In the realm of 1st world problems, there is not much worse than suffering a hangover. Perhaps the way to that hangover was a time of revelry and celebration. Perhaps it was a time of elation and epic celebration. However it started, the end-game can sometimes result in an excruciatingly painful aftermath.
In a literal sense, a hangover comes from the aftermath of imbibing too much alcohol. The symptoms of a hangover vary, but they can range from fatigue to excessive nausea and bodily pain. The intensity of a hangover can vary depending on the individual and the type of alcohol consumed. Especially painful can be hangovers generated from too much low-quality red wine and/or whiskey (not that this author would know anything about that).
However, there is the figurative definition of a hangover. In the sports world, the hangover is usually discussed in context of a team that achieved a great deal, but maybe didn’t quite achieve all the goals. In recent sports writing sense, a “hangover” is attributed to a team that made it at least as far as the championship game, only to come up on the losing end. . For the runner-ups, it is the most bittersweet of feelings: to make it through a full season at the professional level; slug through several layers of playoff matchups; get to the championship level, only to see some else hoist the trophy of glory; watching them get immortalized, and you relegated to footnote in history. When starting the next season, it is not hard to see how a team could feel physically, and psychologically ill about the end of the previous season.
For MLB, getting to a World Series is the marathon of marathons. 162 games in the regular season between April and October, followed by a minimum of 2 rounds of playoffs (the single wild card game is intense enough to be its own round, and under the new format, it will require up to 3 more games). At a minimum, a team must survive 169 intense games played at the highest levels just to get to the championship. Factor in a minimum of 4 and a maximum of 7 games with the stakes the highest possible for teams, you can understand how deflating it is for a team to get all the way to the World Series, only to lose in the end.
Much is made of how teams that lose in the Super Bowl are lucky to even make it to the playoffs the following year, much less get back to the Super Bowl, but what of the runner-ups in MLB? The tale of the runner-ups for baseball is not as encouraging for the squads that took home the runner-up share. Since the start of the Wild Card era (1995), these are the only teams who managed to return to the Fall Classic the season after coming up short:
- 2011 Texas Rangers
- 2015 Kansas City Royals
- 2018 Los Angeles Dodgers
And of those three teams, only the 2015 Kansas City Royals completed the task after falling short the season before. You will find more teams successfully returning to the World Series after a win:
- 1996 Atlanta Braves
- 1999-2001 Yankees
- 2009 Philadelphia Phillies
Not exactly the greatest of indicators for hope for a Houston team looking to add at least one more “hunk of metal” (aka the Commissioner’s Trophy) to the collection. 2022 will be the third time in franchise history where the Astros will look to improve on a runner-up finish. Here is an overview of the other two times in history.
Coming off of the franchise’s 1st World Series appearance, albeit a sweep at the hands of the Chicago White Sox, the Astros kept much of the core that led them to the NL Pennant. They got off to a quick start, finishing the 1st month of the season 16-8. However, the team started to slump, going 33-48 the next three months. They were 3 games under .500 coming into the All-Star Break. However, the team held out hope for one of their patented late-season runs. Come September, the Astros sought to make up for lost time, shaving a mid-September 8.5 game deficit in the NL Central down to a 0.5 deficit, mainly on the strength of a late-season 9 game win streak. The team came into the final series of the season only 1.5 games back, and into the last game of the season with a chance to force a tie with St. Louis and a 1-game playoff. However, the Atlanta Braves, not for the first time, ended Houston’s championship aspirations with a 3-1 win, with the Astros finishing the season with an 82-80 record, 1.5 games behind St. Louis, and out of the playoffs.
This would be the closest the Astros would come to the title for nearly a decade. The 7 game drop in wins would set in motion the decline and collapse of the Astros. The veteran roster quickly moved into the aging stage, and a team that did not effectively manage its farm system nor personnel moves at the major league level moved from contender to also-ran. However, it would be this decline that set the Astros on the path to its early 2010s rebuild.
While 2006 might be considered a near-classic post-World Series runner-up hangover, the 2020 season was so uniquely strange that it is hard to say the team suffered an actual hangover/letdown. To start, the Astros, while they lost co-ace Gerrit Cole, returned the core of the squad that achieved the best season in franchise history, coming 2 innings short of winning a 2nd World Series in 3 years. However, the team went through perhaps the roughest off-season of any MLB club in recent memory. January started out with the confirmation of an elaborate sign-stealing scheme that brough the wrath of MLB executives and fellow players. The Astros would enter 2020 facing perhaps the most hostile crowds imaginable.
Yet, that reckoning was postponed, along with the entirety of the MLB season, when COVID-19 struck. The game went into a suspended state, as officials and players looked to see if the waves of infection would abate, and if the owners and players could figure out a way ahead for a season. Eventually, a 60-game regular season and 16-team post-season emerged. The Astros did not get off to a great start, watching team ace Verlander leave after one start with what would led to Tommy John surgery. The squad, even with a lack of fans, just could not get going, spending most of the season right at or below .500. The team ended the abbreviated regular season with a 29-31 mark, the worst record of any team entering playoffs for the AL.
However, the playoffs saw the Astros return to championship form, cruising through the Minnesota Twins and Oakland As before entering a 7-game battle royal with the Tampa Bay Rays. The Astros fell down 0-3 in the series, but managed to force a Game 7, only to see Tampa Bay outlast the team and take the AL pennant. Again, there were signs that the team was struggling with the near-miss, but with so many other factors involved with the 2020 season that any theory could equally work or be discounted.
What does 2022 Hold?
This is the question for the Astros. Since the World Series win of 2017, the team has lost significant talent (Cole, Springer, Correa) and is as much resented for its successes and transgressions. However, the squad has made it to 5 straight ALCS, winning three of them. The team still boasts a formidable offensive lineup and the pitching staff, while without McCullers for the start of the year, possesses a returned Verlander and plenty of solid young arms that should keep the Astros firmly in the playoff chase.
The post-season experience has been an asset for the squad, but what of the memories, especially this past World Series? The Astros’ starting pitching did not wrap itself in glory against the Braves, and the formidable offense went MIA against the resilient arms of Atlanta. While players like Bregman dealt with injuries, what of the mindset of those players that struggled, especially pitchers like Valdez and Garcia. That Garcia struggled could have as much to do with fatigue (pitching far more MLB and pressure-packed innings than ever before) as anything, but will those post-season struggles (save a masterful 1-hit, 5 2⁄3 inning performance in Game 6 of the ALCS) haunt him when he takes the mound for games that count? What of Valdez, who was so strong in the 2020 post-season, but so inconsistent for the 2021 variant. Will the memories of his inability to get through 3 innings of either of his two World Series’ starts dog him as the 2022 season moves forward?
The experience level could be an asset for the Astros, and with an expanded post-season, the Astros figure to be in the mix. However, does the slog of the 162 game season prove too wearisome for the squad, one that was just two games away last season? What of the other teams in the AL? The Astros are contenders, but they are not the superteam of seasons past. Does age catch up to Gurriel and Altuve? Will the loss of Correa sap the team of some its inner strength and resiliency? As big as the challenge is physically for the squad, the biggest battlefield for Astro, if they plan to do in 2022 what they just missed in 2021, will be in that space between the ears. Can they fight off a near-miss hangover, or will they join the ever-growing list of teams that finished as a runner-up in the World Series, only to falter once again?