HOUSTON, TX – It was well within their grasp.
The Houston Astros had a shot at a mini dynasty with a second title in three seasons. Instead, they failed to get one win in two chances at home against the Washington Nationals and have an offseason as runner-ups to ponder what might have been.
"I've got a group of heartbroken men ... that did everything they could to try to bring a World Series championship to this city," manager AJ Hinch said. "And we fell one win shy."
The Astros won a franchise-record and MLB-best 107 games to earn home-field advantage throughout the playoffs. It didn't help in a World Series in which they dropped all four games in Houston, capped by Wednesday night's 6-2 loss that left them to watch the Nationals celebrate on their home field.
In a season where aces Justin Verlander and Gerrit Cole powered their spectacular success, a bullpen implosion in the seventh inning in Game 7 ensured the Astros wouldn't get a second ring this year.
Zack Greinke, picked up at the trade deadline as the last piece to a team that seemed destined for another title, had his best outing of the postseason Wednesday night. When he was lifted with one on and one out in the seventh, Houston led by a run. Two pitches later, Howie Kendrick took Will Harris deep and the Nationals took the championship from the Astros.
It was an agonizing ending for a team was favored to be champions all season. In Verlander and Cole they had two front-runners for the AL Cy Young Award. Their loaded roster also boasted MVP candidate Alex Bregman and rookie of the year favorite Yordan Alvarez along with star hitters Jose Altuve, George Springer and Carlos Correa.
"This is going to sting for a really long time, and it should," Hinch said. But when everything, the dust settles, we'll be very proud of the season we had, albeit one win short."
Verlander, who threw his third no-hitter this season, won 20 games for the second time in his career and first since winning a career-high 24 in 2011 with Detroit when he won the Cy Young and MVP. Cole set a team record by winning his last 16 regular-season decisions and topped the AL with a career-best 2.50 ERA. His career-high 326 strikeouts were the most in the majors and set a franchise record that had stood since 1979 when J.R. Richard fanned 313.
Bregman had 41 homers and 112 RBIs — both career-highs — to power Houston's offense and compete with Mike Trout for AL MVP honors. Alvarez started the season in Triple-A before a June call-up. He had 27 homers and 78 RBIs in just 87 games.
But those gaudy numbers and all the hardware Houston players might receive this offseason won't make what happened Wednesday night sit any better. The Astros entered the season saying their only goal was another championship.
"It stings, and it's going to sting for a little bit, but after that, it kind of washes away," Springer said. "We know the feeling of success, which we had. We know the feeling of failure, which we now had. You build on it and take that into next year."
Houston won 100 games for the third straight season and should be in good position to maintain that success next year with most of its core returning. They're likely, however, to lose one big piece from this year's run. Cole becomes a free agent and expected to command at least a $200 million contract, which could be too rich for the Astros.
Still, the Astros believe they remain built for sustained success.
"We will have more opportunities to win the World Series, play in the postseason," Bregman said. "This team was amazing with 107 wins. I think this team will bounce back from this and come ready to play next year."