FOUR OF A KIND

Top of the Astros’ lineup shares a youth­ful en­thu­si­asm and a bond that comes from en­joy­ing suc­cess to­gether

Houston Chronicle Sunday - - COMMENTARY - BRIAN T. SMITH brian.smith@chron.com twit­ter.com/chron­bri­an­smith

BOS­TON — This was the vi­sion dur­ing the 100-loss sea­sons.

A core group of young names and in­stantly fa­mil­iar faces with which the Astros could an­nu­ally win and build a re­made fran­chise around.

A 101-vic­tory year that ar­rived ahead of sched­ule, fol­lowed by Craw­ford Boxes long balls and play­off blowouts at roar­ing Minute Maid Park.

Then show­ing up in a leg­endary ball­park, up 2-0 and with two road games to close it out, and strid­ing onto a fa­mous field with all the con­fi­dence that youth, tal­ent and a grow­ing sense of in­evitabil­ity bring. This is their time. And their time is now. Jose Al­tuve. Ge­orge Springer. Car­los Cor­rea. Alex Breg­man. The re­built Astros’ core four. A.J. Hinch’s 1-4 hit­ters dur­ing Games 1 and 2 in the Amer­i­can League Divi­sion Series, bat­ter­ing the Red Sox for a com­bined .375 av­er­age (12-for-32), six home runs and 10 RBIs.

“We feel like we’re broth­ers and we’ve got to take care of each other, on and off the field,” Cor­rea said as the Astros worked out at Fen­way Park. Vet­eran of the bunch

Al­tuve has rep­re­sented Hous­ton’s base­ball club since July 2011, and was once sar­cas­ti­cally known as the only good player on a hor­ri­ble team.

Springer joined The Show on April 16, 2014, and his ma­jor league de­but marked the pre­miere of all the pipe­line tal­ent that was soon to flow.

Cor­rea ar­rived June 8, 2015, adding in­stant fire to the Astros’ first play­off run in a decade.

Then it was Breg­man Day on July 25, 2016, as the or­ga­ni­za­tion that gen­eral man­ager Jeff Luh­now re­made re­ceived an­other crit­i­cal locked-in as­set.

The Astros beat down Bos­ton by a com­bined 16-4 in Games 1 and 2 be­cause of their com­bined force. Back-to-back aces Justin Ver­lan­der and Dallas Keuchel. Su­per util­i­ty­man Mar­win Gon­za­lez, un­der­rated Evan Gat­tis and a bullpen that al­lowed one run in 61⁄3 in­nings.

“The youth, ex­u­ber­ance … the core that you’re talk­ing about is cer­tainly the en­ergy,” Hinch said. “But they’re not the only rea­son we are here.”

But the na­tional spot­light is be­gin­ning to zoom in on the 2017 Astros and Fen­way Park is a per­fect stage. And ev­ery time you hear a talk­ing head praise the Astros’ tal­ent and yap about how spe­cial this team could be into the next decade — just like I’m do­ing — it comes down to the im­pos­si­ble-to-ig­nore po­ten­tial of the core four. Youth is on their side

Most teams would love to have one player with the ath­leti­cism, youth, per­son­al­ity and reach of Al­tuve, Springer, Cor­rea or Breg­man. The Astros fill up three-fourths of their in­field with the four­some — Springer roams just be­hind in cen­ter field — and none have to worry about turn­ing 30 any time soon.

“The most im­pres­sive thing for me about the group is how much value they add on all facets of the game,” Luh­now said. “These are four ex­tremely ath­letic base­ball play­ers. Each of them could play prob­a­bly any po­si­tion on the field if they chose to ded­i­cate them­selves to it.

“The com­bi­na­tion of the de­fense, the baserun­ning, the power, the bat­ting eye, the con­tactabil­ity — I mean, this is a re­ally spe­cial group of four play­ers and they get along re­ally well with each other. You don’t get that ev­ery­where. You’ve got two Amer­i­cans, one Puerto Ri­can and one Venezue­lan, but you would never know that they didn’t grow up to­gether, didn’t go to high school to­gether. It’s pretty cool.”

I was just about to get to that last part. That’s also what makes them so spe­cial: They like each other. Hav­ing fun at Fen­way

The day at Fen­way began with Al­tuve, Springer and Cor­rea crack­ing each other up next to the bat­ting cage, and even 34-year-old Ver­lan­der couldn’t help but laugh at the inside jokes.

Twenty min­utes later, it was Al­tuve, Cor­rea and Breg­man united near sec­ond base — 33-year-old Yuli Gur­riel was al­lowed to join the party — in an­other laugh­fest. When a ball was ripped into cen­ter field, Cor­rea yanked his team­mates down all at once. Sec­onds later, they were laugh­ing at the hero­ism.

“It’s just un­be­liev­able to see the chem- istry,” Cor­rea said. “We were just talk­ing about it dur­ing (bat­ting prac­tice), how much we love this team. Be­cause every­body gets along, every­body has tal­ent on this team and any given night any­body can be the hero.”

Of course, Breg­man said the same thing.

“We have so much fun play­ing ev­ery sin­gle day. We want to do that for­ever,” he said. “We think that we can have a great team for a lot of years to come and we want to play to­gether for a long time.” How long can they stay to­gether?

First, they need to beat the Red Sox for the third time. Then they’ll prob­a­bly have to find some way to over­come the ap­par­ently un­beat­able Cleve­land In­di­ans. And then, if 2017 is mag­i­cal, the Astros’ core four will re­ceive a World Series-sized spot­light.

And then — be­cause base­ball is base­ball and sports are sports — you’ll surely start to hear the ques­tions about how long the Astros can keep Al­tuve, Springer, Cor­rea and Breg­man to­gether.

If this club makes the Series, it will have ben­e­fited from one of the best bar­gains in the play­offs: The four­some only costs the Astros’ $9.5 mil­lion this sea­son. Al­tuve’s un­der his team-friendly con­tract through 2019; Springer doesn’t be­come a free agent un­til 2021. Cor­rea and Breg­man aren’t even el­i­gi­ble for ar­bi­tra­tion.

Now that the Astros fi­nally have play­ers you know, fol­low and love — there were no thun­der­ous home-crowd MVP chants in 2011-13 — they plan to keep their young stars in uni­form as long as pos­si­ble.

“The hope is — I mean, we cer­tainly don’t plan to move any of them any time soon,” Luh­now said. “So it’s just a mat­ter of whether or not when their con­tracts are up and they be­come free agents, whether or not we can con­vince them to stick around. I cer­tainly would like to have all four of those guys here for cer­tainly as long as I’m here.” Fi­nally reap­ing the re­wards

Games 1 and 2 were per­fect mem­o­ries, so en­joy the unity while you can.

Breg­man go­ing deep. Then Al­tuve go­ing deep. Cor­rea blast­ing a shot. Springer ham­mer­ing his own two in­nings later.

The Astros’ core four have more play­off homers in the ALDS than the Red Sox have runs.

This is what we were wait­ing and hop­ing for dur­ing the 100-loss years.

“It’s awe­some,” Game 3 starter Brad Pea­cock said. “I played with Springer and Breg­man in the mi­nor leagues and just watch­ing Cor­rea come up, I knew they were go­ing to be some­thing spe­cial and they were just un­be­liev­able — fun to watch, bring high en­ergy.

“It’s what you need. You need a bunch of … young guys that keep every­body up on their toes and they’re just fun to watch ev­ery day.”

Es­pe­cially beat­ing up on the Red Sox in the play­offs.

Karen War­ren / Hous­ton Chron­i­cle

Short­stop Car­los Cor­rea, left, and sec­ond base­man Jose Al­tuve put on a cel­e­bra­tion, a scene Astros fans hope will be re­played for years to come.

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