last team to win the World Series with a worse start was the 1914 Boston Braves, who started 12-28 and finished 94-59. Notably, the 2005 Astros started 15-25 before finishing 89-73 and reaching the World Series, only to be swept by the red-hot White Sox.
Still, there’s precedent for this Houston club.
“I believe in this team, and our guys believe in each other,” Hinch said.
Chicago has been spoiled to early baseball success in 2016. The White Sox are 24-15 and atop the AL Central, and the Cubs have gotten off to a historic start. The Cubs and Astros are considered comparables from the big league level on down to the lower levels, with bright baseball people calling the shots to create sustained success.
Unlike the Cubs, this Astros team has gotten off the a slow start, despite second basemanAltuve leading baseball with a 2.6 WAR and the 21-year-old Correa continuing to blossom into a superstar shortstop.
The Astros have struck out at a league-worst 25.8 percent rate and seen key players like Gattis, Tyler White and Carlos Gomez underperform. (Gomez has an alarming -0.6 WAR through 34 games and was placed on the DL on Tuesday.) Houston also has a -4.9 defensive win shares mark headed into Tuesday. Those numbers should revert to the mean, offering reason for optimism.
However, the Astros’ real problem has been in the rotation. Keuchel followed his Cy Young season with a 2-5 record and 5.43 ERA through nine starts following Tuesday’s tilt on the south side. Collin McHugh, Doug Fister and Scott Feldman haven’t been much better. The Astros’ starters came into the day with a collective 5.09 ERA.
Keuchel is the key for Houston, but his regression from Cy Young status is frightening. His fastball velocity is down to 88.2 mph and topping out at 90.4 mph — is he hurt? — down nearly three mph from last season. Opponents are hitting .408 off his fastball entering Tuesday, and the White Sox teed off on it after their first trip through the order.
Suddenly, the once-dominant Keuchel is anything but intimidating on the mound. Command has been an issue and his stuff isn’t quite as nasty.
“That’s the best I’ve felt so far,” Keuchel said after the game.
The Astros stand confident that they can repeat franchise history from 2005 and prove to be a World Series team despite the tough start to the season. White hit two homers off Rodon on Tuesday, and Gattis delivered the big shot late. Colby Rasmus has been a pleasant surprise, and Gomez coming back stronger would be nice, too.
For the Astros to match the Rangers’ 88-win mark that won the division crown last season, they would have to finish the season 72-50. It would take 65-57 to just be .500, though this team has what it takes to be better.
“We really are one good series or one good hot stretch from being a team that can do some things,” Hinch said. “I don’t think the league is taking us very lightly.”
Pitching for the Astros is an early concern, though it should revert back to the mean. Keuchel must soon figure out why his velocity has dropped or work around a stunning regression by finding ways to mix his pitch selection.
Despite the struggles, nothing has fazed the Astros’ positive vibes. After each victory, as few as there have been thus far, the team turns its clubhouse into a party room, just like the Cubs. They’ve stayed upbeat after losses, too.
“We’re a family in here,” McHugh said. “We genuinely enjoy being around each other playing this game, and we all understand that the game is tough. It’s built on failure, built on the length of a 162-game season.”
Struggles hit the Astros early, but they feel better baseball is ahead. Tuesday’s win at U.S. Cellular Field was far from perfect, though it revealed this young team’s character. They believe in what’s ahead.
The Astros are looking to go from baseball’s biggest early disappointment back to striving for what was expected of them — the World Series.