Coming into 2015, the only expectation for the Astros was to head in the right direction. Playoffs were a fantasy and the uber-prospects were a year.
General manager Jeff Luhnow added pieces that raised the foundation of a tumultuous 2014 team. Veterans Luke Gregerson, Pat Neshek, and Jed Lowrie were brought in to be examples of professional baseball players for the ultra young squad.
The additional experience appeared to pay off for the Astros at the start of the season as Houston jumped out to a 15-7 record in the month of April -- a reminder to anyone that doesn't think you can win the division in April. Houston took first place in the American League West on April 19.
The Astros held first place past the month of April for the first time since 2004 -- including the 2005 World Series team. Houston would stumble here and there but in the end holding first place for 139 days straight.
The emergence of Dallas Keuchel was a key to the Astros success. In 2014, he won the Gold Glove Award for American League Pitchers. In 2015, he became the Astros' definitive ace -- honing his pinpoint accuracy on the mound. Keuchel became the first Astros to win AL Pitcher of the Month three times in 2015 and started for the American League in MLB All-Star Game.
Keuchel was the first pitcher in Major League history to go 15-0 in 18 home starts, he had a 1.46 ERA and 139 strikeouts in 129 1/3 innings at Minute Maid Park. He looks like he is in line to be the third Astros pitcher to win the Cy-Young Award -- joins Mike Scott (1986) and Roger Clemens (2004).
Not to be forgot is the one-two punch with Collin McHugh. Doctor McHugh was devastating in the second half, posting a 10-2 record with a 3.11 ERA in 14 starts down the stretch. Keuchel and McHugh were the biggest keys carrying the Astros when the offense or bullpen struggled.
On the field, the Astros' spark plug Jose Altuve built on a historic 2014 with another 200 hit season -- the first Astros player in team history to reach that feat. Altuve was the example for everything play on the Astros roster, setting the tone for hustle and determination.
The Astros outfield was an embarrassment of riches with defensive talent: George Springer, Jake Marisnick, and Colby Rasmus all could have played centerfield and made playing the outfield look effortless.
The Astros stuck to their play on offense, relying on the power bats of Evan Gattis, Luis Valbuena, Preston Tucker, and Chris Carter to lower the boom on American League pitching. The Astros finished with the second-most home runs in the American League (230), total bases (2383), slugging (.437), and OPS (.752).
Then came the rookies. Lance McCullers and Carlos Correa kept the Astros a float when they needed it the most. McCullers pitched well enough (6-7, 3.22 ERA, 1.19 WHIP) to push Mike Fiers to the bullpen in the Playoffs, and at many times looked like he had icewater in his veins.
What can I say that puts Carlos Correa in proper context? Correa lived up to all the hip that has built since he was selected first overall in the 2012 draft. Hinch leaned on him in the three-hole in the lineup as rookie in the playoffs. He hit like a young rodriguez and played the like a young Jeter or Ozzie Smith, and to think he's only 21-years old.
For the first time in 2011 season, the Astros were buyers at deadline -- bringing in Scott Kazmir, Carlos Gomez, and Mike Fiers. Fiers paid off first with a no-hitter against the Dodgers. Kazmir, the Houston-native, solidify an already-strong rotation for the Astros. Gomez played through tremendous pain to electrify the Astros playoff.
There were some any highlights from the 2015 season, sweeping the Dodgers and Royals, Preston Tucker's ninth-inning home runs in the regular season are high on that list. Yes, there were downturns. Losing the division to the Rangers cut deep, but there are always growing pains. But, would you have ever expected to have the the chance to work out those growing pains in the playoffs?
The Astros made September baseball relevant for the first time since 2005, and pulled the attention away from the Texans in a football-first town. I admit wasn't even sure how to handle the playoffs after wandering in the desert for some many years. What is the point of being an Astros hipster if everyone likes the team now?
The icing on the cake was the Wild Card Game. Houston rolled into Yankees Stadium, home of the 27-time World Champions. The upstart Astros played their game, precision pitching and the long ball, to a shutout-win.
The season didn't end the way the team wanted. The Astros took the reigning AL Champs to the brink, and were two innings away from moving on.
This is only the beginning, I can't wait to see what happens next.