VERO BEACH, Florida – It seems like just yesterday that smarmy Bob Costas, the halfpint U.S. sports announcer, was making snarky comments about the then-woebegone Houston Astros.
But it was actually two-and-a-half seasons ago.
Back then, the Astros had cleaned house afield and were in the midst of a painful rebuilding process.
Houston was on its way to a third straight 100-loss season and was trotting out a low-budget ball club made up almost entirely of “Who dat?” prospects.
So, naturally, Costas took the opportunity to pile on and make a snide comment that only someone who had never played a lick of ball would have the ignorance to offer up.
While doing play-by-play on a game telecast nationally, Costas gave viewers an update on a possible no-hitter in progress against Houston in a contest being held elsewhere.
“If there’s a team, you’d have a good chance of pitching a no-hitter against, it’s the pathetic Astros,” he “quipped,” with an irritating self-satisfied smirk.
Never mind that these were still professional ballplayers who had reached a level of competence that the twerpy Costas, who pathetically still carries a Mickey Mantle baseball card in his wallet, could only dream of achieving.
Costas, who fails miserably in his lame attempts at David Letterman-esque humor, still had the gall to denigrate their considerable abilities.
MAS then proceeded to take Costas — and others of his clueless ilk — to task for their lack of respect in making such weak Astros jabs.
Two-and-a-half seasons later, Costas is still a punk popping off.
But not about the Houston Astros anymore.
No one is.
That’s because the Astros’ reconstruction, started back then, is now near completion.
Houston has been the American League West leader for most of this season.
The Astros currently lead the second-place Texas Rangers by three games and appear a lock for their first postseason appearance since 2005.
Those then-wet-behind-the-ears Astro kids have matured and, augmented by some veteran talent acquired, have pulled off, by far, the feel good story of this MLB campaign.
Not going exclusively with youth has certainly accelerated the ‘Stros rebuild.
“It was a conscious effort,” stated Astros manager A.J. Hinch. “You need a little bit of everything, guys in different times of their careers.
“Young players need some examples to learn from,” Hinch explained. “Guys who are in the midpoint of their careers and are bona-fide big leaguers and then a couple of guys who are at the tail end of theirs.
“You need a blend and I think we have that.”
For starters, some veteran power was added to the previously less-than-frightening ‘Stros’ batting order.
Houston is presently second in all of MLB in home runs with 185, just four behind dinger-leader Toronto.
New outfielder-DH Evan Gattis is tied for the team lead with 22 homers and has knocked in a club-best 73 runs.
Gattis and fellow outfield addition Colby Rasmus (17, 46 RBIs) have helped elevate Houston to its current rank of eighth in overall MLB batting and the fourth spot among AL ball clubs.
Noted Hinch: “We’ve been able to put the ball in play with runners in scoring position.”
The newly developed long-ball threat has taken some of the offensive pressure off youngsters like outfielder George Springer, who is growing into a star in the field and at the plate (13 home runs, .261).
Springer refused to take an “I told you so” stance toward numbskull needlers.
“We believe we’re major league ballplayers,” Springer, a former top Astros draft pick, told MAS with a shrug. “That’s all that matters.”
But it has been the Astros’ pitchers who have stood out the most. The Houston hurlers have an American League-leading 3.36 team ERA and the AL’s lowest batting average against (.236).
The ‘Stros’ mound staff is also a little of this and that.
Staff ace Dallas Keuchel is home grown. Keuchel leads the AL in wins with 17 and ERA at 2.24.
Collin McHugh, a retread plucked from the Colorado organization, has also been lights out as the No. 2 man in the starting rotation with a 15-7 win-loss mark and a 3.75 ERA.
Skipper Hinch says Houston’s mantra of “90 feet matters” has been helpful to his hurlers.
“Whether it’s just controlling the running game or not giving away bases, that’s been a key point of emphasis for us,” explained AJ.
“We’ve given up the minimal number of bases that you would give up on a play,” Hinch continued. “It’s probably kept some of the crooked numbers off the scoreboard.”
But the Reggie Jackson-ish straw that stirs the now-delicious Astros drink is still All-Star second sacker and defending batting champion Jose Altuve, who at 168 cm is the smallest player in the big leagues.
After batting .341 in ’14 while banging out 225 hits (becoming only the fifth right-handed MLB hitter to do so since World War II), Jose this campaign leads the Astros in batting average (.315) and the entire league in hits, with 167.
Some insiders feel Altuve could hit for an even higher average if he would lay off bad pitches — he has been known to actually leap to hit balls.
MAS asked Jose if he, too, thinks it would be a good idea to exercise more plate patience.
“I’ve had some pretty good years so I don’t see any reason to change,” the soft-spoken Venezuelan replied, with a shake of his head.
“I think I just gotta stay with my plan and do what I know how to do best.”
Jose acknowledged it was fun, for a change, having some big boppers to set the table for as the Houston leadoff hitter.
“We have a lot of good veterans to set up,” Jose, the team leader in runs scored (68), said with a smile. “It’s definitely helped me.”
Altuve’s nickname in MLB circles is “Gigante” — Spanish for Giant.
Suffice to say, then, that there are little big men like Jose Altuve and there are teeny-weeny small folk like Bob Costas.
Contact MAS at: email@example.com
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