Peter Gammons: Some Astro and Marlins thoughts at season’s end

When one runs the streets of Beverly Hills, each driveway has a sign posted that reads: “Beware. Trespassers Will Be Greeted With an Armed Response.” Which might as well be posted at the entrances to Minute Maid Park this Thursday, because while so many of us have placed the burden of expectations on the Indians to be back in the World Series, beware: the Astros armed response may be the most formidable of any of the ten teams in the playoffs that begin Tuesday.

This year, as well, is different from 2015, when a bunch of young, spirited kids beat the Yankees at The Stadium in the Wild Card Play-in game, then went deep into October.

This year is different because when the Red Sox enter Minute Maid Thursday and begin their playoff run with Chris Sale, the Astros begin with Justin Verlander. Then Friday they have another former Cy Young winner, Dallas Keuchel. And Verlander lives for these moments, when he can walk to the mound with the whole world watching and, as a similar man of the moment once said of pitching in the post-season in Yankee Stadium, “there’s nothing better than shutting up 55,000 Yankee fans.”

Verlander is 5-0, 1.06 since owner Jim Crain insisted on taking on whatever it costs to acquire Verlander, for the hurricane-worn people of Houston. A Tiger his entire career, he has blended into the Astros growing culture. On their last road trip, Carlos Beltran and a couple of coaches went out for dinner after a Saturday night game and got back to the hotel lobby around midnight.

Sitting in the lobby were Verlander, Brian McCann and Keuchel, talking baseball. Beltran’s trio joined them, and the conversation lasted until close to four. “Verlander was in the middle of every discussion,” says one of the participants. “He was really into soaking up every thought. He’s really into this.”

So now they have two Cy Young Award winners at the front of the rotation. They have Charlie Morton, one of the off-season’s best moves who won 14 games, is up to 96 with sink and 163 strikeouts in 146 2/3 innings. And a bullpen build for 7-5 post-season games.

Make no mistake, now that they cleared their month-long funk and went into the final day winning 13 of their last 17 games, the Astros are the most dangerous and deepest lineup in the playoffs. After game 161, they led the majors in runs, total bases, extra base hits, on base percentage, slugging and OPS, and were two homers shy of the Yankees.

“I think now that we’re all back together at the front of the order, we are what we hoped to be,” says Carlos Correa.

Which begins with George Springer. When A.J. Hinch brilliantly put Springer into the leadoff spot two years ago, it changed the team, and it changed Springer. “George didn’t have to think about homers,” says Hinch. “Of course, he now hits for more consistent power.” Like 34 homers and a .900 OPS out of the leadoff spot.

“I love that role,” says Springer, ever articulate, the New England preppie underlying his ferocity. Talk to teammates, coaches and Hinch, Springer is that rare athlete who has no fear of failure. He wants to walk up to the plate and begin the beguine, but he isn’t cocky. Like Evan Longoria, like Mike Trout, he is remarkably comfortable in who he is, never insecure about strikeouts or failure, ever energetic, and while others talk of what that energy and comfort means to the team, Springer says, “there’s no MVP talk around me. There’s only one MVP on this team and he’s Jose Altuve.”

Alex Bregman launched two balls over the Monster Seats in Fenway this weekend and has a, 909 OPS since the All Star Break in this his first full season. He’s also delightfully cocky, like a young Dustin Pedroia. Talking up his former Team USA roommate, A’s third baseman Chapman, Bergman says, “he’s half Arenado, half Machado. But I’m better. (laugh).”

Altuve has an OBP over .400, OPS over .900. After missing nearly two months after being hit in the hand by a pitch which sidelined him until Sept. 3, Correia has been every bit the star projected when he was the first pick in the 2012 draft at the age of 16. He is big, 6-3, 6-4, he has maintained his slim, athletic waist, the result of his off-field work.

Understand this man’s drive. When he was a kid growing up outside Ponce on the south side of Puerto Rico (where he still has not been able to reach many of his parents’ relatives), he would get a convenience store at 6 am daily, get an 80 minute ride to the Puerto Rican Acadamy in San Juan, graduated first in his class, had SAT’s over 1000 at 16. “His drive is to be the best at everything he does,” says Hinch. “He wants to be a great player, and that drive he had as a kid towards academics translates to what his career can be. He’s a very special person.” Injury and all, in less than 110 games, his OPS is nearly .950, and the opposite field bomb he hit at Fenway Thursday shows he is healthy.”

Josh Reddick, currently having back issues, has an OPS over .900. Marwin Gonzalez is over .940. And the bottom third of the order has an OPS of .810, with Brian McCann and Yuli Gurriel in the 8-9 spots with 18 homers apiece.

Coaches feel now that Gurriel—once the best player in Cuba when he didn’t think he’d come to the U.S.—has a year under his belt in this game, he has become the team’s best situational hitter. He makes contact on a team that has the best contact rate in the majors.

Gurriel never really knew about the work that goes into the game. He tells teammates in Cubs they’d show up for games, and play. When he signed last summer and was sent to the minors, in his first week, he was told he’d play Monday and Tuesday, have Wednesday off, then play Thursday.

Wednesday, he was nowhere to be found. He didn’t know he had to come to the game and get in his work. By the way, in the last two weeks, his .326 average down near the bottom of the order has, like Correia’s health, has further built that offense.

Then there is the bullpen model. Ken Giles has become a dominant closer, in the high 90’s, a 1.44 ERA since the All Star Break with a 44-8 strikeout-walk ratio in 30 1/3 innings. Twice he was brought into eight inning games because of leverage, his teammates added on runs, and he insisted on finishing the game to save the rest of the pen.

Hinch has used two starters in the pen and their velocities have skied—Joe Musgrove, comped to Wade Davis, has a 1.44 ERA and 31 strikeouts in 31 1/3 innings in the pen, Brad Peacock a 1.77 with 26 strikeouts in 20 1/3 innings. Chris Devenski is a constant. Francisco Liriano has become comfortable in the pen role and has been touching 96. There are Will Harris and Luke Gregerson.

Those 2015 ‘Stros led the Royals two games to one in the Division Series and had a 6-2 lead in the eighth inning when all things unraveled, the Royals won that game 9-6 and won Game Five en route to the World Series.

This team is very different. They are more experienced, and the addition of McCann and Beltran and Gurriel and the histories they bring further help the Bregmans and Fishers and other young players. The bullpen is deeper, more powerful.

And on Thursday and Friday they have Justin Verlander and Dallas Keuchel to greet the Red Sox in Minute Maid with a psychological message that reads: “Warning—Intruders Will Be Greeted With an Armed Response.”

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Bob Nightengale of USA says that part of the front office firings in Miami were prompted by Jeffrey Loria having to foot the bill for the 12 years and $10M coming to Jim Benedict, Mike Berger, Jeff McAvoy and amateur DelPiano. If so, then when the new ownership forced David Samson, who was also fired to tell the four rather than have the new ownership have to do the face-to-face work, the four were lied to and told that this was the doing of Derek Jeter.

Which seems strange, since no one from the new ownership has ever met any of the fires. One would think they would want to get some background on thoughts, especially since there are 60 non-uniformed contracts expiring.

Curiously, as everyone in the organization knows, the two most under-performing departments in the Marlins organization are amateur and international scouting. In the latter, they sell off their slot money and do not participate, despite the proliferation of international prospects and Miami is an international market.

The former has picked high school pitchers with the second, seventh and 14th picks in three of the last four drafts. They threw a combined total of 0—no innings in 2017. The last successful number one pick was Jose Fernandez in 2011.

It is October, and the Marlins now are months behind other rebuilding organizations. Now Jeter has no one with whom to discuss the organization except Don Mattingly, who is a development, organizational manager, but hasn’t the time to travel from minor league affiliate to minor league affiliate, so the only voices left will be those protecting their jobs.

Meanwhile, at least a half-dozen clubs have contacted one of those fired, including three playoff teams. None of the four have ever met Jeter, as Samson did the firings, then had to pack up boxes in his now-former office.

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