May 24, 2024

HOUSTON — Dusty Baker spoke to his players in the Houston clubhouse after the Astros‘ final defeat Monday, which some in the room believed was his last speech as manager, as they have been privately speculating for weeks.

Baker thanked them for their effort and talked about their fight over what was an arduous, trying season, but didn’t seem quite ready to say aloud that his 26-year managerial career was over, because he knew the Texas Rangers were celebrating the American League Championship out on the field.

“I don’t want to take the spotlight away from anybody,” the 74-year-old Baker mused, before acknowledging that he hasn’t spent the kind of time with grandchildren as they deserve, and wondering aloud if his two hunting dogs would recognize him when he returned home. Baker’s contract is set to expire, and he is expected to have a conversation with owner Jim Crane and general manager Dana Brown.

But Baker also seemed a little stunned about the ugly and abrupt nature to the Astros’ reign as champions. Minute Maid Park has often seemed like a haven for a team that won two World Series and five AL championships over the last seven seasons. But there was so much losing in their home park this year, including all four games in the ALCS and the 11-4 wipeout in Game 7.

The Astros’ failure Monday was total, a shocking disintegration that belied their experience and maybe reflected a weariness starkly contrasted by the Rangers’ frenzied focus that seemed to start even before the game.

Texas manager Bruce Bochy stood behind the cage during pregame batting practice and cajoled coach Tony Beasley to throw high fastballs to the hitters, in anticipation of the typically effective high fastball of Houston’s Cristian Javier. A couple of Beasley’s pitches drifted down and Bochy pointedly waved his hand upward, coaching the coach: Get your pitches up.

Coincidence or not, Javier’s fourth pitch of the game was a high fastball, 93 mph, and Corey Seager attacked, driving the ball into the right field stands — and the Rangers kept swinging, kept getting hits. Last year, Javier contributed the bulk of a World Series no-hitter in the Astros’ championship run, and in this Game 7, he would face fewer hitters (six) than 28-year-old reliever J.P. France (eight).

Chas McCormick, whose defense helped the Astros defeat the Phillies in last year’s World Series, got a bad read on a pop fly, and after it fell, McCormick threw to the wrong base. Kyle Tucker was Houston’s best position player during the regular season, and in the postseason, he looked completely lost at the plate, batting 143 — five hits in 35 at-bats, and no homers. When he struck out in the fourth inning of Game 7, the ball bounced away from catcher Jonah Heim but Tucker had no chance to reach first because he had turned, with his head down, and walked back to the dugout, seemingly wanting to get out of sight as quickly as possible.

Baker will someday make a speech in Cooperstown, but he also seemed off — perhaps removing reliever Phil Maton too soon, after Maton relieved Javier; opting to not pitch around Adolis Garcia despite the home runs Garcia was launching all over Minute Maid Park; leaving France in too long; and repeatedly declining to pinch-hit Yainer Diaz for the light-hitting Martin Maldonado even as the Astros’ run deficit grew.

Painted along some walls in the park is the working mantra for the 2023 Astros: Ready 2 Reign. As in, trying to win two championships in a row, something that has not been done in Major League Baseball since 1998-2000. The Astros became the latest defending champions in the sport who could not mount a proper defense.

“It’s a grind — this season is a grind,” Maldonado said. “We play more games than any other professional sport. Right now, you look at players with other teams and they are already working out. When you play all the way to November, your body takes a beating. As a team, we’ve played the most games [of any team] the last six or seven years. It’s a hard sport.”

Justin Verlander said, “I think what some other sports have is that talent wins more often than not in other sports, especially like football, and basketball … Baseball is very hot and cold. You get hot at the right time. That’s why you see wild-card teams in the last few years be really dominant. … You get a good run of starting pitching, and anybody can beat anybody.”

But the Astros never seemed whole this year, never seemed complete. Jose Altuve suffered a broken thumb in the World Baseball Classic and missed a lot of weeks. Jose Abreu, signed as a free agent in the offseason, played terribly for two-thirds of the season. Framber Valdez struggled for a lot of the season, and the bullpen — a great separator for Houston when it won the World Series last year — wasn’t nearly as good. Incredibly, the Astros finished under .500 in home games.

Alex Bregman said he views this season “as not accomplishing our goal of winning the World Series. I thought the fight was there all year long. I just think we didn’t execute at the highest level that we have.”

When the Astros gather again next spring and begin the arduous process of pushing the championship rock back up the hill, their roster will largely look the same. Verlander, acquired during the 2023 season, is under contract for at least one more year, and Bregman has one more season with Houston before he becomes eligible for free agency. Organizational sources believe Michael Brantley will retire, and the Astros’ front office may move on from catcher Maldonado, who has been a source of contention between Baker and club officials. Baker has preferred Maldonado — as he has demonstrated throughout the postseason by keeping him in the lineup — because of his strong relationship with pitchers, while the front office has angled for more offense from the position.

And it may be that Baker’s long career will come to an end. After the Astros won the World Series last year, Baker received a one-year extension. This year, Crane and Brown have yet to publicly say for sure that they will seek another manager.

Baker was hired by Crane in the winter of 2020, after the sign-stealing scandal erupted and led to the firings of manager A.J. Hinch and general manager Jeff Luhnow. Baker did exactly what Crane had hoped for, deflecting attention away from a group of players who were besieged by boos in all parks other than Minute Maid, while fostering continued success. The Astros reached the AL Championship Series in 2020, secured the AL title in 2021 and won the World Series in 2022.

But because of the timing of Baker’s hiring, he has long been isolated within the organization. Most of the coaches were hired under Hinch, his predecessor, and now he answers to Brown, who was hired by Crane last year.

Baker sidestepped some questions about some of his decisions in Game 7, and spoke more broadly about the year. “We have been spoiled around here, as far as winning …” he said. “We have nothing to be ashamed of, nothing to put our heads down about. We were playing from behind the whole season … It was a grind.”

When Altuve, Verlander and others reconvene, it may well be another manager who speaks to them and leads them moving forward.

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