The Houston Astros seem to have done almost everything right the past few years and are enjoying the title of “Defending World Champions” in spring training this season.

They rid themselves of costly, aging veterans a few years ago who didn’t do much more than elevate the team’s payroll numbers.

They suffered the consequences of playing three seasons with rookie prospects who still were two or three years away from being bona fide major leaguers and watched their loss numbers exceed the 100 level.

General Manager Jeff Luhnow shopped the free agent marketplace and came up with some of the missing pieces that would be necessary in becoming a winning franchise.

All of a sudden, those 100-plus losses reversed themselves in 100-plus victories, the distinction of being the ONLY team in major league history to defeat the Boston Red Sox, New York Yankees and the Los Angeles Dodgers during the same season in the playoffs and winning the World Series for the first time in Houston Astros history.

And the one great feature of the 2018 edition of the Astros is that each player and coach is treating spring training as just another season and are working extra hard to defend that championship without flaunting it.

In fact, some of the veteran players are taking the young prospects aside and giving them valuable tips on how to better play their positions.

Monday’s edition of the Houston Chronicle has a photo of 35-year-old ace pitcher Justin Verlander giving pointers to 24-year old Lance McCullers, Jr. on baseball grips and elbow angles.

“It’s time to have new ideas, tweak things,” Verlander commented about spring training last weekend. “I’m trying to see some opportunities that I can help or impart some wisdom of a guy that’s been around for a little while. Trying new things, hearing different opinions—that’s how you get better.”

The new West Palm Beach training facility has many smiling faces, but everyone there is very cautious about implying the franchise is headed toward becoming a dynasty. No team has ever used that word after only one world championship. The San Francisco Giants won three in five years and never mentioned that word.

Owner Jim Crane and his Astros have come a long way since the 100-loss seasons. But even after winning 101 games last season and capturing the first MLB title in franchise history, the owner is still cautiously optimistic as the 2018 campaign begins, according to Sunday’s edition of the Chronicle.

“We’re set for a good season. Hopefully get in the playoffs and anything goes,” Crane said. “You’ve got to get a little hot—you saw some of the excitement last year. But this team has got a lot of fortitude and a lot of chemistry and that’s what you want to see.”

“The Astros wouldn’t have been able to carry a World Series trophy across Texas during the off-season without the vision of Luhnow and Crane’s backing.

“Six-plus years after the owner and GM began reconstructing baseball’s worst team—a major overhaul that included the major and minor-league systems and international pipeline—many MLB teams are now following the Astros’ master plan.

“Go young and rebuild. Invest in yourself and develop your own talent. Spend big when the time is right,” the article added.

The time apparently was right last month when the Astros made a huge trade with the Pittsburgh Pirates, surrendering three prospects and a 25-man roster pitcher for 27-year-old starting pitcher Gerrit Cole. But Luhnow was so crafty, the organization didn’t spend a dime to obtain Cole.

“It’s tough to win,” Crane concluded. “Look how tough those games were to take down the Boston Red Sox, New York Yankees and Los Angeles Dodgers and it comes down to one ball game in the playoffs. But we got it done. I think the team’s as good or a better team as it was last year.”

But the owner was very careful to imply anything about the Houston Astros being en route to becoming a dynasty!!

KWICKIES…Famous female race car driver Danica Patrick, who finished a distant 35th in Sunday’s Daytona 500 and plans on retiring after the Indianapolis 500 in July, has a new boyfriend—Green Bay Packers’ star quarterback Aaron Rodgers.

The Houston Texans will release inside linebacker Brian Cushing at some point before the new NFL year begins March 14. The 31-year-old Cushing’s tenure will end after nine seasons. With rookie inside linebackers Zach Cunningham and Dylan Cole showing so much promise, Cushing became expendable.

The Los Angeles Angels signed former Houston Astros’ first baseman Chris Carter to a minor league contract with an invitation to spring training and Houston native Chris Young to a one-year pact.

One of the big-name free agents, Kansas City first baseman Eric Hosmer, agreed to an eight-year $144 million contract with the San Diego Padres, leaving the Royals with a huge void at first base and in the clubhouse.

The Orangefield Bobcats squeaked out a 37-36 basketball victory over Bridge City Friday night in a one-game playoff for fourth place and the final playoff berth in District 22-4A. The Bobcats (17-16, 4-7) will play District 21-4A champion Shepherd in the bidistrict playoffs this week.

Freshman Jack Burke once again led the Little Cypress-Mauriceville golf team with a solid 70 as the Bears won the Anahuac Tournament last week, finishing 10 strokes better than runner-up West Brook.

Freshman Jack Dallas made his collegiate debut for the Lamar Cardinals Sunday, pitching four innings against Texas Southern. Dallas was breezing along the first three innings but found out the hard way there are some pretty good hitters at the next level as he surrendered a pair of fourth-inning homers and left the game trailing 3-0. But he didn’t get tagged with the loss as teammate Cole Secrest pounded a three-run homer to tie the score and take Dallas off the hook. The Cards gave up a late run and lost 4-3 to conclude the weekend Cardinal Classic with a 1-2 record. Things don’t get any easier for the Big Red as they travel to Austin and take on the No. 21 Texas Longhorns today.

As the Lamar baseball season begins, the basketball season swings into its final week of regulation play with both the women’s and men’s teams playing Houston Baptist Wednesday and Stephen F. Austin on Saturday. The Cards sit in sixth place in the Southland Conference standings with the top eight teams earning a spot in the SLC Tournament in Katy next month. The 14-1 Lady Cards, winners of 11 straight games, will host Houston Baptist today and travel to Nacogdoches to meet Stephen F. Austin in a game that will determine the SLC champion.

JUST BETWEEN US…Major League Baseball on Monday ruled to limit the number of trips that can be made to the mound to visit the pitcher in an effort to speed up the game. They also want to change pitchers in less time and impose a timer between innings. MLB declined the use of a pitch clock or a timer between batters. The Major League Baseball Players Association was not in favor of the proposed changes, but did not issue a vote against them.