The last six years of Houston Astros baseball have felt fairly contiguous. As this franchise has enjoyed an incredible run of 100-win seasons and consecutive ALCS appearances, many of the headline names remain the same. José Altuve, Alex Bregman, Justin Verlander: These were all cornerstones of the 2017 run who remain key contributors today. But in 2022, as the Astros sit three wins away from yet another AL pennant, what’s so astounding about this team—and what goes at least as far toward keeping them on top—is how they’ve been able to seamlessly reinforce their core along the way.
Two of those reinforcements made the difference on Wednesday night, smashing a pair of dingers that helped give the Astros their 4-2 win over the Yankees. The first was Chas McCormick, a 21st-round pick out of Millersville University back in 2017 who since his debut at the beginning of last year has fought to earn a permanent spot in the Astros’ outfield. While a big slump in the middle of the summer led to a short breather in Triple-A, McCormick got hot in July and hit well enough down the stretch, particularly against lefty pitching, to make himself the usual choice for center field. (The Astros and their fans also like to do the gator-chomp clap for him, though there’s no real story why besides “a guy did it once and it caught on.”)
McCormick tied the game 1-1 in the second inning when he singled and came around to score on a Martín Maldonado hit. But he made his biggest mark in the sixth, when he came up just a few pitches after Yuli Gurriel (a Forever Astro) broke the tie with a leadoff dong. Facing Yankees reliever Clarke Schmidt, McCormick worked the count full from a 1-2 hole and then pounced on a sinker low in the zone, sending it over the right field wall for a 3-1 lead.
While this was McCormick’s closest brush yet with postseason heroism, Jeremy Peña might play out a Hall-of-Fame career and never top what he did back on Saturday, when his solo home run ended 17-plus innings of scoreless ball between the Astros and Mariners and went on to send Houston to this series. But Peña’s follow-up in Game 1 was still pretty exhilarating. After being stranded on a pair of doubles in earlier at-bats, the 25-year-old rookie (and son of noted Guy Gerónimo Peña) decided to stop waiting for other people to drive him in. Staring down Frankie Montas, who was facing his first major-league hitter since Sept. 16, Peña didn’t allow the pricey deadline acquisition any time to get comfortable. On the third pitch he saw, Peña hit a ball wayyyyy up in the air and rounded the bases as everyone watched it come down 386 feet from home plate.
To have these youngsters providing the offense while Justin Verlander strikes out 11 in six innings of three-hit ball makes it feel almost as though the Astros have cracked time travel. They have a 38-year-old Gurriel leaving the yard, and a 39-year-old starting pitcher piloting the team to a key playoff win, and yet without the cost a single lost season they can already show off their next generation of talent, from Luis García on the mound (who they signed for $20,000 in 2017) to Yordan Álvarez at the plate (who they practically stole in a 2016 trade with the Dodgers). I don’t know if this kind of charmed treasure-hunting is even replicable, but it’s the dream. The Astros have enjoyed years of uninterrupted success, and their window appears firmly propped open.