The Astros’ surprise ride crashes

Gomez falling as he tries to field Hosmer's quail becomes a metaphor for the Astros' heartbreaking division series fall.

Gomez falling as he tries to field Hosmer’s quail becomes a metaphor for the Astros’ heartbreaking division series fall.

The good news is that the Houston Astros have more than a pleasant future ahead of them. The bad news is that the present now hurts like hell after spending a season surprising just about everyone walking the earth.

“None of us were ready to go home when we came here at one o’clock today,” said Carlos Correa, the splendid rookie who’s already considered the soul of this team. “We were ready to keep playing. Unfortunately, we’ve gotta go home now and be ready for spring training.”

They thought they might have a big chance to keep playing after Wednesday when Luis Vilabuena jerked Johnny Cueto’s low-riding fastball into the right field bullpen with two out and one aboard in the top of the second.

They thought so even when Eric Hosmer fisted one on a float into shallow center field in the bottom of the fourth and Carlos Gomez, charging in to field it, landed flat on his can as he threw in, allowing Lorenzo Cain to score all the way from first to make it 2-1.

And they thought so even as Cueto—for whom the Royals dealt midyear, hoping he’d be the man for moments like this despite his being an inconsistent question mark most of the way there—all but locked the Astros down the rest of the way.

But they didn’t bargain on Alex Gordon bouncing a ground rule double over George Springer’s head in center field, after Salvador Perez opened the Kansas City fifth taking a plunk for the team. Or, after McHugh yielded to rusty Mike Fiers with second and third, Alex Rios promptly sneaking one past third base for a two-run double. Or, after Alcides Escobar bunted Rios to third, Ben Zobrist sending him home with a sacrifice fly and the Royals suddenly holding a 4-2 lead.

They didn’t bargain on Zobrist stealing a leadoff single from Correa with a spinning-leap of a grab of Correa’s soft line drive on the right field grass.

And they sure as hell didn’t bargain on Dallas Keuchel, offering his services in relief for this game and receiving a yes on the offer from manager A.J. Hinch for the Kansas City, shaking off a leadoff double (Escobar) and putting Cain aboard intentionally with one out before getting Hosmer to foul out, only to have Kendrys Morales at deuces wild and Morales driving the next pitch into the left field bleachers.

Don’t ask if Wednesday stung worse than the eighth inning did Monday. When the Royals sent eleven hitters to the plate against Will Harris, Tony Sipp, and Luke Gregerson and scored five times for a 7-6 lead that ended in an eventual 9-6 Royals win. By the time Wade Davis came in to finish them off in the top of the ninth Wednesday, these Astros wouldn’t have given you odds either way.

Was it enough that they held first place in the American League West for 139 days, at one point leading the division by seven games, ended up having to settle for the second wild card after the Texas Rangers’ equally stupefying surge to the division title, and played into the division series with an equally stupefying wild card game dispatch of the New York Yankees?

Their solid pitching couldn’t quite do enough to balance out a near classic boom-or-bust offense. Either these Astros were going to hit some of the longest home runs you’d ever surrendered or you were going to punch them out with impunity. Colby Rasmus was probably Exhibit A of that dichotomy. He had fourteen division series at-bats, struck out six times, hit three home runs, a double, and two singles, not to mention walking six times.

Cueto proved too much for the Astros to handle despite Vilabuena's early two-run bomb.

Cueto proved too much for the Astros to handle despite Vilabuena’s early two-run bomb.

Rasmus, Gomez, Correa, Jose Altuve, and George Springer went 0-for-17 combined in the first five batting order slots against Cueto. As Keuchel had done to the Yankees, Cueto dismantled the Astros methodically and in small chunks. He hadn’t been this deceptive or shown command over this wide a pitch array in weeks. He was a way different pitcher than the wreck the Pittsburgh Pirates sank in the 2013 wild card game.

“I woke up today on the right foot,” said Cueto amidst the Royals’ celebration. “As soon as I woke up, I felt something magic, that this was Game five, and I felt I had to show up for everybody, for my team and the fans.” He even said Game Four and the Royals’ slightly surreal comeback win put some extra motivational fuel into his tanks.

“There is no doubt that Game Four was the inspiration for me,” he said. “When we gave up those runs [in the seventh inning] and we came back and saw [Mike] Moustakas and everybody screaming in the dugout like, ‘We’re not done yet,’ all I kept thinking about is if we came back and win the game, I’ll take care of business in Game Five.”

Keeping that promise meant a trip to the American League Championship Series for the Royals and a trip to the off-season soul searching for a team of Astros whose own rebuilding promise wasn’t supposed to be kept for another year or so. Spending most of the year in first place and then getting to a division series Game Five at all is what you call being a little ahead of your time.

Which doesn’t make Wednesday’s elimination hurt any less.

“You always want to think of anything you could have done different,” said Sipp, who’d been pecked for an RBI single and victimised by a two-run error in that fateful Game Four eighth. “I’m sure we’ll all do that. We could have nipped it in the bud then. It definitely wasn’t from a lack of effort, so I can live with it and sleep well. But it still hurts.”

Correa, the rookie who committed that error, stood up to it with the same maturity shown by Elvis Andrus standing up to his two among four Ranger miscues in the seventh inning earlier Wednesday.

“People say I choked. I didn’t choke,” Correa said gently but firmly. “You know what? After you hit two home runs, and you have four RBIs, you put your team ahead by three runs, you have the most confidence in the world. You feel like the man. You want the ball hit at you and make a great play and finish your day strong. It wasn’t because I was nervous. I wanted the ball hit at me. I wasn’t expecting to miss a chopper. But I missed it. It happens. It wasn’t meant to be our day.”

Neither, as things turned out, was Wednesday.

And it won’t take the sting out of knowing that the team will probably be a little different in 2016, what with people like Rasmus, Sipp, and Scott Kazmir, another mid-season trade import who contributed to the surprising run, facing free agency. “It’s just tough ending the season and saying goodbye to some of these guys,” Keuchel said after Wednesday night was over.

It’s tough ending the season and saying goodbye to these Astros, period. No matter how exciting you think an ALCS between the Royals and the Toronto Blue Jays promises to be, it’s tough thinking that it might have been likewise if the Astros could have been where the Royals are going.

But it was a magnificent surprise of a ride regardless. And when it ended, no Astro flinched. No Astro sought to hide. They stood up, manned up, and proceeded to go gently into that not-so-good gray night of the off-season.

It still ought to make a fellow proud to be an Astro.

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