This may not speak for everyone, but perhaps (for those readers older than 21…we think), we can all recall that epic event/party/celebration…the one that rates as legendary for a myriad of reasons. Perhaps your wedding, your graduation, a special night with friends or a friend, or maybe after a sports victory. Whatever the event, the celebration achieved levels that would make Bacchus himself take note—a great time…followed by perhaps just as historic a hangover as ever experienced. Maybe even during that time of joy, you knew that the bill would come due, that the next day would be very, very painful, but the glory of the present trumped future peril.
For the standard professional sports team, such a moment comes from winning a championship. The long slog of a tough regular season, followed by a shorter, but no less brutal post-season gladiatorial contest for supremacy, ended with the team atop the baseball universe. Championship trophy, championship swag, bonus pay, and all of the other perks that come with that title…and a full off-season to enjoy it. Yet, eventually, that off-season ends, and it is time to get back to work. The aura of the title remains for the organization, but so to does the knowledge that a) a team has to do it all over again; b) all the other teams will be gunning for them and c) hunting can be psychologically easier then defending.
Thus the 2023 Astros must face this challenge. Most of the lineup that ran roughshod over the league returns. True, the Astros enter spring training minus some key guys but replaced with other weapons. Other teams did not sit idly by, and they all have the motivation to complete the job the Astros did last season.
How will the Astros handle their second season as defending champs? The last time the Astros went through this drill was in 2018. That squad returned most of its core players, many only just entering the prime of their playing powers. Sure, a few players went off to other pastures, but the Astros brought in some reinforcements, mainly the trade for pitching ace Gerrit Cole.
The team had some bumps in the road, headlined by perhaps the most inexplicable 8-game home losing streak in team history, but after the regular-season dust settled, Houston claimed its second straight AL West title and even managed to improve by three wins (101 to 104). They returned to their second straight ALCS, only to fall short against a historically good Boston Red Sox team (and some…uh…questionable umpiring calls [cough, cough, JOE WEST, cough, cough]). All in all, if that was a “hangover” season, then please send me that cure the next time I overdo it on the Jack Daniels.
The 2023 Astros, in addition to overcoming the history of 2018, find themselves also challenging the tides of MLB history. Not since the 2000 Yankees has a team successfully defended their title. Since 2000, only the following teams managed even to get back to a World Series:
- 2001 Yankees (Fell in 7 to Arizona)
- 2009 Phillies (Fell in 6 to the New York Yankees)
It is damned hard to repeat as a World Series Champion. All other major North American pro sports leagues have had at least one repeat champion in the 21st century. In baseball, winning a championship requires that perfect balance of skill and luck. It can be hard to have both break the same way two years in a row. Teams can improve their talent level and regular-season win totals as defending champs (see the 2018 Astros, the 2021 Dodgers, or the 2022 Braves) and yet, somehow, not even get back to the World Series for whatever reason.
Then again, if any organization in today’s game can do what hasn’t been done in over 23 years, it is the Astros. Love ‘em or hate ‘em, the Astros are the dominant force in today's game. Last season, the team became just the 2nd squad (2015 Royals) this century to rebound from a World Series loss to win it all the next season. Even with all the other teams grabbing headlines with their free agency moves, the Astros still remain the betting favorite to repeat. Not that the Vegas line assures success, but Vegas doesn’t care about fan sentiment.
Does this mean that you should just pre-order that 2023 Astros World Championship wardrobe right now? Eh, might want to wait on that. Houston is good, but things will likely not be easy. The AL West, on paper, figures to be tougher this season than last, especially as Seattle continues to build upon last season’s strong finish. The AL, with squads like Cleveland, Toronto, Tampa Bay, and yes, even the Yankees, figure to give the Astros a run for their money. The NL, between the three-headed nightmare that will be the NL East and the Wild, Wild NL West (and I guess you can’t completely sleep on the NL Central), should offer a dangerous World Series opponent. No, the climb back up the mountain does not figure to be a leisurely weekend stroll in the local park.
All that said, the Astros are right where they, and every other franchise in baseball, desire to be: Defending champs. Houston, in the midst of one of the greatest runs in MLB history, doesn’t figure to just sit on their laurels. A long season awaits, and there will be moments of glory and moments of pain. However, Houston beat the dreaded World Series loser’s hangover last season. Now, they gear up to face a more difficult challenge: overcoming the “winner’s hangover.” No guarantees, but would it be a surprise if Houston did repeat? Not likely.