Friday, December 1 2023

HOUSTON − It was as if Hollywood came up with yet another “Back to the Future” sequel, this time with the Baltimore Orioles pondering what the baseball gods have in mind for the next generation.

OK, well at least the next 10 years.

When the Orioles and Houston Astros collided in a three-game series this week at Minute Maid Park, it was as if they were looking at themselves in a mirror.

The Orioles, the laughingstocks of baseball only two years ago, were watching the Astros, knowing the Astros used to be them.

“You look at them,” Astros veteran catcher Martin Maldonado says, “and it’s exactly how we were built. It’s scary.”

The Astros were baseball’s worst team before the Orioles even knew how to spell T-A-N-K. They lost 106, 107 and 111 games in three consecutive seasons from 2011-2013, collecting a slew of top picks, and then building a legacy as one of the elite franchises in the game. The Astros have the two World Series titles, four pennants and reached six consecutive American League Championship Series to prove it.

The Orioles, who have reached the postseason for the first time since 2016, just two years after losing 110 games for the greatest two-year turnaround in baseball history, are the baby Astros, threatening to create their own dynasty for the next decade.

“Their organization is really stacked,” Astros two-time World Series champion Justin Verlander tells USA TODAY Sports. “There are a lot of young guys over there, and you say, “Oh [expletive], where did they come from? Nobody really expected to win the division. Everyone was talking about everyone else in that division.

“But you look at them, they got some really young good players, and they hit. Do they ever hit. You play the game right, this game will reward you, and they play the game right.”

Astros players celebrate a walk-off win against the Orioles in Houston.Astros players celebrate a walk-off win against the Orioles in Houston.

Astros players celebrate a walk-off win against the Orioles in Houston.

The Orioles won two of the three games in the series, and when the two sides waved good-bye, they had a sneaky feeling they’ll be seeing one another again.

Yes, in the American League Championship Series – if not before then.

“The way these races is going, we could even be seeing them in the Division Series,” says Orioles starter Kyle Gibson. “It doesn’t matter. To go where we want to go, you’ve got to beat the best. And they’ve been the best.’’

While this may be unchartered waters for the Orioles, this is the Astros’ time of year.

This is where they thrive.

When these guys get into the postseason, they stay around.

“I don’t know if you’d call it confidence, as much you just know what to expect,’’ Verlander says. “Playoff baseball is just different baseball. You’re prepared for it. And with the clubhouse culture we’ve created, we’re prepared.’’

There are guys like Astros third baseman Alex Bregman who barely know anything else. And he expects to be in the World Series every year he wears a uniform.

You ask him if he expected this glorious run when he broke into the big leagues, and he doesn’t hesitate.

“Well, yeah,” he says, breaking into a laugh. “I did, I really did. I saw the guys in the room. I saw how everyone in here goes about their business. I saw guys not being satisfied and continuing to want to get better each year.

“Sure, I knew it’s hard to do what we’ve done, but hell, you’ve got to embrace that bullseye.’’

The Astros certainly have embraced being that team folks still love to hate, seething over their cheating scandal in 2017, when the reality is there were plenty of teams doing egregious things themselves, but didn’t have a whistleblower to inform the baseball world.

The Astros insist they didn’t need to bang on any trash cans to win the title that year, and have now spent the past five years proving it, winning year after year after year after year.

“The longer this goes on, the appreciation you have,” says Astros reliever Kendall Graveman. “These guys have learned how to be champions. And now, guys are carrying the weight of being a champion.

“We’re trying to build a legacy and cement a dynasty.”

The weight of the expectations nearly brought the Astros to their knees this season. They lost All-Star second baseman Jose Altuve for 43 games when he broke his hand during the WBC. All-Star outfielder Yordan Alvarez missed 39 games with a strained oblique muscle. Outfielder Michael Brantley has been out most of the season. Prized starter Luis Garcia underwent Tommy John surgery in May and veteran starter Lance McCullers has been out all year after flexor tendon surgery.

It’s a testament to future Hall of Fame manager Dusty Baker that they’ve somehow been able to survive, but here they are, telling folks the party doesn’t stop until they’re the ones who turn out the lights.

“It’s been an incredible run,” Astros outfielder Chas McCormick says. “I remember thinking that when I was in the in minor leagues, by the time I got up in 2020-21, will the window be closed? Is it going to be over?

“Well, we get to the World Series my rookie season, win the World Series last year. We go through all of this adversity this year, we got a bullseye on our back, and this is the first time we got our butts kicked like we did this year. But here we are again.”

Certainly, it’s been a trying and frustrating year. The Astros never imagined they’d be struggling to be a .500 team at home. This is the first time since 2016 they have had anything less than a 2 ½-game lead in the month of September. They’re already setting their rotation up for the playoffs, not fighting for their lives simply to get into the dance.

“There’s been more negativity here than positivity,” Baker says. “There’s negatives everywhere. There’s negatives in the media. There’s negatives in the stands. There’s some negatives in the office. I mean, you walk around, people are all nervous.

“You’ve got to focus on positives, that’s the only chance you got. Let’s see what kind of character we got.’’

The Astros, even after seeing the youthful versions of themselves produce the best record in the American League this year,  remain confident. They deeply respect the Orioles, but don’t fear them. They still believe they can be the first team since the Yankees more than 20 years ago to win back-to-back titles, but aren’t making any World Series plans quite yet.

Not with the Orioles still out there, pearhos too young an naiive to realize they’re not supposed to make it look so easy.

“What’s impressive is just how many good young players we have,” Gibson says, “and when look at the Astros you think, this team definitely has the ability to do what they’re doing. This is a core of players that will obviously be together for awhile, and what’s so impressive is they do all of the little things right.

“You’d be hard-pressed to think at this point this team wouldn’t be favored to be a postseason team next year, the year after that, and keep doing it over and over like those guys.’’

Says Astros closer Ryan Pressly: “They’ve got a really good team. They’ve got a pretty elite bullpen. An elite lineup. A good starting staff. I’ve got a feeling we’re going to be seeing them again.’’

“If we see them in the postseason, we’ve got our work cut out for us, but believe me, we’ll be ready.’’

Baseball tells us that the torch eventually will be passed.

Altuve, Bregman and Verlander are all free agents in a year. They plan to keep Altuve, but may not have the money to keep Bregman around, too. At some point, the new kids on the block take over.

The question is whether that time is coming sooner than anyone possibly envisioned.

“We know those guys [the Orioles] have a good ballclub,” Bregman says. “They’re definitely one of the best teams in the league for sure. And it looks they will be for a long time.

“Obviously, we would like to have a bigger lead and wish we had played better, but I still feel like we have a great team. I still feel we have a chance to win another World Series. The guys in this room have a track record of executing and winning when it matters.

“This is our time.”

The Orioles can wait.

Can’t they?

St. Paul Saints changed Darry Strawberry’s life

It’s a wonderful documentary, “The Saint of Second Chances,’’ superbly written about the life of Mike Veeck, with the subplot of Darryl Strawberry’s dramatic return to baseball.

The Saint Paul Saints, an independent baseball club, were the ones who turned to Strawberry after his baseball career self-destructed. They offered him an opportunity to resurrect his career in 1996.

“I didn’t know how long I was going to be there, or if I wanted to even be there,’’ Strawberry said, “but they opened their arms to me, my wife and kids, and made baseball fun again.

“Really, they changed my life.’’

Former Yankees outfielder Darryl Strawberry at Old Timer’s Day in 2023.Former Yankees outfielder Darryl Strawberry at Old Timer’s Day in 2023.

Former Yankees outfielder Darryl Strawberry at Old Timer’s Day in 2023.

Strawberry’s stay lasted 29 games, hitting .435 with 18 homers, when Yankees owner George Steinbrenner reached out and provided him another opportunity. The next thing he knows, he’s spending the next four years with the Yankees and winning three more World Series championships.

Yet, those who watch the Netflix documentary, Strawberry says, are missing the true redemption story.

This is not celebrating Strawberry’s return to Major League Baseball. He would have been fine never playing another game of baseball.

What the St. Paul Saints did was provide Strawberry a second chance in life, opening his eyes, heart and mind, and now doing the same for others.

“I hear fans and writers say all of the time, ‘Oh, look at what could have been, you could have been in the Hall of Fame,'” Strawberry, a recovering drug and alcohol addict, tells USA TODAY Sports in a phone interview. “You know what, I don’t care. The Hall of Fame is not for everybody. The Hall of Fame does not define a person. Baseball doesn’t define me. What defines me is the legacy you live.

“Going to the St. Paul Saints, and then to the Yankees, may have brought a lot of joy to fans, but what it did for me was change my life. It wasn’t about the legacy as a ballplayer, but the legacy as a man. The Hall of Fame was not going to going to get me into heaven. For me, this is far greater and different. I get to do so many greater things, administer to people, respond to people, and spread my faith.’’

Strawberry, 61, has been a minister for 23 years. He and his wife, Tracy, run Strawberry Ministries throughout the country.

If it were not for Veeck and the Saint Paul Saints, Strawberry says, he never becomes the man he is today. He learned what second chances were all about. It was the turning point in his life.

“I think going to St. Paul was a real valuable lesson for me in life,’’ Strawberry says. “When things are not great, when things are challenging in life, how do you ride the storm? It brought me to such a greater place. I was saved by grace.

“My life today is much more exciting and far more rewarding than anything I ever did on the baseball field. People recognize me from baseball, but I don’t want to be remembered by hitting homers or anything I did on the field. I want to be remembered for what I did with my ministry and helping others.

“That’s my Hall of Fame.”

Around the basepaths

≻ Despite widespread speculation, the Boston Red Sox will not be hiring Mike Hazen away from the Arizona Diamondbacks. Hazen, the D-backs executive vice president and GM, is staying put.

He is under contract through 2024 with a club option through 2025, and D-backs president Derrick Hall says that the club would deny permission if the Red Sox asked to interview Hazen. They have already had preliminary conversations about an extension.

Hazen, who worked with the Red Sox before coming to Arizona in 2016, also has no interest in leaving. Hazen lost his wife, Nicole, last year to brain cancer, and does not want to uproot his four sons.

≻ Philadelphia Phillies GM Sam Fuld has emerged as one of the leading candidates to fill Chaim Bloom’s vacancy in Boston.

≻ A week ago in this space, we reported that Milwaukee Brewers manager Craig Counsell was having second thoughts about stepping down and taking the year away in 2024. Now, Counsell’s thought process has been upgraded to definitely managing in 2024.

Counsell, who earns $3.5 million in the final year of his contract, will be the top managerial free agent this winter and likely will receive about a $2 million pay increase to make him the game’s highest-paid manager. Cleveland’s Terry Francona, who is retiring after the season, is the game’s highest-paid manager at about $5 million. Bruce Bochy was the game’s highest-paid manager at $6 million with the San Francisco Giants, but is earning $4.5 million with the Texas Rangers.

≻ There are 10 managers earning at least $3 million, with Washington Nationals manager Davey Martinez joining the list with his $3.6 million salary beginning in 2024.

≻ Now that the Tampa Bay Rays’ stadium woes are on the verge of being resolved with a new $1.3 billion ballpark in St. Petersburg and the Oakland A’s headed to Las Vegas, MLB will begin serious talks with interested cities for expansion next year, which could take place as early as the 2028 season.

Nashville remains the clear-cut favorite for one team, while the second city remains wide-open between Montreal, Salt Lake City, Oakland, Portland and Charlotte. The expansion fee is expected to be $2.1-$2.2 billion.

≻ The San Diego Padres, who had the third-highest opening-day payroll in baseball, have no plans to bring back free agents Blake Snell or Josh Hader in 2024. They still are undecided whether to trade Juan Soto this off-season.

≻ The Cincinnati Reds have no intention to pick up the $20 million option in Joey Votto’s contract, but could still rework the contract. They still have to pay Votto a $7 million buyout on the contract.

≻ The New York Yankees, who debated whether a managerial change was needed, now are expected to bring back manager Aaron Boone next season. “That’s ultimately not my decision,’’ Boone told reporters. “So we’ll see.’’

≻ Chicago Cubs starter Marcus Stroman, who was planning to opt out of the final year of his contract that will pay him $21 million next season, now is expecting to stay in Chicago without an extension.

≻ The qualifying offers for free agents this winter is expected to be about $20.5 million, confirming the New York Post’s report. It was $19.65 million last winter.

≻ The Houston Astros twice put in waiver claims on reliever Matt Moore, and twice have come up empty. Cleveland grabbed Moore when the Angels placed him on waivers, and then the Marlins swooped in last week to grab Moore.

≻ While there was a hot debate on who the NL MVP should be between Ronald Acuna Jr. and Mookie Betts, which is heavily favoring Acuna now that he is the inaugural member of the 40 HR/60 stolen base club, Atlanta first baseman Matt Olson is having a season for the ages.

He has already set the franchise record with 53 homers and entered Saturday needing just four RBI to eclipse Hall of Famer Eddie Mathews’ modern-era franchise record of 135 RBI set in 1953.

Incredibly, Olson has not missed a game since May 1, 2021, and has now played in 450 conective games, the easily the longest active streak in baseball.

“I feel like we get paid to be on the field, and obviously, freak things are going to happen, freak injuries,” Olson told reporters. “But you’re supposed to spend your time in the offseason to prepare yourself to play 162, and this is something that I try to go out and do. I feel like you owe it to your team and the organization to do your best to be on the field every day.”

≻ St. Louis Cardinals pitching great Adam Wainwright will go from the playing field immediately to the broadcast booth for Fox Sports, working the American League Division Series beginning Oct. 7. He’s scheduled to do 15 regular-season games for Fox next season.

≻ Former Cardinals teammate Jack Flaherty was thrilled to see Adam Wainwright win his 200th game, and was grateful it just wasn’t against his Baltimore Orioles club.

“It was awesome for him,’’ Flaherty says. “I definitely didn’t want to see him get 200 against us, and it sucks that he got [No.] 199 against us, but it was nice to see him get 200 because I know what it means to him.

“Really, it means a lot to everybody.’’

≻ Houston Astros Cy Young winner Justin Verlander on their team being on the brink of reaching the postseason for the seventh consecutive year:

“It’s not easy. It’s a testament to the depth of the organization. They did a really good job of getting young talent to fill roles, even more importantly than that, the culture they established in the locker room.’’

≻ The Cleveland Guardians are celebrating manager Terry Francona’s final game at Progressive Field on Wednesday by handing out “Thank You Tito” T-shirts to their fans. Francona is the winningest manager in franchise history.

≻ The Oakland A’s absolutely embarrassed themselves by honoring Detroit Tigers future Hall of Famer Miguel Cabrera’s career by giving him an $79.97 bottle of Caymus.


It’s bad enough that Cabrera is a recovering alcoholic, but it was easily the worst and cheapest gift he was given during his farewell tour this season.

≻ The only managers in baseball history with a higher winning percentage than Dodgers’ Dave Roberts’ .630 percentage are Bullet Rogan, Vic Harris and Rube Foster of the Negro Leagues. This may be Roberts’ fifth 100-victory season.

≻ Wonderful book by columnist Jonathan Mayo: “Smart, Wrong and Lucky,’’ describing the fascinating origins of baseball’s biggest unexpected stars (Joey Votto, Charlie Blackmon, Mookie Betts, Jacob deGrom and Lorenzo Cain) with a foreword from Phillies future Hall of Fame executive Dave Dombrowski.

≻ Yankees slugger Aaron Judge needs three more homers to become the first Yankee since Babe Ruth to have 100 home runs across two seasons in multiple years.

≻ Phillies slugger Kyle Schwarber could break Adam Dunn’s dubious record of the lowest batting average produced by a 40-home run hitter when he hit 41 homers with a .204 batting average in 2012. Schwarber is currently .198 with 45 homers entering Sunday.

≻ The Kansas City Royals are expected to announce this week that they have hired Brian Bridges as director of amateur scouting. In Bridge’s 12 years with Atlanta, they drafted All-Star third baseman Austin Riley along with pitchers A.J. Minter, Kyle Wright and Ian Anderson.

≻ It’s hard to believe that the Yankees have not had a Cy Young winner since Roger Clemens in 2001, which should change in November when Gerrit Cole receives the prestigious award.

≻ Condolences to the beautiful Kirby Puckett family with Tonya Puckett-Miller, the ex-wife of the Hall of Famer, dying this past week at the age of 58 from brain cancer. Kirby Puckett died in 2006 after a massive stroke.

≻ Congratulations to classy reliever Sean Doolittle, who announced his retirement after the season with the Washington Nationals.

“I might be done playing baseball, but I’m not sure if I’m done with baseball,” he told reporters. “I have a ton of energy and passion left for baseball.’’

Follow Nightengale on X, formerly Twitter: @Bnightengale

This article originally appeared on USA TODAY: Astros see themselves in Baltimore Orioles ahead of MLB playoffs

Source: Yahoo Sports


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