The Houston Astros entered the AL Championship Series aching.
Jose Altuve was playing on just one good knee, Carlos Correa’s back was never right and Lance McCullers was pitching through an injury that will likely require surgery.
Now the Astros are hurting even worse, done after losing four straight to the Red Sox to end their bid to repeat as champions.
“The heart of this team really (is) unparalleled,” said ace Justin Verlander, whose big season helped the Astros go deep in the playoffs. “We had guys playing through so much. I’m not going to name anyone specifically, but I think you could see some of it on the field and how hard guys were grinding trying to help us win.”
It was a disappointing end for the Astros to a stellar year in which they won a franchise-record 103 games to capture the AL West for a second straight season. The Astros had no trouble in the division series, sweeping the Cleveland Indians to set up a meeting with the 108-win Red Sox.
The Astros won Game 1, before the Red Sox took over, winning one game in Boston before taking all three games in Houston to reach the World Series for the first time since 2013.
“We’ll learn from it and everyone in here will have a little bit of an edge to play with it (will) be a chip on their shoulder knowing that we believe we should have been back-to-back champions,” third baseman Alex Bregman said. “And I know every day when I wake up and the rest of these guys wake up during the offseason, there will be one thing on their mind, and that’ll be working toward winning it next year.”
Correa remained in the dugout after the last out on Thursday night, staring onto the field as the Red Sox celebrated on the Astros’ home field after a 4-1 win.
“I was just thinking that I don’t want to ever feel this feeling again of losing,” he said. “It’s just devasting to lose when we know what kind of team we have.”
It was a year where Bregman led Houston’s offense by posting career highs in batting average (.286), homers (31), RBIs (103) and doubles (51), while Altuve struggled for most of the second half with right knee injury. The reigning AL MVP returned from the first stint of his career on the disabled list on Aug. 21, but never fully recovered from the injury.
It got so bad in the ALCS that the six-time All-Star second baseman couldn’t play defense and served as Houston’s designated hitter for the last three games.
“It’s all about heart with him,” manager AJ Hinch said. “He is such a great example of what’s right … I wish you guys knew what he had to go through to play every day and get himself prepared and then contribute and do well.”
Correa got better late in the series and had three hits in Game 4 but admitted before the series that his back hurt so bad sometimes that it was difficult to walk. He is confident that extended rest will clear up the problem and that he’ll be ready to go for next season.
The same can’t be said for McCullers, a right-hander who started and pitched in relief for the Astros this season. The 25-year-old pitched just four times in the regular season after July 29 as he dealt with what the team called discomfort in his right elbow.
McCullers wouldn’t provide specifics on his injury on Thursday night, but he wouldn’t deny that he’s going to need surgery on his elbow.
“We’re going to figure all that stuff out,” he said. “I’m pretty banged up … so that’s going to be something that down the road in the next couple of days or couple of weeks we’ll figure out.”
Now the Astros will face an offseason with several questions about their roster with a list of potential free agents including pitchers Charlie Morton and Dallas Keuchel, catchers Brian McCann and Martin Maldonado, and all-purpose player Marwin Gonzalez.
Keuchel, the 2015 Cy Young Award winner, who is one of the longest tenured Astros after debuting in 2012 said he’d like to return but is disappointed that the team hadn’t tried to negotiate with him sooner.
“There’s been seven years where there could have been extension talks, but one thing or another it just hasn’t come to a head,” he said. “But I’d like to be in this locker next year … it’s just going to be a weird feeling not knowing what’s next.”
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