These ain’t your 2015 Houston Astros

 In Sports
HOUSTON — It had to be Game 4. And yes, it had to be the eighth inning.

If the Houston Astros were going to move on, if they were going to reach the American League Championship Series, if they had any chance of achieving the greatness they are certain is within their grasp, they first had to chase away the memory that tormented them for 728 days.

It followed them wherever they went. The four base hits in a row against reliever Will Harris. The double-play grounder botched by shortstop Carlos Correa. The four-run lead that went up in smoke in the eighth inning of Game 4 of a division series against the Kansas City Royals in 2015.

“I thought I was over it, until [reporters] made me talk about it,” Astros manager A.J. Hinch said with a chuckle the other day, “and now it’s back.”

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Not anymore. It’s finally gone for good, thanks to Alex Bregman and Evan Gattis and George Springer and Josh Reddick and a rousing comeback this week at Fenway Park against none other than Chris Sale and Craig Kimbrel, the Boston Red Sox’s two best pitchers. It was coincidental that it happened in the eighth inning of Game 4 of this year’s division series, but it was entirely fitting. Catharic too.

In flipping the script from two years earlier, the Astros need not be haunted by their past any longer. They might have reappeared on the national scene in 2015 with a group of young players that was the envy of the league. But this year, they have officially arrived, having endured the fallout from a bitter postseason disappointment and come out the other end as a legitimate favorite to win the pennant.

“To get here, it’s a huge burden off a lot of guys’ shoulders,” said left-hander Dallas Keuchel, who will start Friday night in Game 1 of the ALCS against the New York Yankees at Minute Maid Park. “For the guys who were here, losing it, there was an extreme amount of pressure not beating the Royals when we had a lead at home. To do it in Boston, at Fenway, with that crowd, with Sale pitching the way he was, for Bregman to do that at that point, that’s when we knew it was ours.”

Hinch called Bregman’s game-tying home run against Sale “very emotional for our dugout.” In that case, Gattis’ single, Springer’s two-out walk against Kimbrel and Reddick’s go-ahead RBI single were downright exhilarating. And they demonstrated how far the Astros have come.

Jose Altuve knows all about it. The star second baseman made his major league debut with the Astros in 2011 and lived through consecutive seasons of 106, 107 and 111 losses. During those years, 2011 to 2013, Houston burned through three managers, from Brad Mills to Bo Porter, with interim skipper Tony DeFrancesco in between. A new general manager was hired at the start of 2012, but Jeff Luhnow’s extreme analytics-driven approach to decision-making (he even enlisted former NASA engineer Sig Mejdal to work in the front office) was derided when the Astros didn’t show improvement.

By 2015, though, Altuve and Keuchel had been joined by other talented young players. Springer was a first-round pick in 2011; Gattis came over in a trade with the Atlanta Braves; and right-hander Collin McHugh was selected off waivers from the Colorado Rockies. Then there was Correa, a first-round pick in 2012 who made his debut in midseason as a precocious 20-year-old.

The Astros won 86 games, clinched a wild-card berth and were six outs away from closing out the division series at home against the Royals. Two days later, they were eliminated, and Altuve was sobbing in Hinch’s office.

“That was our first arrival, the first time we were really, in some ways, respected again in the game,” Hinch said. “We had good players, good talent, and we won games. And we celebrated a couple times. We went to Yankee Stadium and won the wild-card game. Those were all great memories for those guys, for guys like Jose who came through the lean years where we were losing and came out of it now feeling like a winner.”

To Altuve, though, it also felt incomplete.

“I’m coming from a team that lost 100 games in a row three years, three straight years,” Altuve said. “Most of the guys inside the clubhouse in 2015, it was their first playoff. You don’t know what to expect.”

The expectation was that the Astros would be right back in the postseason in 2016. But they stumbled out of the game, going 7-17 in April, and never fully recovered. They went 84-78, finished third in the AL West and watched the playoffs on television, a feeling that Altuve describes as “uncomfortable.”

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