HOUSTON (AP) — Justin Verlander and the Houston Astros couldn’t soar into another World Series.
A year after Houston won the first title in the team’s 56 seasons, Verlander had a rare off night in an elimination game and the Astros lost the AL Championship Series to the Boston Red Sox in five games.
“This year’s team is better than last year’s team,” third baseman Alex Bregman said. “Everyone in here will have a little bit of an edge to play with, a chip on their shoulder knowing that we believe we should have been back-to-back champions.”
Houston boosted its rotation with Gerrit Cole last winter and its bullpen with Roberto Osuna ahead of the July trade deadline. The Astros won a club-record 103 games, led the majors with a plus-263 run difference and swept Cleveland 3-0 in the Division Series.
But after beating Boston in the opener, the banged-up Astros were outscored 27-14 in losing four in a row — one short of their season high. The major leagues remain without a repeat champion since the New York Yankees won three straight from 1998-2000.
“The World Series is the only thing that was going to make this team feel like we accomplished much,” manager AJ Hinch said. “It’s a pretty hollow feeling when the season abruptly ends the way that it does and the way that it did.”
Their season came to a close a day after the Astros were cleared of any wrongdoing by Major League Baseball after a credentialed Houston employee was caught pointing his cellphone toward opposing dugouts during playoff games in Cleveland and Boston.
Verlander was last year’s Championship Series MVP with two wins against the New York Yankees, including seven scoreless innings to force a Game 7.
The Game 1 winner this year, he entered 4-1 with a 1.21 ERA when starting potential elimination games with Detroit and Houston. He had pitched 26 scoreless innings in such situations before J.D. Martinez’s go-ahead solo home run in the third.
“We had a good season. Didn’t end up where we wanted. We lost to a great team,” Verlander said. “I said it last year, playoffs, it’s kind of flip a coin sometimes. It’s whoever is playing the best baseball at the time. We were dealing with a ton of injuries as you could tell.”
Verlander wasn’t the only Houston player who didn’t measure up to his 2017 form.
Altuve, a six-time All-Star and last year’s AL MVP, went on the disabled list for the first time in July with right knee soreness. He never seemed healthy, banged the knee in the playoffs and was limited to a designated hitter in the last three games. He hit .250 in the series with two RBIs.
“It’s not a secret that my knee was hurting pretty bad,” Altuve said. “But it’s something that I don’t have control of. It hurts and I couldn’t control being healthy. I feel really, really bad for not being on the field for my team but one thing you can know is that I gave everything I had, healthy, not healthy that was all I have.”
Shortstop Carlos Correa dealt with back issues much of the second half of this season. While he had three hits and two RBIs in Game 4 — his only multi-hit game this postseason — he hit a relatively quiet .316 with three RBIs against the 108-win Red Sox.
Right-hander Charlie Morton was a first-time All-Star and won 15 games, but he dealt with shoulder issues the second half of the season. Lance McCullers Jr., a 10-game winner, said he was pitching through some stuff like others while focused on trying to win a World Series, and indicated without being specific that his injury might require surgery.
“The heart of this team, really kind of unparalleled. We had guys playing through so much,” Verlander said. “These guys could give nothing else to a man.”
Morton is among the potential free agents for the Astros. That group also includes former Cy Young Award winner Dallas Keuchel, catchers Brian McCann and Martin Maldonado, and utility player Marwin Gonzalez.