Justin Verlander. Alex Bregman. Jose Altuve. Yordan Alvarez. Those are the names largely associated with the Houston Astros' continuing run of dominance, one that has taken them into five consecutive American League Championship Series and currently trends toward a sixth.
But there are four other, far-less-heralded names who have become just as important to their sustainability. Four pitchers who deepened what has evolved into an impressive rotation. Four young players who contributed critical value to a top-heavy payroll. Four homegrown guys who emerged from an international market that typically ignores them.
"Not one, not two, not three -- four," Bill Murphy, one of the Astros' pitching coaches, said. "Hopefully I coach for a number of years more. I may never see that again. Four is probably never gonna be seen again, for myself personally. But that's pretty cool."
The Astros begin the second half with a nine-game lead in the AL West, representing the third-largest divisional cushion in the sport, while trailing only the New York Yankees and the Los Angeles Dodgers in both winning percentage and run differential.
Pitching has been the key.
Verlander is putting together a Cy Young season as a 39-year-old coming off Tommy John surgery, and a collection of recent bullpen additions -- Rafael Montero, Hector Neris, Ryne Stanek -- have consistently shortened games. But Garcia, Javier, Urquidy and Valdez -- the first two of whom will start today's doubleheader against the Yankees -- have elevated the staff to a different level, combining to post a 3.37 ERA in 376 2/3 innings while accumulating six FanGraphs wins above replacement.
None of them was supposed to be here.