Astros' surprising playoff run ends in Kansas City

KANSAS CITY, Mo. -- Barely 30 minutes after the final pitch of the Houston Astros' season, rookie shortstop Carlos Correa stood in front of his locker and slipped his arms through the sleeves of a sky blue sport coat. He placed a brown fedora with accompanying feather on his head, just so, before turning to face the TV lights and share a few sound bites for the fans back home.

Correa and the Astros accomplished a lot more this season than the experts predicted. But their surprise run to the playoffs will provide scant consolation when the sun comes up Thursday and there'll be no game to play, or workout to attend, or video game competition on the clubhouse sofa. The void of losing is manifested in the cessation of routine, with no transition or emotional safety net, and that's a tough thing for any athlete to process.

Correa has style to spare. But he also has substance, and he has made it clear in his young career that there's nothing he detests more than losing.

"It's a feeling that's really hard to describe," Correa said. "None of us were ready to go home when we came here at 1 o'clock today. We were ready to keep playing. Unfortunately, we've gotta go home now and be ready for spring training."

The future is bright in Houston. The Astros will appreciate it a lot more once the present stops stinging so darned much.

The Astros came within a game of playing for an American League pennant, but it wasn't to be. They fell victim to a masterful Johnny Cueto effort and came up on the short end of a 7-2 score to the Kansas City Royals in the fifth and deciding game of the teams' American League Division Series.

Sometime during the offseason, the hurt will give way to perspective and the Astros will rightly appreciate all they achieved this summer. Two years removed from going a major league-worst 51-111 (their third straight sub-60-win season), they survived an American League West scramble to make the franchise's first postseason appearance since 2005. They beat the Yankees in the wild-card game and took the defending AL champion Royals to the limit before succumbing.

Regular-season attendance at Minute Maid Park spiked from 1.75 million to 2.15 million this season, and Houston fans reveled in watching a team that was long on energy, athleticism and camaraderie. The Astros produced two elite rookies in Correa and starting pitcher Lance McCullers, and a strong Cy Young Award candidate in Dallas Keuchel. And if A.J. Hinch doesn't win the AL Manager of the Year award for steering a young team through so many obstacles, he's a cinch to finish somewhere in the top three.

Everything looked rosy Sunday when the Astros won Game 3 by a 4-2 score behind Keuchel -- then fell apart in a single nightmarish inning in a Monday matinee at Minute Maid Park.

Ultimately, while no one wants to point fingers, the Astros will look back and lament that fateful eighth inning in Game 4. Houston was leading 6-2 when Kansas City sent 11 men to the plate against relievers Will Harris, Tony Sipp and Luke Gregerson, and scored five times to take a 7-6 lead. Correa contributed to the carnage with a pivotal error on a ground ball that deflected off Sipp's glove. The Royals ultimately won 9-6.

"You always want to think of anything you could have done different," Sipp said. "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."

The Astros were a boom-or-bust offense during the regular season, and that theme continued in the ALDS. They struck out a whopping 58 times in 164 at-bats against Kansas City pitching and belted nine home runs. Outfielder Colby Rasmus, the poster boy for Houston's offensive approach, struck out six times in 14 at-bats in the division series and still found a way to slug 1.143. Rasmus' statistical grab bag included three homers, a double, two singles and six walks.

In the series finale, Cueto found the magic that had been missing since his arrival from Cincinnati at the non-waiver trade deadline in late July, and he sliced and diced the Astros' lineup with deception, ingenuity and a wide assortment of pitches. Jose Altuve, George Springer, Correa, Rasmus and Carlos Gomez went a combined 0-for-17 in the Nos. 1 through 5 spots in the order, and no team is going to win an elimination game that way.

Still, as Altuve observed postgame, "Everybody left everything they had on the field." Keuchel proved to be the ultimate warrior in the finale, coming back two days after throwing 124 pitches and trying to maintain a 4-2 deficit in hopes that Houston might be able to summon a bloop and a blast to send it to extra innings. But Keuchel gave up a long home run to Kendrys Morales in the eighth to end any glimmer of hope for a comeback, and the ending was a mere formality.

As the Houston players exchanged hugs in the clubhouse on their way out the door, Keuchel addressed the harsh reality that some changes are in store this winter. The Astros have several free agents -- most notably, Rasmus, Scott Kazmir and Sipp -- and general manager Jeff Luhnow will inevitably do some tinkering around the edges.

"One of the biggest things is, some of these guys aren't going to be back," Keuchel said. "The team is never gonna be the same. It's just tough ending the season and saying goodbye to some of these guys."

The Astros can ultimately take pride in contributing to a resurgence of pride in baseball in Houston and paving the way for more success to come. But the big picture will take a while to come into focus. For teams that come up short in October, that's always the way.