GOING INTO THE EVENING, some were billing game No. 123 as a postseason preview, an epic collision of two power house, first-place teams, both leading their divisions by double digits. The matchup did not live up to the hype, especially as neither club is in finest form, thanks to injured star players (e.g., Carlos Correa, Bryce Harper). Instead, Tuesday night’s effort offered only a hazy glimpse of how an October meeting between the two clubs might play out. Or that’s what the Astros are hoping, anyway, having missed multiple scoring opportunities en route to a 4-3 loss to the Nationals in the first of a three-game series.
“A tough game to lose”—that’s how manager A.J. Hinch succinctly put it afterwards. He seemed pensive, as if thinking less about the game just ended than the games to come. Hinch knows that great teams win tough games like Tuesday’s, and his demeanor at the post-game press conference suggested that mining the tough games for victories would be a major project during the waning days of the season. In other words, what we’ve got here is a failure to convert.
Time and again on Tuesday, it wasn’t what happened on the field that mattered, but what happened next. It wasn’t the swing but the follow-through, it wasn’t the mistake, but what it led to. Loading the bases in the eighth inning, as the Astros did, was admirable, but ultimately came to nothing when the team failed to plate a single baserunner. Similarly, Astros pitcher Charlie Morton’s walk of the Nats’ Matt Wieters in the third inning might have seemed harmless at the time, but it mattered hugely a few batters later, when Howie Kendrick tripled.
So, yes, a tough game to lose, but also a clarifying one. Figuring out how to take this young team over the line, seal the deal, take advantage of the opportunities they’re given (and ensure that opponents don’t take advantage of theirs) is a challenge both fascinating and crucial. On the plus side, Hinch and Co. still have time to put their heads together and strategize, still have time tinker with the conversion formula. After all, it’s not what happens now that matters, but what happens next.
IN JULY OF LAST YEAR, after Alex Bregman went hitless in his first 17 at-bats in the majors, A.J. Hinch did something unexpected: he moved Bregman up in the order, into the number 2 slot. The reasoning baseball-wise was that the infielder would get better pitches by batting just before Jose Altuve, and the reasoning morale-wise was that Bregman, just 22 at the time, needed to know that the team believed in him. But it was also a risk for Hinch. To some fans, Bregman appeared to be failing upward, while others wondered whether he would crack under the increased pressure that comes with batting near the top. Still, Hinch’s gamble paid off, at least in the short-term. On the last day of July, Bregman singled to centerfield, and not long after that had his first Major League home run.
“Pressure is a privilege,” he said the other afternoon. “You’ve got to want to be in the pressure moments, in the ninth inning with two outs and the bases loaded and the game depending on you…. Those are the games you dream about as a kid.”
Bregman’s observations, offered to the hosts of The Bottom Line, an afternoon radio show on SportsTalk 790, did not seem like those of a man under pressure. He seemed relaxed, comfortable, well-rested, like a man who’d just had the best sleep of his life on the best mattress in the world. Which he had, apparently. Bregman had been given a bed by Texas Mattress Makers, even as the store’s cavernous Navigation Blvd showroom was playing host that day to Bregman, the radio show, and a meet-and-greet with fans.
As Bregman sat for a 10-minute Bottom Line interview while a healthy line of autograph and selfie-seekers began to form, it was hard not to think what a difference a year makes. But really, Bregman’s kinetic connection with fans is an even more recent development. As one of the show’s hosts noted, in the first half of the season, Bregman had just 10 multi-hit games and one 3-hit game. Since the Fourth of July alone, the New Mexico native has had four 3-hit games, belted 7 homers and driven in 22 runs, all while batting a sweet .338. That he did so while facing yet another high-stakes, high-pressure assignment—filling the enormous infield hole, both offensively and defensively, left by Carlos Correa after his injury—makes Bregman’s numbers even more remarkable.
“He was arguably the MVP of the League right before he went out,” said Bregman of Correa. “I actually told him, ‘hey, I’m going to step up while you’re gone.’” Bregman’s emergence has been one of the Astros’ brightest discoveries during this beleaguered period. The other is the mettle of the team, which is more, it turns out, than a collection of hitting phenoms and a pitching staff. Indeed, their summer setbacks may well prove to have been a crucial part of the Astros’ maturation, something that 23-year-old Bregman sees as having been helped along by the veterans like 40-year-old Carlos Beltran and 33-year-old catcher Brian McCann.
“The minute they stepped in that clubhouse,” said Bregman, “every young guy gained confidence that we were going to do it this year, that we were going to have a good year, that we had a chance to be in the World Series and hopefully win one.”
There was an understandable note of caution in Bregman’s voice. No one knows if theirs is the correct combination of effort and luck and personnel and injuries that will propel the Astros to greatness, in part because no knows what that correct combination is. And as the pressure begins to mount, it’s hard to predict how the team will carry the enormous weight of great expectations. Still, it was comforting to learn that there are those in the lineup like Bregman who live for the pressure, for whom it’s a privilege. Just as it’s a privilege to be a professional baseball player, to see a crowd of fans line up who hardly knew your name a year ago.
“Would you like a picture with Alex?” asked the folks at Texas Mattress Makers as fans approached tentatively, like reluctant children on a visit to Santa. “Come on,” coaxed Bregman, clearly revelling in the moment. He accepted compliments gracefully and criticisms with a “we’ll get’em tomorrow,” disarming one and all with the broad smile of a man who, on this day at least, was relaxed, no-pressure, sleeping like a baby.