Houston Astros a great team that fell short of true greatness

Harris: I'm living every relievers' nightmare (0:56)

Astros relief pitcher Will Harris voices his disappointment after giving up the go-ahead home run to Howie Kendrick in Game 7 of the World Series. (0:56)

HOUSTON -- Everything about the Houston Astros, and the colossus they have become, and the unstoppable force they've been built to be, was on display during the World Series. It just turned out to not be enough.

The Astros didn't choke. There wasn't a blown umpire's call that would be remembered forever. There wasn't a player to be fitted with goat horns. There wasn't a managerial blunder. There wasn't a key injury suffered at just the wrong time. The Astros just lost, barely, to a team that came through a couple of more times than they did.

"This is about the Nationals," Astros manager AJ Hinch said. "This isn't about not performing at home or anything that we didn't do. I come away incredibly impressed by the team that we played and got beat by."

Despite losing 6-2 in Game 7 Wednesday night to the tough Washington Nationals, the Astros remain arguably the best team in baseball. Free agency might chip away at that this winter, but their core should return, injured players will be healthy and more high-level prospects are on the way. Houston's window remains wide open.

Still, despite remaining at the peak of the industry and at the vanguard of a sport that reinvents itself at an accelerating pace with each passing season, for now, the Astros have fallen just shy of greatness. It was all there for them, so close they could almost reach out and grab it. Instead, like other great regular-season teams of the past, Houston found out that dynasties vanish in flashes of moments and because of plays that go wrong by mere millimeters.

The Houston dynasty that still isn't teetered and tumbled in a seventh inning that longtime fans will play over and over again like a recurring nightmare. Poof. It happened that fast.

"Seasons end really fast," Hinch said. "I don't care if you get all the way to the seventh game of the World Series. It's all of a sudden, boom, it's over. I've got a group of heartbroken men in there that did everything they could to try to bring a World Series championship to this city. And we fell one win shy."

There's an alternate universe in which that inning plays out differently. Anthony Rendon's homer to get Washington on the board came on "not a bad pitch, but I think a bad pitch selection," Houston catcher Robinson Chirinos said. It was a Zack Greinke changeup; maybe they call for something else and Rendon pounds the ball into the turf. It was the only bad pitch Greinke made all night.

"I thought he was going to go complete game, the way he was pitching," Chirinos said. "The pitch count was low, he was hitting his spots. Everything was working for him."

Maybe instead of selecting Will Harris to relieve Greinke, Hinch calls for Gerrit Cole mid-inning to come on for his first relief appearance since he was a freshman at UCLA in 2009. Cole was down in the bullpen getting loose. We all saw it -- the fans in the park, the Nationals from their dugout, the people watching at home on television. Maybe Cole comes on, pitches like Gerrit Cole, and Hinch rides him to the finish of a 2-1 win.

The run-scoring rallies the Nats piece together in the eighth and ninth never happen. The Rendon homer is it and it's the Nats who are bemoaning how close they came. Cole is swarmed on the mound after a title-clinching strikeout and is handed the MVP trophy on the field a few minutes later.

Or maybe Howie Kendrick simply doesn't poke one off the right-field foul pole against Harris for the two-run homer that gave the Nationals the lead and let all of the air out of Minute Maid Park. By all rights, he should not have.

Harris threw Kendrick a cutter. Chirinos set his target down and away. Harris delivered it right on the money. It just barely caught the corner of the strike zone. Kendrick had seen 28 cutters to that area of the zone this season. He had one hit -- a double off Minnesota's Martin Perez in September. This one he hit off the foul pole.

"It was a perfect pitch," Chirinos lamented.

Astros general manager Jeff Luhnow has spoken time and again of how his team was built toward sustainability, to "win multiple championships." But winning world championships is hard. It's unlikely even, especially during what might be the most hypercompetitive era in baseball history when you factor in both level of talent and technological advances. And it's hard to win it all because sometimes you do everything right to become the best, and you lose anyway.

"A special group of guys that battled day in and day out, since spring training," Carlos Correa said. "Our goal was to win another championship. We got here, but unfortunately we couldn't finish it."

Think back to the MLB promo shot during spring training, the "Let the kids play" campaign. The scene: A group of baseball's biggest stars are answering standard questions in a boring, cliched manner before Astros third baseman Alex Bregman erupts with, "We're gonna with the championship this year and next year." Most of the players in that promo were playing a character. Christian Yelich is about the last person who would blurt out, "I'm gonna hit 50 home runs this year." (Though he would have done just that if he had not fractured his kneecap.)

But that promo was Bregman in the raw. He's good. He knows he's good. He knows his team is good. And they make sure everybody knows it. The promo was an accurate reflection of who Bregman is. He's an adrenaline hound who got so worked up over his home run in Game 6 that he created a social media storm by carrying his bat all the way to, and past, the first base bag.

At the same time, Bregman cares deeply about his teammates, his family, the game itself. So after Game 6, he apologized for his theatrics, saying, "That's not the way I was raised."

Some time before Game 7 began, Bregman's maternal grandfather died and he posted a tribute to him on his Instagram page. His Game 7 was quiet -- 0-for-3 with a walk -- and he was on deck when Michael Brantley made the last out. He walked slowly back to the dugout when Brantley swung and missed, undoing his batting gloves.

In the clubhouse, Bregman sat on the floor next to Correa's locker, his face a bleary-eyed expression of devastation. Correa sat on the floor with him, consoling him. Or maybe it was the other way around.

"I'm extremely proud to be a part of this team, and proud of every guy in this clubhouse," Bregman said. "We've been knocked down a lot, gotten back up and we just got knocked down today. But we'll be back for 2020."

In many ways, Bregman personifies everything about what the Astros have become. Excellence. Fundamentals. Showmanship. Brashness. Efficiency. Passion. These are the qualities that stand out in our tech-driven world, especially as it's presented through the hyper-real looking glass of social media. The Astros are all of those things. They have lit the way for everyone else. The other 29 franchises in baseball have caught up at times, trying to extinguish a torch the Astros seem intent on carrying for the foreseeable future.

From a single-season standpoint, the Astros just completed one of the greatest campaigns a team has ever had. In surpassing 100 wins for a third straight season, they join a list with but five predecessors. They won 117 games between the regular season and playoffs. Their run differential during the regular season (plus-280) was the 12th-best total of all time.

There's more. According to the FanGraphs' offensive metric wRC+ (weighted runs created plus), the Astros' hitters were 25% better than average. Only the 1927 Yankees have exceeded that figure. Their rotation features two likely Hall of Famers in Justin Verlander and Greinke, and another in Cole who can reach that status if he is able to prolong his current run of excellence.

We just haven't seen many teams like this. And it still wasn't enough. Because it's baseball. Of the 12 teams that have posted a better run differential in a season than the Astros -- teams that averaged 106 wins -- seven went on to win the World Series. That's what being historically good gets you in this sport, a coin-flip chance to put a championship cherry on top.

"I don't think I can handle this," Jose Altuve, the heart of the Astros, said. "It's really hard to lose Game 7 of the World Series. What I can tell you is we did everything we could, possible and impossible. We got guys playing since day one, 100%. We did everything to make it happen. We couldn't [finish it], but that's baseball."

The 2019 postseason was a relatively slow roll for the Astros. They were outscored by their opponents 72-71. They needed five games to take out the Tampa Bay Rays, six to upend the New York Yankees and the full seven to try to silence the tough Washington Nationals. Houston entered the fray as the favorite and exited it as a near miss, but at no time during its sojourn did the outcome feel like a foregone conclusion.

In the Houston clubhouse, though, there was little day-to-day variation in the atmosphere. Every day was simply the precursor until tomorrow. There was no panic, nor any overconfidence. The Astros entered each game certain they'd win and that never wavered, even as their margin for error shrank. They surely still feel as if they are better than everyone else. It's a conceit they've earned over a period of a half-decade now.

This is a confident team. Even cocky. Even arrogant. Even brash. All qualities that rub fans the wrong way, unless it's your team that has them. But with those traits comes emotion, a belief, and there is little doubt that until the very moment that Brantley swung over a Daniel Hudson slider, Houston figured it would somehow win. Because the Astros have so often for three years now.

Then -- poof -- it's over.

"I believe we'll have more opportunities to win World Series and play in the postseason," Bregman said. "This team was amazing -- 107 wins. This team will bounce back from this and come ready to play next year."

The Astros are the avatars of the baseball moment in which we are immersed. They have led the way down countless paths, and not all of them obviously good. Their tentacles are everywhere, from tanking as a rebuilding strategy to heightened emphasis on strikeouts (as in not doing it on offense, and getting them on defense) to the focus on high-spin four-seamers, the ramping up of the usage of breaking pitches for the pitchers who have them, video scouting, defensive shifts. All stuff that the get-off-my-lawn branch of baseball fandom hates -- it mostly seems to have been born or popularized with the Astros.

However, to focus on those things is to overlook the timeless things about this remarkable collection of talent. They led the majors in batting average. No team struck out fewer times. They rode a very traditional-looking starting rotation almost to another crown. They run the bases efficiently but also aggressively. They are as good as anyone at minor league development, which has helped keep their prospect supply robust even as their contending rosters advance, succeed and become more expensive.

About that ... among the changes ahead, the worst one is not a certainty, but pretty close to it: The departure of Cole for what promises to be the richest pitching contract in baseball history.

"Not much," Cole said, when asked how much he was thinking about his future. At the moment, he was wearing a Boras Corporation hat.

That constant churn in baseball, with teams breaking apart and coming together in reimagined ways -- not all of them appealing -- are what make the near misses so painful. There are only so many chances.

With the final out of the World Series on Wednesday, the moment sealed another decade of baseball history. It was arguably the most innovative decade in the game's history, just as it might have been the most innovative decade in our country's history. With innovation comes disruption, a term that has become a cultural buzzword.

The Houston Astros are baseball's disruptors. In a time of information explosion, our understanding of every facet of the greatest game iterates with each new big batch of data. No one has been better at making sense of it all, while meshing the best of the old with the best of the new than the Astros. They are a team of heart and of mind.

"This is a great team, and the one thing we can't do is go back and regret anything," Josh Reddick said. "We played our asses off out there. It was the best team I ever played on in my career. I'll never forget this team."

Love 'em, hate 'em, don't care about 'em. It doesn't matter. When the history of baseball in the 2010s is written, the Houston Astros might be on the cover. But that's not guaranteed, because with one title during the decade, it's hard to argue that Houston is the decade's best team, even if it might be the most representative. And there is no guarantee that the front-running Astros will remain out in front of a hungry bunch of predators in hot pursuit behind them.

It was so close to being different. It was so close to the birth of a new dynasty. But the quest continues. That much was guaranteed under the roof of Minute Maid Park on Wednesday night, the day before Halloween, when so many porches are decorated with jack-o-lanterns and the color orange is on everybody's mind.