As a fan of Texas country music (that's right, Texas has its own genre of country music), Aaron Watson's "Rollercoaster Ride" seems to adequately describe my relationship with the Astros pretty well. You can probably guess how the song goes, but I'll give you a taste anyway:
We've had our ups and downs and turn arounds...
Baby ain't life and love one big rollercoaster ride
Fortunately, I've never been in a relationship that I would describe with a rollercoaster analogy... well, except for my relationship with the Astros.
When Jeff Luhnow took over as GM of the Astros, we got into the cars and pulled the lap bar down to prepare for the ride. We waited patiently for the ride to begin... and waited... and waited. We had heard the ride would be pretty fun and well worth the wait. We saw how the Cardinals had been flying high for years and years without signs of slowing down and we hoped Jeff could put us on the same trajectory. And so we waited.
Finally, the cars began to move. We began climbing slowly at first, and then more steadily. Before we knew what had happened, the Astros were in the playoffs. A victory over the Yankees in the 2015 AL Wild Card Game showed the world that this ride was taking off, but we still had a long climb ahead. As the 2016 season approached, anticipation grew with every Spring Training game.
The 2016 Astros were pegged as world series contenders and we were finally reaching the apex of our long climb. Suddenly, our cars came to a screeching halt. "What happened? Why aren't we moving?" Technical difficulties, also known as crummy New York weather in April, had delayed the season opener with the Yankees. After all that anticipation, we were forced to wait one more day.
Finally, the ride took off with a burst of energy. A victory in Game 1, and three home runs in the first two games by the 2015 Rookie of the Year had us flying high. But then, something strange happened. We couldn't see the tracks ahead. They disappeared from sight because they dipped straight down. As a tumultuous April got worse, we wondered why this team, which was supposed to contend for the World Series, was now contending for the worst record in the American League.
I didn't know what to say when my friends asked for an explanation. All I could do was throw my hands in the air. Our Cy Young pitcher looked more like a #5 starter, every error and base running mistake came at the most critical time in the game, and no one could hit with runners in scoring position. It got to the point where we hoped players would stop at first even when they hit line drives over the head of the outfielders. "Don't go to second! It's a trap! You'll get stuck there!"
Channeling my inner psychologist, I decided the best approach (for the sake of my blood pressure and my sanity), was to take it one road trip or home stand at a time instead of one game at a time: "If we can just got 4-3 on this home stand" or "Let's just hold our ground and go 3-3 on this road trip". Maybe then, we could slowly get our roller coaster moving back in the right direction.
After going 7-17 in April, May got off to a much more promising 7-4 start. "Maybe we can turn this thing around after all", I thought. The Astros continued to play better baseball and came back home with a 17-25 record to face the Rangers after losing 2-1 to the White Sox. That would become a familiar score as they dropped the first two games to the Rangers 2-1, and then got blown out 9-2 in game 3. Just when it seemed like we were gaining momentum, the Rangers came in and sent our car spiraling down the tracks once again. I was almost ready to admit defeat, but the Astros immediately swept the Orioles following the series with Texas. "Hmmm, maybe they aren't quite done yet", I thought to myself as our cars started to move upward yet again.
This time, the upward movement continued and our cars gained speed. We still struggled to beat the Rangers, but the Astros were crushing everyone else. From May 24th through July 24th, the Astros went 37-16. For two whole months, the Astros won nearly 70% of their games (that would be 113 wins if sustained over the course of an entire season).
The 2016 Astros had finally arrived. After cruising to an easy 8-1 victory in Seattle on July 17th, I texted my Dad, "This is the team I was expecting when the season started." The preseason prognostications (say that 5 times fast) were finally looking like they would come true. The Astros sat a mere 2.5 games behind the division-leading Rangers with all the momentum in the world.
Then, the car began to shake. "What happened? What's going on?" Some of the supports for the track were weakening. Suddenly it seemed like the whole thing was falling apart. Our third best hitter all year, Luis Valbuena, suffered a season-ending hamstring injury. Other support pieces like Marwin Gonzalez, Carlos Gomez, Jake Marisnick, and Luke Gregerson had various injuries. Then, our best starting pitcher, Lance McCullers, was removed in the middle of a game. It would be his last appearance in 2016. In less than a month, the ride had gone from a high-flying flurry of joy, to a bundle of cars still stuck together just trying to make it back to the station in one piece. "Ugh, seems like the injuries might be too much to overcome this year," I lamented.
Alex Bregman hopped on board and after a forgettable first week, he began to will the Astros ride back into contention. He was suddenly a man on fire, driving every ball the pitcher dared throw near the plate either into the seats or past the outfielders for extra bases. The Cuban sensation Yuli Gurriel hopped on and immediately helped keep the ride going in the right direction. Rookies Tony Kemp, Teoscar Hernandez, and Joe Musgrove were making important contributions too. "Maybe we will still make it after all. Maybe this season will be a testament to how our organization's depth saved the season. Perhaps it's a good thing that Luhnow didn't trade away our prospects at the trade deadline."
The injury bug would bite once again, however. Alex Bregman, a rookie, had somehow been able to replace our third best hitter (Valbuena) quite adequately. Yet he would suffer the same fate as Valbuena, as he limped off the field with a hamstring injury on September 14th. Once again, things didn't look good for a ride that was already on life support.
Yet the Astros found a way to take 5 of 6 on their West Coast road trip that followed and they were suddenly only 1 game out of a playoff spot. With an easy schedule ahead, it looked like the Astros might still make the playoffs. Hope quickly faded once again though, as the Astros dropped 3 of 4 to the Angels and then 2 of 3 to Seattle, which all but sealed their fate. A victory by the Orioles on September 29th was the final nail in the coffin of the Astros 2016 season.
As I watched the AL Wild Card Game go into extra innings last night, I took pride in remembering that extra innings weren't necessary one year ago when the Astros defeated the Yankees 3-0 in New York.
Being an Astros fan hasn't always been easy the last few years, but the ride has certainly become much more exciting. Do I believe that Luhnow and Co. can reinforce the supports of the track this offseason? I do. Will Hinch and the boys give us another exciting ride in 2017? Absolutely. Am I looking forward to every up and down of the season next year? You betcha.