2015 MLB Season Ends Favorably For Astros

Joe Kazmar – For The Record

What began as the same old pipe dream their fans have every February, to a beam of hope after a surprising 18-7 start in April, turned into a legitimate possibility when they occupied first place during most of the summer and ended in reality Sunday during the eighth inning of the 162nd and final game of the regular 2015 major league baseball season.

What we are babbling about is the Houston Astros, who went from the same old dream for the last 10 years to the ultimate of a playoff berth earned Sunday during the eighth inning of their game against the Arizona Diamondbacks when the scoreboard flashed that the Los Angeles Angels lost 9-2 to the Texas Rangers, eliminating them from the American League playoffs and earning the second and final wild card playoff berth.

Although the Astros lost 5-3 to the Diamondbacks Sunday—thanks to a two-run home run surrendered by reliever Chad Qualls to Arizona slugger Paul Goldschmidt to break a 3-3 tie—they qualified for the final AL wild card and traveled to New York to play the mighty Yankees last night in a winner-take-all game.

If the Astros had managed to win Game No. 162 Sunday, last night’s wild card playoff game would have taken place at Minute Maid Park in Houston instead of at Yankee Stadium in The Bronx because the Astros won four-of-seven from New York during the regular season which would have been the tie-breaker.

The good news is that the Astros’ 20-game winner and Cy Young Award candidate Dallas Keuchel (20-8) took the mound for the AL West Division runner-up Astros. He posted two of his 20 victories against the Yankees, including a 15-1 rout on Aug. 25 at Yankee Stadium.

What seems almost lop-sided is the fact the Houston Astros have a payroll of $80 million, which is the lowest of any 2015 playoff team, compared to the New York Yankees’ payroll of a whopping $218 million.

Of course it’s not good to look ahead, but the winner of last night’s one-game playoff will face the AL Central Division-champion Kansas City Royals tomorrow (Thursday) and Friday and then play at either Minute Maid Park or Yankee Stadium Sunday and Monday. If a deciding fifth game is necessary, it will be played at Kansas City Oct. 14.

Last night marked the tenth time the Houston Astros reached the post-season playoffs, with the first time occurring in 1980 when they lost to the Philadelphia Phillies 3 games to 2 in the National League Championship Series.

The Astros lost in the playoffs their first seven tries before beating the Atlanta Braves three games to two in the 2004 NL Divisional Series and then losing four games to three to St. Louis in the NL Championship Series.

Their shiniest moment came the following season in 2005 when they beat Atlanta 3-1 in the divisional series and St. Louis 4-2 in the championship series before losing in four straight games to the Chicago White Sox in the 2005 World Series.

A lot of credit for the Astros sudden surge to success must go to General Manager Jeff Luhnow, who did the same thing when he was the GM at St. Louis and had faith in the youthful prospects with only minor league experience and brought in some veterans he thought would fit into his rebuilding plan.

But the real genius in this success story has to be first-year manager A. J. Hinch, whose last managerial job had been with the Arizona Diamondbacks five years ago.

Hinch tinkered with the lineups almost daily, resting players when he thought they needed it and trusting his computer for matching up certain lineups with opposing starting pitchers.

Perhaps the wisest decision Luhnow and Hinch made was the early promotion of shortstop Carlos Correa—bringing him to the major league team in June rather than the planned September.

Not only was Correa the youngest regular player in the major leagues at age 20, but before it was over, he led all major league shortstops in home runs, despite playing half a season. Today Correa should be a shoo-in for the American League Rookie of the Year.

Whether the Houston Astros won or lost last night at Yankee Stadium, they set the baseball world on its ear by improving their win total by 35 games in a two-year span.   They have to be proud of finishing the season with an 86-76 record for the 162-game major league baseball season!!!

KWICKIES…Washington manager Matt Williams became the first casualty in the major leagues as he was unceremoniously fired Monday morning after almost getting his team to the World Series last season. Despite his team having a plethora of injuries throughout the season, it appeared he lost control of the team during the final months of the season and was accused by some of his players of mis-managing the team.

And not to be outdone, Joe Philbin was fired by the Miami Dolphins Monday afternoon after a 1-3 start this season. Another sore spot was the way Philbin was using Ndamukong Suh after giving him half the franchise to come to Miami from Detroit.

Seattle Seahawks’ rookie Tyler Lockett is only the second player in NFL history to have a punt return and a kickoff return for touchdowns in his first three games.

With the 2015 National Football League season one-quarter gone, there remain half-a-dozen teams that still are undefeated—New England, Cincinnati, Denver, Carolina, Atlanta and Green Bay—while only one, the Detroit Lions have failed to win a game so far. The Arizona Cardinals have scored the most points (148) while the Chicago Bears and Kansas City Chiefs have surrendered the most points (125).

Congrats to the Houston Astros’ All-Star second baseman Jose Altuve for banging out 200 hits for the second straight season. The 2014 major league batting champion got his 200th hit in the ninth inning of Sunday’s 162nd game, boosting his final batting average to .313, tenth-best in the major leagues. Altuve also led the American League in stolen bases (38) for the second straight year.

High school football games begin “for real” Friday for the West Orange-Stark Mustangs (5-1), Orangefield Bobcats (3-3) and Deweyville Pirates (2-3) as they play the first games in their respective districts this week.

A big shake-up occurred in this week’s Associated Press College Football’s Top 25 Poll as seven ranked teams lost last weekend including No. 3 Ole Miss, No. 6 Notre Dame, No. 7 UCLA and No. 8 Georgia. Ohio State somehow remained No. 1, TCU and Baylor moved up two places to No. 2 and No. 3, respectively, Michigan dropped two notches to No. 4, Utah vaulted five spots to No. 5, Clemson moved up six places to No. 6, LSU jumped two spots to No. 7, Alabama, Texas A&M and Oklahoma went up five places to No. 8, No. 9 and No. 10, respectively. Florida catapulted from No. 25 to No. 11 while Ole Miss dropped from third to No. 14.

JUST BETWEEN US…Head Coach Bill O’Brien’s pipe dream of using Tom Brady’s understudies Brian Hoyer or Ryan Mallett as his starting quarterback for the 2015 Houston Texans blew up in his face so far this season. After four games the Texans are a dismal 1-3, scoring only 29 points in the first three quarters this season and adding only 48 more points in the fourth period against many opponents’ second and third-string players. The defense has a minus-six turnover margin this season with Houston scoring only three points after the turnovers. O’Brien blames himself after each defeat and can’t find anyone to argue that point with him. I believe Bill O’Brien’s tenure as the Texans’ head coach will be very short.