Astros bask in un­for­get­table ride to top

After pain, Luh­now’s fast re­build is re­al­ized

USA TODAY Sports Weekly - - FRONT PAGE - Bob Night­en­gale Colum­nist USA TO­DAY

LOS AN­GE­LES — Ge­orge Springer, stand­ing in the mid­dle of the rau­cous Hous­ton Astros club­house last week, com­pletely drenched in beer and cham­pagne with his shoes cov­ered in al­co­hol, tightly held the tro­phy, re­fus­ing to let it go.

He kept look­ing around the room, glanced at his gen­eral man­ager in back of him, never saw his man­ager and broke into this sly, al­most mis­chievous grin.

The Hous­ton Astros had won the World Se­ries nearly two hours ago, beat­ing the Los An­ge­les Dodgers 5-1 in Game 7 for their first ti­tle in fran­chise his­tory, and in all the pan­de­mo­nium in this cramped club­house filled with cigar smoke and the aroma of cham­pagne and beer, it was sud­denly as if ev­ery­body for­got the ul­ti­mate prize. The World Se­ries tro­phy. “This is what you work for,” Springer said, his voice crack­ing. “This what you hope for. This is what you dream. We re­ally did it.”

Ear­lier in the evening, Springer was stand­ing on the mas­sive stage on the Dodger Sta­dium in­field, ac­cept­ing the World Se­ries MVP award on tele­vi­sion. This is a guy who hit .100 with­out a sin­gle ex­tra-base hit in eight post­sea­son games go­ing back to the Amer­i­can League Cham­pi­onship Se­ries, strik­ing out four times in Game 1 of the World Se­ries, only to come back and hit .440 over the fi­nal six games.

Springer, join­ing Reg­gie Jack­son and Chase Ut­ley, tied a World Se­ries record with five home runs. He set records with eight ex­tra-base hits and 29 to­tal bases. He hit .379 with seven RBI and eight runs. And he joined Lou Gehrig and Jack­son as the only play­ers in his­tory to homer in four con­sec­u­tive World Se­ries games.

“It was fit­ting,” Astros GM Jeff Luh­now said, “be­cause in a lot of ways, he’s the heart and soul of the or­ga­ni­za­tion. This guy has so much ta­lent, but he’s a leader with so much en­thu­si­asm.

“He was the one who started Club Astro with the mu­sic, the fog lights and all of that stuff. There’s no bet­ter guy to win a World Se­ries MVP.”

It was a beau­ti­ful tro­phy, the first of its kind in the Astros or­ga­ni­za­tion, but to be hon­est, Springer said, shrug­ging, he had no idea what hap­pened to it. He didn’t re­ally care. The one he wanted he was clutch­ing and hold­ing next to his chest.

“You dream of this as a kid,” Springer said, “hold­ing up the World Se­ries tro­phy. Now, here I am, hold­ing up a World Se­ries tro­phy. This is for the city. This is for our fans. This is in­cred­i­ble.”

Springer, who was in Hous­ton dur­ing all the mis­er­able days, on a team that lost at least 106 games three con­sec­u­tive years, and now here he was, hold­ing the great­est prize in fran­chise his­tory and start­ing to won­der when some­one might no­tice he still has the tro­phy in his pos­ses­sion.

“I will prob­a­bly give this to (man­ager) A.J. (Hinch),” Springer said, “but you never know. I don’t see any­body ask­ing for it. No one is.

“I might just hang on to it. You think any­one would no­tice?”

Con­sid­er­ing it’s Springer, who opened the door in this game with a lead­off dou­ble and slammed it shut with his tworun homer in the sec­ond in­ning off Dodgers starter Yu Darvish, the city of Hous­ton is will­ing to overlook a whole lot of things.

Four years ago, they were laugh­ing­stocks, los­ing 111 games in 2013, prompt­ing Luh­now to even change his li­cense plate to GM111.

“I wanted to feel that pain,” Luh­now said, “ev­ery time I got in my car.”

To­day, they are cham­pi­ons, leav­ing grown men in­clud­ing Astros Pres­i­dent Reid Ryan cry­ing and fran­chise icons Jeff Bag­well and Craig Big­gio get­ting sen­ti­men­tal. This is a fran­chise, born in 1962, that had great teams along the way. The Astros had Nolan Ryan and Jose Cruz. They had Mike Scott and Ken Caminiti. They had Roy Oswalt and Lance Berk­man. And, Bag­well and Big­gio, the lat­ter for 20 years.

They earned 10 play­off berths over all those years, win­ning three con­sec­u­tive di­vi­sion ti­tles (and four in five years), and even reached the World Se­ries in 2005.

Yet un­til this past week, they had never won a World Se­ries game, let alone sniffed a ti­tle.

“This is a great team,” said Bag­well, in­ducted this sum­mer into the Base­ball Hall of Fame. “I don’t think the world knew it. Well, they do now.

“No­body wanted us to win this whole thing. Ev­ery­body else wanted the big teams. But we beat the Red Sox. We beat the Yan­kees. And now we beat the Dodgers. Pretty cool.”

This isn’t the old school Astros that Bag­well and Big­gio grew up with dur­ing their en­dur­ing ca­reers. They hated when play­ers stood on the top step in­stead of sit­ting back in the dugout. It drove them crazy when play­ers flipped their bats after homers. They hated this new era, pre­fer­ring cigar­chomp­ing scouts with sun­baked arms to pim­ple-faced kids sit­ting in front of their com­puter screens mak­ing base­ball de­ci­sions us­ing an­a­lyt­ics.

“Things are dif­fer­ent; base­ball is dif­fer­ent,” Bag­well said. “The game has changed, and I have to get used to that.

“But th­ese kids are hav­ing fun, they’re fun to watch, they’re en­ter­tain­ing for the fans and they’re good. I can ad­just.”

You know times are dif­fer­ent when Astros All-Star short­stop Car­los Cor­rea is run­ning around the in­field mob­bing his team­mates after win­ning the World

RICHARD MACKSON/USA TO­DAY SPORTS

Astros cen­ter fielder Ge­orge Springer (4) cel­e­brates with the Com­mis­sioner's Tro­phy after the Hous­ton Astros de­feated the Los An­ge­les Dodgers in Game 7.

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