Is any team having more fun than the Houston Astros? – SweetSpot

MLB


HOUSTON — Josh Reddick loves professional wrestling. Can’t get enough of it. He once dropped $400 on a satin robe autographed by Ric Flair. He often gets ringside seats to big events. The veteran outfielder’s choice in at-bat music: the heavy metal anthem of Triple-H, his favorite wrestler.

So, after signing with the Houston Astros as a free agent last winter, Reddick ordered an orange championship belt with the team’s ‘H’ logo in the center and his name and No. 22 on the side. He custom-designed similar wrestling belts when he played for the Boston Red Sox, Oakland Athletics and Los Angeles Dodgers, but this time, he figured he would share it with his teammates.

“It was going to be more of a clubhouse show-off thing, and then give it to the ‘player of the game’ after every win,” Reddick says. “That was the idea.”

But two days after Reddick’s belt arrived in the mail, two others wound up in the Astros’ clubhouse. They belonged to Carlos Beltran, of all people, a 40-year-old slugger with a Hall of Fame resume who likely wouldn’t know Triple-H from Triple-A. Beltran understands leadership, though, and unbeknownst to Reddick, he hatched his own plan to help galvanize his new team.

Beltran, another free-agent addition, went online and custom-made two replica World Boxing Organization title belts, one in blue and the other in orange, one designated as “Player of the Game,” the other as “Pitcher of the Game.” They would be awarded after each victory, with the most recent winners serving as judges, and the recipients would be required to stand up in the clubhouse and deliver a brief speech.

So far, the belts have been well-worn. Entering the weekend, no team in baseball had more wins than the Astros (45), who raced to an 11-game lead in the American League West. They have not lost more than three games in a row, and they reeled off a season-high 11 consecutive wins from May 25 to June 5, including a 16-8 victory May 29 in Minnesota in which they overcame an 8-2 deficit by scoring 11 runs in the eighth inning. The Astros have scored the second-most runs in the league (374) and have allowed the fewest runs (267) going into Sunday’s games.

Oh, and good luck finding a team that’s having more fun.

“I felt like we all got along pretty good in spring training and hung out quite a bit off the field, but it seems to have carried over here,” Reddick says. “We’ve had a few team dinners. We had a little team get-together where everybody’s come and hung out. We have a very good connection with each other.”

For three years, beginning with their out-of-the-blue 86-win season and playoff appearance in 2015, the Astros have been a good team. Their young position-player nucleus — 22-year-old shortstop Carlos Correa, 27-year-old second baseman Jose Altuve, 27-year-old outfielder George Springer and 23-year-old third baseman Alex Bregman — is regarded with envy around the league, and co-aces Dallas Keuchel and Lance McCullers Jr. have blossomed into a formidable one-two punch atop the rotation.

But general manager Jeff Luhnow knew something was missing last season when Houston encountered problems during a 7-17 April and never fully recovered. For all their talent, the Astros still lacked experience. They needed the steady hand and respected voice of a veteran player who has been through struggles and lived to tell about them.

The Astros needed Beltran. And Reddick. And catcher Brian McCann.

“We were a young team last year with a lot of talent but no leader in the team that can lead us the right way,” Correa says. “I feel like they’re leading us down the right path, which is winning. They’ve been there before. They’ve been with great teams before. They’ve been in the playoffs before, so they know how to win. They know what it takes. They’re bringing this team together in order for us to have the season we’re having.”

McCann arrived first, acquired for two minor league pitchers in a Nov. 17 trade with the Yankees, who agreed to pay $11 million of the $34 million left on his contract. Six days later, Reddick signed a four-year, $52 million contract. Two weeks after that, Beltran agreed to a one-year, $16 million deal.

And with that, the Astros made gains in both ability and chemistry.

Luhnow admits all three players were targeted for both their on-field abilities and their off-field reputations, with the Astros doing their homework on the latter by talking to everyone possible, from scouts to trainers and clubhouse attendants.

“First and foremost, we looked for guys that were still producing at a high level,” Luhnow says. “I understand the hypothesis that you want guys around the clubhouse who have experience and can mentor younger players, but if they’re not able to perform on the field and help the team win, I don’t really think that’s what we want. Now, that being said, we had our choice between the veterans and we were looking at guys that we thought would be influential on our younger players and be a motivator for them.

“I think in all of those cases, it’s really exceeded my expectations, watching them set the tone both on the field as well as in the clubhouse.”

Beltran leads by example, drawing on his first stint in Houston. In 2004, he was 27 and emerging as a star player when he got traded midway through the season to a veteran Astros team that featured Craig Biggio, Jeff Bagwell and Lance Berkman. The lessons he learned were invaluable.

So during spring training, Beltran made a point of meeting with minor league players. He hung out in the batting cage with Correa, Springer and others, offering pointers whenever he noticed their swings were askew. Even Reddick, who has played in more than 800 big-league games over nine seasons, credits Beltran for helping “make a little tweak” than snapped him out of an early-season slump.

“It’s something he doesn’t even always know he’s doing,” Springer says. “He’s just willing to help anybody. If you ask him something, he’ll say something. He’s always extremely positive. But the thing that I take from him is he shows you how to handle failure. He shows you how to handle things when things aren’t going your way.”

Says Correa: “He told me so many things that I didn’t know about baseball — analyzing pitchers, figuring out what they like to throw in those counts. He’s taught me all of that.”

McCann is the funny one. There’s something about those player of the game speeches, after the belt presentations, that has brought out the personalities of several players, according to Keuchel. Some speeches have been “inspiring,” Correa says. Most are focused on the team. There’s even been “a fair share of bad ones,” Keuchel says with a laugh.

By all accounts, though, McCann’s have been the most memorable, if not always printable, for their hilarity. Even Luhnow admits to sneaking down to the clubhouse after some games to hear what McCann and others might say.

“Let’s just say certain characters in here have a certain way of presenting the way they say thank you,” Keuchel says. “It also makes guys get out of their shells.”

But if McCann keeps the mood light, he also commands the respect of the pitchers. After all, over the past 13 seasons he has caught the likes of John Smoltz, Tim Hudson, Derek Lowe, Billy Wagner, Craig Kimbrel, CC Sabathia, Masahiro Tanaka, Andrew Miller, Dellin Betances and Aroldis Chapman. The Astros pitchers trust McCann implicitly, according to Keuchel, who is off to a 9-0 start with a 1.67 ERA with McCann as his personal catcher.

Keuchel worked with McCann in each of his 11 starts before going on the disabled list earlier this month with a nerve issue in his neck and credits McCann with helping him return to the form that won him the Cy Young in 2015. Likewise, McCullers has a 2.44 ERA in nine starts with McCann behind the plate en route to a 2.58 ERA in 13 starts overall before going on the DL with lower back pain.

“It seems like McCann has something to say for everything, and that just means he’s good at recognizing different people, different personalities,” Keuchel says. “When you’ve caught multiple Hall of Famers and Cy Young Award winners, I’d be dumb not to listen to what he had to say, especially when it comes to my career and what he thinks I should do on the mound.”

Reddick learned leadership early in his career from Red Sox second baseman Dustin Pedroia and retired slugger David Ortiz. After getting traded to Oakland, Reddick was mentored by outfielder Jonny Gomes, known throughout his career as a positive clubhouse presence. Gomes was also a serial winner, reaching the postseason in four out of five seasons with three teams from 2010 to 2014. Reddick made four playoff appearances with the A’s and Dodgers from 2012 to 2016.

It isn’t a coincidence.

“I think chemistry is really important. I put a lot of stock in it,” Luhnow says. “I just don’t know exactly how to engineer it. I do think young players are going to look for [veterans’] reaction, see how they’re behaving. Quite frankly, the fact that Josh Reddick runs out every ground ball regardless of how it’s hit and how much of a chance he has to beat it out, even if we’re down 13-1 or up 13-1, that’s huge. It’s an example for the rest of the team.”

None of this guarantees the Astros will win the World Series, of course. They will need to keep the position players healthy and get a strong return from Keuchel and McCullers, and even then, they seem to be at least one starting pitcher short of having a rotation that can blitz through the postseason.

But while Luhnow hunts for help before the trade deadline at the end of next month, the Astros will keep trying to one-up each other on the field in order to pass the championship belts around the clubhouse.

“It’s made the game even more fun than we already had,” Springer says. “We look forward to getting back in here and doing the speeches at the end of the game. These guys — Carlos, Josh, Mac — they’ve brought all that out, and it’s been great. They’ve been everything to us.”



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