LOS ANGELES – As the Houston Astros’ pennant celebration wound down late Saturday night, Dallas Keuchel held a bottle of champagne in each hand, ready to keep the party going and eager to share what made the moment so special.
Everyone in that clubhouse had contributed in some way to the Astros reaching the World Series for just the second time in their 56-year history, and Keuchel was thrilled for them.
But the Cy Young Award-winning left-hander, who will start Game 1 against the Los Angeles Dodgers on Tuesday, and a handful of his teammates have a fuller appreciation of what it took to get to this exalted stage. For them the feeling of accomplishment ran deeper, because of the low points they had endured together.
Keuchel is one of four Astros left from the 51-111 team of 2013, along with second baseman Jose Altuve, utilityman Marwin Gonzalez and pitcher Brad Peacock. That was the last season of a three-year spell when Houston lost at least 106 games annually.
“The lean years were really, really tough,’’ Keuchel said. “For the few guys who are still here from those years, I couldn’t be happier for them. There was no light at the end of the tunnel when I first came up (in 2012). … For us to be here is nothing short of spectacular. There are no words to describe it. From where we started to where we’re at now is night and day.’’
The process of finding the light, engineered by general manager Jeff Luhnow after his hiring in December 2011, relied heavily on drafting high. Once the Astros stripped the club of veterans like Hunter Pence and Michael Bourn – both months before Luhnow’s arrival – and then Carlos Lee, those high picks were nearly guaranteed, and the accusations of tanking sprouted.
Luhnow took foundation piece Carlos Correa No. 1 overall in 2012, but fumbled the next two top picks – pitchers Mark Appel and Brady Aiken – much to the delight of baseball traditionalists who scoffed at the advanced metrics-oriented methods of the former management consultant.
For a club with such a precise rebuilding plan, the Astros experienced plenty of miscalculations. Hits like Lance McCullers Jr. and Alex Bregman – chosen with the compensatory pick Houston received when it failed to sign lefty pitcher Aiken in 2014 – came accompanied by misses like the since-traded Appel or first baseman Jon Singleton, who is languishing in the minors despite a $10 million contract.
The Astros also gave up on outfielders J.D. Martinez and Domingo Santana, but surprisingly made the 2015 playoffs as a wild card.
“We were criticized for some of the things we were doing,’’ Luhnow said days before the Astros secured their World Series berth. “It was tough, and I feel everybody is sharing the satisfaction now knowing that. We weren’t perfect, we made some mistakes, but in general we were doing the right things for the right reason, and now it’s revealing itself. We have one of the most exciting, best teams in baseball competing for a championship.’’
It likely wouldn’t be in that position if Luhnow had not relented on his penchant for retaining prized prospects, controllable assets who play for low salaries in their early years, and exchanged three of them for a 34-year-old pitcher with $56 million left on his contract.
The Astros, who had coveted former AL MVP and Cy Young winner Justin Verlander of the Detroit Tigers but found the price in prospects and salary too high, stunned baseball followers when they made no major moves at the July 31 non-waiver trade deadline. The club, while 69-36 and running away with the AL West at the time, had an obvious need for help in the rotation, and Keuchel publicly voiced the disappointment his teammates felt.
But Luhnow stayed in touch with Tigers GM Al Avila, his eyes set on trading for Verlander in time for him to be eligible for the playoff roster, completing the deal just moments before the Aug. 31 deadline.
The players were overjoyed.
“He came in at the right time because I think the team was a little down,’’ Gonzalez said. “We were on a losing streak when he arrived and after that things changed. We went back to being the same Astros we were earlier in the season.’’
Verlander has exceeded the team’s expectations, winning every one of his nine outings in an Astros uniform – including the first relief appearance of his career – while fashioning a preposterous 1.23 ERA. When Houston faced elimination in Game 6 of the American League Championship Series after getting swept in the middle three games at Yankee Stadium, it was Verlander who restored order with seven shutout innings in a 7-1 victory.
His two wins and 16 innings of one-run ball earned him ALCS MVP honors and a hug from Altuve when the award was announced after Houston clinched the pennant with a 4-0 victory over the New York Yankees on Saturday.
“He’s the kind of pitcher who likes to help his teammates,’’ said Altuve, who made a public declaration of his love for Verlander. “I always see him talking with the other pitchers, talking with us, telling us how we can improve as a team. He’s exactly what this team needed.’’
Ortiz also reported from Houston and New York