HOUSTON – If there is such a thing as the Astros Way, it is not memorialized in print.
“We don’t hand out pamphlets,” insists starting pitcher Lance McCullers Jr., who was drafted by the Astros in 2012.
No, the stew of intangibles that’s created a concoction potent enough to reach the World Series in four of six years and the American League Championship Series in all of those seasons is nothing that’s been written down. It has survived two front office regimes, the departure of superstar players, a franchise-rattling scandal and a managerial change.
This thing that corporate drones and baseball front office types alike like to call “culture” has endured it all, and its practitioners unanimously vouch for its existence.
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Friday night, when the Astros encounter the Philadelphia Phillies in Game 1 of the World Series, it will be in part because the club’s personnel has mastered a form of mindfulness elusive in playoff baseball: That the game itself is no big deal, just like the 162 regular season games that preceded it.
Yet winning it shall remain a singular and obsessive focus.
“The attention to detail. The level of focus in practice. The effort and preparation. Going about it the right way. Playing hard every single day. Not taking any pitch off,” says third baseman Alex Bregman, sounding as simplistic as a high school football coach.
“Not taking this for granted, either. We get to play this game on a ballclub that is one of the best in the world. It’s pretty awesome to be able to show up and play baseball here. And if you can do that, you might as well do it and play hard.”
OK, so maybe we’re onto something here.
It is standards – high – but it is also love, a trait evident in this past month as a relative newcomer like rookie shortstop Jeremy Peña can produce two of the biggest home runs in this 7-0 playoff run. This is not a group that clings to what worked, nor one that bemoans the losses of All-Star center fielder George Springer and shortstop Carlos Correa.
“We’re family. We’re family,” insists veteran catcher Martin Maldonado, an Astro since 2019. “That’s the first thing. We treat everybody the same. We treat Justin Verlander, with 18 years in the big leagues, the same as (rookie infielder David) Hensley. Everybody’s the same.
“We know they are human beings. We know they have families.”
And Maldonado just happens to helm this one.
it is he along with Bregman who are most often credited with keeping the Astros’ focus clear, even as the 2017 sign-stealing scandal rocked the industry and reduced the luster of Houston’s lone championship. Maldonado came along after that scandal, plays perhaps the most important communicative position on the club and is multi-lingual.
Those factors certainly cannot hurt, along with an unteachable instinct to joke or joust at just the right time.
“Maldy’s kind of like a father figure,” McCullers says of Maldonado, 36. “We’re all relatively the same age, but he’s our leader. He’s the head of the house. He’s a great guy that expects people to show up and put their work in and play hard, but he has proven and shown over the course of his career that that’s who he is.
“You can ask people to be a certain way and act a certain way and do thinks a certain way if you do that. So, he’s our head leader.”
And not just in the clubhouse. Houston’s pitching staff has dominated these playoffs, from the 39-year-old Verlander, to the occasionally mind-wandering Framber Valdez down to a bullpen that has more arms than it knows what to do with.
Maldonado maintains the ability to connect with all, in and out of competition.
“In the locker room, he is a voice – both on the fun, playful, joking side as well as the leader, that we’ve got to get things done,” says Phillies catcher Garrett Stubbs, who was an Astro through their run to the 2021 AL pennant. “You’ll see him go out to the mound and talk to certain pitchers and it might not be the nicest conversation at the time.
“But it’s necessary, for whatever the moment is.”
‘It’s about proving it’
McCullers, now 29, joined the club in 2015, about a month before Correa, and has seen it through several clubhouse iterations. He says the ethos that allows Peña to quickly evolve into a star has evolved over time, something he wishes was more prevalent when he was coming up.
“There’s a lot of clubhouses in our game that don’t flow smoothly. And I think that they don’t reach their full potential,” he says. “I’ve been in a clubhouse, here, where I didn’t really feel comfortable in my own skin. I didn’t feel the veterans at the time really wanted me around, I felt like I had to come to the field and keep my head down, go to my locker. And when you’re in a clubhouse like that, it doesn’t allow people to be themselves, their best selves.
“When Brian McCann came here in 2017, when Dallas Keuchel and these guys started becoming more veterans, they were able to set the clubhouse culture how they saw fit. You realize we’re here to win. We’re focused on winning as the end goal. We’re not focused on how much service time a guy has, what he is or isn’t wearing. We’re not making guys earn their stripes here. If you wear our uniform, our logo, you’re part of this family.”
Nineteen players have departed from their 2017 Series champions, from Correa and Springer and Keuchel to vets like McCann, Carlos Beltran and Charlie Morton. Another nine from the 2019 ALCS champs are gone, most notably pitchers Gerrit Cole and Zack Greinke.
That’s an entire roster worth of World Series-caliber players.
But the work goes on. Newly acquired DH Trey Mancini calls the amount of preparation that goes into every game “crazy,” particularly the detailed trend sheets to study opposing hitters and pitchers. The study time breeds a relaxed confidence come October.
“They have so much postseason experience,” he says, “it almost feels like any other game.”
Mancini and backup catcher Christian Vazquez have blended smoothly into the tapestry after trades from Baltimore and Boston, respectively. Vazquez won a title in 2018 with the Boston Red Sox and says he’d like to add another one, so that each of his children can have a championship ring.
He’s come to the right place.
“I think that’s why our clubhouse has that cohesiveness between the American guys, the Latin guys and everyone,” says McCullers. “Because it’s not about where you’re from, or how long you’ve been here or what you’ve accomplished. It’s about proving it on a daily basis.”
Or an annual one.