Astros prepared for new season as if they never won

March 29, 2018 GMT

Five days before spring training concluded, there were consecutive games in Fort Myers, Fla., about 2½ hours away from the Astros’ West Palm Beach facility. Manager A.J. Hinch took just three major league position players — George Springer, Alex Bregman and Jake Marisnick — along with the four men vying for the club’s final two opening-day roster spots.

Arriving so tantalizingly close to the end of a sometimes interminable six-week journey requires patience. Prayer and knocking on wood are also routine, so as to avoid any season-ending injuries.

Cautious of any malaise, Hinch intended to use Springer as a designated hitter in both games. The manager instructed the outfielder to leave his glove at home.

Springer bounded onto the field before the first game. He yelled playfully toward his manager, something of a tradition between the two. In Springer’s left hand was his glove. Hinch asked why.

“Well,” Springer said, “I need to practice.”

There is comfort in enjoying what has been accomplished and momentarily neglecting what lies ahead. But as Thursday afternoon’s season opener in Arlington against the Texas Rangers beckons, the Astros are giving no signs of complacency.

The Astros captured their first World Series championship last November, the pinnacle of a complete franchise overhaul that captivated a city crippled by an unprecedented natural disaster.

The club savored an early November parade through crowded city streets. Awards banquets for Hinch, American League MVP Jose Altuve and others were incessant, all forcing the team to relive the 18 postseason games — the last seven against the Dodgers in particular — that redefined this franchise’s trajectory and placed the proverbial target upon its back.

“It’s a thing that every player dreams of, and it’s what every team works for,” said Springer, the World Series’ Most Valuable Player. “And when you accomplish it, you have a sense of satisfaction and a sense of achievement. But you know it’s 2018 now, and you have to remember how you got to it.”

Celebrations are intoxicating. Altering the perception of a franchise, one you’ve led to new heights after so many years of promise, warrants some even larger and longer than is customary.

Reconvening for spring training in West Palm Beach six weeks ago to begin a new season invited a letdown. A hangover of some sort might even have been understandable.

Yet there were scenes like Springer’s running to the outfield before a meaningless spring training game — during which he would never play defense — surrounded by minor leaguers.

“I think it’d (be) pretty easy to come in and kind of ease off the gas a little bit,” pitcher Justin Verlander said.

If it happened, the clubhouse contained few who could prevent it or even see it coming. Two players on last year’s World Series roster had experienced baseball’s pinnacle.

Carlos Beltran, the sage slugger acquired last season to lend wisdom for scenarios similar to this, retired. Verlander played in two World Series preceding that one, winning neither.

“I was so impressed with how passionate these guys were, how hard they worked this spring training,” Verlander said. “No complacency, no sense of ‘OK, we can take a breather now just because we won a championship.’

“It was as if we never won.”

They did. But now, the Astros are vowing to extinguish the feeling, however difficult that may be or however pertinent the reminders of that magical run are. Monday will bring the pennant unveiling inside Minute Maid Park. Tuesday, the team will receive its rings.

“We’re not talking about our championship last year,” Altuve said. “That’s a good sign of where we’re at right now. We want to win another one. We all know how difficult it is.”

Six weeks passed in West Palm Beach. Altuve signed the richest contract in franchise history, another seminal moment for an organization that has made a recent habit of creating them. Verlander offered counsel to the homegrown second baseman during negotiations.

“Everybody relies on those two,” Springer said. “Whether they see it or not, whether they acknowledge it or not, those are our guys.”

The Astros were loose, exchanging daily clubhouse banter about the video game “Fortnite” and the NCAA basketball tournament.

They absorbed Yuli Gurriel’s hand surgery with the emergence of J.D. Davis, the Grapefruit League’s third-leading hitter. The starting rotation, with offseason acquisition Gerrit Cole inserted, produced a 2.45 ERA .

The club won 21 of the 30 exhibition games it played. But spring training results are largely insignificant.

Performance, attitude and precision carry more bearing on a team’s readiness.

“The way they were working in spring training, getting ready for the season, you don’t see that very often,” Altuve said.

“A team that won the World Series and letting that behind and trying to start over, start from zero. That’s amazing.”