HOUSTON — You could make a strong argument that no team recently has been through more emotional highs and lows, more trials and triumph, than the Houston Astros in the past 12 months. And perhaps no one has experienced it all as directly or deeply as Justin Verlander.
The ace, now 35, joined the Astros via trade a year ago, arriving in Houston in the awful aftermath of Hurricane Harvey, which devastated the region and imbued the remainder of the Astros’ season and their postseason march with a deeply felt sense of civic purpose.
He went 5-0 with a 1.06 ERA in September and continued his dominance through October, earning MVP honors in the American League Championship Series and delivering two strong starts in the World Series as the Astros survived a Game 7 in each to secure the franchise’s first championship — a catharsis that lasted deep into a winter full of parades, public appearances and late-night talk-show visits.
This season has seen Verlander make every start, notch his 200th career win and put up some of the best numbers of his career but also endure a five-week stretch in which he went 3-4 with a 5.06 ERA as the Astros blew what was at one point a six-game division lead.
Coinciding with the start of that stretch, the Astros made an out-of-nowhere trade July 30 for Roberto Osuna, the Toronto Blue Jays closer who was, at the time, nearing the end of a 75-game suspension for violating the Major League Baseball’s domestic violence policy — a much-dissected and much-criticized move that required an extensive sales job on the part of the Astros’ management, including within the clubhouse.
“When you look back at everything, it does feel like it’s been one, long emotional ride,” Verlander said this week at Minute Maid Park. “I know it has been for me.”
But as the calendar flips to another September, the Astros — clinging to a 2½-game lead entering Friday but fortified by the experience of last fall — say they believe they are on the verge of shifting into that championship gear again.
“I’ve always believed you kind of chug along for a while, and September is when, if you need to turn it on, you turn it on,” Verlander said. “Not that you’re not playing hard all year, but baseball’s just a different game. You can’t play in the playoffs as late as we did, into November, and then come in and be gung-ho so early and ride that wave all year long. You’ll burn out.”
The evidence of a coming surge from the Astros is everywhere. This week, they took two of three games from their closest pursuers, the upstart Oakland A’s, winning the series by the narrowest of margins: a ninth-inning, walk-off home run in the rubber game off the bat of first baseman Tyler White.
“We have a group of guys who have been there, done that,” said Manager A.J. Hinch, whom the Astros just signed to a four-year contract extension. “I think that helps you in the trying times. We’ve been pushed to the brink in a lot of different series, a lot of different situations, and come out on top. As big as these games [against Oakland] are, they’re not the biggest games we’ve played in. I think that perspective will help us in the next 30-something games as we try to wrap this season up and win the division.”
On Monday, the opening game of the Oakland series, Hinch had the privilege of writing the names of George Springer, Jose Altuve and Carlos Correa — three all-star-caliber, up-the-middle mainstays — on the same lineup card for the first time in more than two months after injuries to one or more of them had kept the Astros shorthanded. Suddenly, the Astros’ offense, as deep and potent as any in baseball when intact, is a Brian McCann away from full strength.
“Now that we’re getting healthy again at the right time, we’re trying to make a push for back-to-back [titles],” third baseman Alex Bregman said. “We’ve been in those types of environments before, so we know how to win. We’ve done it before. We’ve won the whole thing. We know how to win Game 7s. We know how to win on the road. We know how to win here at home when our backs are against the wall. We know how to do all that stuff. And quite frankly, I don’t know of many other teams that do.”
The tumultuous acquisition of Osuna — made largely out of desperation, to shore up a problematic bullpen — has added a strange and awkward element to the Astros’ title defense, with the move, at least initially, dividing the clubhouse and requiring extensive heart-to-heart meetings to work through. Even now, a month later, Osuna seems a man apart from the rest of the team, often sitting alone at his locker. One complicating (and unprecedented) factor is that his legal case remains open, with a hearing in Ontario scheduled for Wednesday.
“Right now, I think it’s going as expected,” Verlander said of Osuna’s assimilation. “When you don’t know the full story, it’s hard to pass judgment. I 100 percent don’t know the story. He can’t tell me the story [because of the ongoing legal status]. It’s a unique situation. It’s a pending case.”
When the Osuna trade happened, with the Astros’ management insisting it had done its due diligence, Verlander immediately became the face of the clubhouse for reporters seeking reaction, owing both to his veteran status and his public outspokenness on domestic violence issues.
“One of the things I voiced to Osuna is I’d hate to have [new details] come out later down the road that’s tough for this team [to absorb],” he said. “… Speculation isn’t fair to him or to us. I told him it’s a wait-and-see [scenario]. I know he can’t talk about it. It’s a sensitive subject for me. I’m very passionate about it. But I’m not going to pass judgment on a guy when I don’t even know what happened.”
In the meantime, after a brief easing-in period, Osuna has become the team’s primary closer, with his entrances at Minute Maid Park accompanied by his name and image flashing on the giant video board in center field and warm applause from the home crowd. On Tuesday, he took the loss in the middle game of the Oakland series, entering in the ninth inning of a tie game and giving up the go-ahead run — but again with nary a grumble from the crowd.
It’s when the Astros go on the road — as they do again next weekend, with three games at Boston’s Fenway Park — that the atmosphere gets charged and the booing gets loud.
The Astros have proved they can survive and thrive in almost any situation, no matter how dire or emotional. But the Osuna situation brings layers of complexity they probably hadn’t even contemplated. And win or lose, their 2018 season probably will be defined by his continued presence and all that comes with it.