FOUR OF A KIND
Top of the Astros’ lineup shares a youthful enthusiasm and a bond that comes from enjoying success together
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.
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.