HOUSTON (AP) - Just four years ago, the Houston Astros weren't just bad, they were embarrassing - so embarrassing that many dubbed them the "Lastros."
Now Houston is heading to its second World Series in franchise history after beating the Yankees in the AL Championship Series, and its time as the league's laughingstock seems like a distant memory.
"You always picture yourself in the World Series, but to be here after my debut in 2012 with the team that we had, with the players that we had, I never thought we would be here," left-hander Dallas Keuchel said.
Keuchel is one of just four Astros who remain from a 2013 team that hit rock bottom by losing a franchise-record 111 games in its first year in the AL. Houston became the first team since Kansas City from 2004-06 to lose 100 games in three straight seasons. Those bumbling Astros, who had the league's lowest payroll as the franchise shed its veterans to rebuild, often played in front of fewer than 10,000 fans and routinely faced boos from the few people who did show up.
All-Star second baseman Jose Altuve, super-utility man Marwin Gonzalez and right-hander Brad Peacock are the other holdovers from the lean times.
"When I got here, no one talked about winning," said manager A.J. Hinch, who took over in 2015. "And that was one of the first things that Altuve told me in my office, that he wanted to win. And that represented what the next step was for this organization. And obviously in 2015 we got to taste it a little bit, 2016 we had some disappointment, 2017 we're going to the World Series."
An example of just how terrible that 2013 team was came on the night they dropped their 100th game. The 10-0 defeat by the Cincinnati Reds featured numerous lowlights from the "Lastros." The first came when starter Jordan Lyles badly overthrew first base for a two-base error. In the bottom of the first inning, Jonathan Villar singled, but was thrown out trying to stretch it into a double. Simply being thrown out for a baserunning error was pretty routine on this terrible team, but the way Villar was thrown out was so humiliating that it went viral and even made it on NBC's "Today" show the next morning.
Villar slid into second base, but Brandon Phillips already had the ball before he began the slide. The always flamboyant Phillips reached backward between his legs to apply the tag as Villar crashed head-first into Phillips' backside, a moment many still refer to as the "butt tag."
The Astros began to slowly improve in 2014 and ended their 100-loss streak by going 70-92 in the last season under manager Bo Porter. Houston surprised most everyone when the team went 86-76 in 2015 in the first year under Hinch to reach the postseason for the first time since 2005. Those upstart Astros were led Keuchel's Cy Young Award-winning season and a stellar debut by 2012 top pick Carlos Correa, which earned him rookie of the year honors. That team downed the Yankees in the AL Wild Card game before losing to eventual champion Kansas City in the Division Series.
Expectations were high entering the 2016 season, but a 7-17 start, numerous injuries and a tough year by Keuchel left them just short of reaching the playoffs and determined to bounce back this year.
They did just that, opening this season 36-16 to race out to such big lead in the AL West that no one had a chance of catching them. They finished with 101 wins and their first division title since 2001 to return to the postseason. Though the Astros added plenty of pieces in the last four seasons as they moved from baseball's basement to the top of the heap, the four players who endured that disastrous 2013 season have all played important roles in this year's success.
Gonzalez had his finest season, hitting .303 with 23 homers and 90 RBIs - all career highs - and becoming an everyday player after filling the utility role for years. Keuchel went 14-5 with a 2.90 ERA to rebound after going 9-12 with a 4.55 ERA in the follow-up to his Cy Young season. Peacock was perhaps the biggest surprise of the group, winning a career-best 13 games and finishing with a 3.00 ERA to steady the rotation when injuries piled up midseason.
However, none of their contributions come close to what Altuve did for the team in the regular season and continued to provide as the calendar turned to October. And he may appreciate this more than anybody after playing on those "Lastros" teams.
"I'm coming from a team that lost 100 games in a row three years, three straight years," he said. "We made the playoffs in 2015, we didn't make it last year and after last year we were a little uncomfortable because we were watching the playoff games from home and we were like, 'OK, we're good enough to be in the playoffs.' We showed up this year, we did it again, and I'm really happy and excited."
He's an MVP front-runner this season after hitting a career-high .346 with 24 homers and 81 RBIs. Altuve has followed that up by hitting .400 this postseason with a major league-leading 16 hits and five homers to lead the Astros to the World Series for the first time since they were swept by the White Sox in 2005.
"He's the best hitter on the planet," Correa said.
His performance came as no surprise to anyone who has kept up with the Astros over the past few years. Altuve has won the AL batting title in three of the past four seasons and has piled up more than 200 hits in four consecutive years.
"There's no doubt that when he has good games, it's hard to beat the Astros," Hinch said.
And now he and the Astros will get a chance to prove that when they meet the Los Angeles Dodgers in the World Series starting on Tuesday night.
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