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Young Houston Astros figure to be force into future

By Roger Rubin, The Sports Xchange
Young Houston Astros figure to be force into future
Houston Astros' Jose Altuve holds Commissioners Trophy with pitcher Justin Verlander, left, after defeating the Los Angeles Dodgers in the 2017 MLB World Series . The Astros beat the Dodgers 5-1 to claim their first ever World Series championship. Photo by Jim Ruymen/UPI | License Photo

It started with some revolutionary, out-of-the box thinking. It picked up steam when the game plan was adjusted last offseason. And it was galvanized with a major trade and an act of God.

The Astros' 5-1 victory over the Los Angeles Dodgers in World Series Game 7 on Wednesday night -- 56 years in the making since the Houston team began life as the Colt .45s -- was a perfect ending as a bunch of storylines all were tied up in a neat bow with the club's first championship.

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Perhaps it is best to start with the last of these storylines first.

On the uniform jerseys of all the Astros players celebrating at Dodger Stadium, there was a patch with the team logo over the word "STRONG." The club added those on Sept. 2 in the wake of the devastation Hurricane Harvey wrought on the city and region, something many areas are truly only beginning to rebuild from.

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It was also two days after the organization made the landmark move of acquiring ace Justin Verlander from the Detroit Tigers in the final moments before the final trade deadline on Aug. 31.

What came after that was quite remarkable. The players realized they had an opportunity to perhaps give shattered people in their community a few hours each day to focus on something positive.

In the home clubhouse at Minute Maid Park -- on the lineup board and in players' lockers -- hang photos of the tragedy. And they tried to answer the need. They won 11 of 13 regular home games after that and eight of nine home playoff games.

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And the players' adopted city was at the forefront of their minds in the euphoria after Corey Seager's ground ball was scooped up by second baseman Jose Altuve and thrown to first baseman Yuri Gurriel for the final out of the World Series.

"(Houston) was everything. That patch on our chests really does mean a lot to us," said World Series MVP George Springer during an on-field interview. He tied Reggie Jackson (1977) and Chase Utley (2009) with a record five homers in a World Series, including his two-run shot for a 5-0 lead in the second inning Wednesday. "I am so happy for our fans, who have endured a lot. We're coming home champions."

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"This is for the city of Houston. There is still a lot of hardship there," Verlander said. "To be able to do this for them, I hope it resonates. I got to Houston right after the hurricane. What's great about this is we will forever be linked to the city of Houston when it needed it most. When people needed something to cheer about; we did it."

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Verlander, 34, approved the trade in the final minutes before the deadline and couldn't second-guess it. He got two wins in two appearances against the Boston Red Sox in the American League Division Series and two wins in two appearances against the New York Yankees in the seven-game AL Championship Series. He was 0-1 with a 3.75 ERA in two solid World Series starts, but he finally will get a ring in what has been a phenomenal career.

"This was the final decision -- to have a chance to win a championship. To be able to do that is such an amazing experience," he said.

Astros owner Jim Crane hired general manager Jeff Luhnow following a 106-loss season in 2011. The plan was unorthodox: sell off every asset for prospects and draft picks, acquire more high draft picks at the expense of winning games and use the best analytical department in baseball to make selections that would create a champion.

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It wasn't an easy road, as the Astros lost more than 100 games the next two seasons and 92 in 2014.

The haul from those moves? Springer, shortstop Carlos Correa, third baseman Alex Bregman and right-handed starter Lance McCullers Jr. to name a few. This talent was the engine that first carried Houston to the 2015 postseason and made the team 2017 champions.

But after the Astros failed to reach the postseason in 2016, an adjustment was clearly required. Luhnow saw the great young talent alone wasn't going to result in winning the final game of the season. So a component of experienced players was added to the mix.

Catcher Brian McCann -- who caught every inning in the World Series -- was acquired from the Yankees. Carlos Beltran, a veteran who helped Houston reach the 2005 World Series but never won one in his first 19 major league seasons, was signed as a free agent. And finally Verlander was added.

"We are a young group, but we had some veterans come into the clubhouse -- McCann and Beltran and Verlander. They really set the tone for us and gave us the confidence we didn't have in the past," Bregman said. "I am so happy to see Carlos Beltran win a World Series. He worked for so long for it."

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Springer added, "To think about how far this team has come in three or four years? I was there. Our stride forward in 2015 ... and now here we are."

There is euphoria for the Astros right now. Verlander has two more seasons on his deal, but Beltran, certainly, and McCann, probably, will not return next season. Still, Houston's young talent now has walked the championship path and will be in the fold for several years.

Nothing is certain. Yet the way all these storylines came together suggests Houston is in for a long stretch of success.

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