Houston – For the second time in three seasons, the Astros are in the World Series.
Their first trip in 2017 produced the organization's first World Series Championship. On Tuesday, they return to the big stage to open the Fall Classic against the Washington Nationals who also happen to be their spring training partners in West Palm Beach, Florida.
That's spring training, though, and this is just a little bigger of a platform, wouldn't you say?
The architect of the Astros' rise has, of course, been General Manager Jeff Luhnow, who has pulled the trigger on many deals that have shaped the Astros into who they are now.
Yes, Luhnow has been a terrific leader in the GM seat but the man on the bench has been even better.
Andrew Jay Hinch, better known as A.J., has been guiding the ship from his dugout seat since he arrived in Houston in 2015. He implemented a culture on a day-to-day basis that we hadn't seen at Minute Maid Park or the Astrodome. That's no knock on the successful managers before him like Phil Garner, Larry Dierker or dating back to Bill Virdon.
Simply put, Hinch is a player's manager and is respected by everyone. He inherited a mess when he arrived but the rebuild plan was in place. The journey to get there was long and Hinch was the right man at the right time to lead and instill a culture that continues to grow now that he is at the end of his fifth season at the helm of the Astros.
HINCH'S ROAD TO HOUSTON
Hinch grew up in Iowa and Oklahoma and was a star at Midwest City High School. There, he was an All-American who was drafted but turned that opportunity down in favor of a full ride to Stanford where he became a college All-American, a Team USA Olympian in 1996 and eventually a third-round draft pick of the Oakland A's in 1996 as well. After his playing career, he joined the Arizona Diamondbacks where he began to climb the ranks.
At the age 34, Hinch became the D-Backs' manager in May of 2009. A year later, he was let go but landed in San Diego in 2010 as the Padres' vice president of pro scouting. He remained in the San Diego organization until the call came four years later from Houston where he would take over the Astros as their new manager, replacing Bo Porter. He was hired in late September 2014 ahead of his historic debut in 2015.
LEADING THE WAY AS ASTROS SKIPPER
Hinch's arrival in Houston instantly produced results. His initial season the Astros went 86-76 and advanced to the playoffs as a wild card team beating the Yankees to advance to the ALDS. It was Houston's first postseason trip since its 2005 team made the playoffs. Hinch was just laying his blueprint for success. A loss to the Royals in the ALDS was disappointing but the foundation was being installed for the long haul.
In 2016, the Astros missed the playoffs despite 84 wins and at that point the Hinch/Luhnow partnership was in sync. They both realized the talent base that was in place and the minor league pipeline was fast becoming one of the best in baseball. They were right and in 2017 they took the Astros to a new level that didn't end until they won the World Series in a Game 7 victory over the Los Angeles Dodgers. The star power was building with the likes of Jose Altuve, George Springer, Alex Bregman, Carlos Correa and many others. The arrival late summer of Justin Verlander help put the Astros over the top.
In 2018 Hinch's Astros advanced to the playoffs once again. Verlander was joined by Gerrit Cole in the rotation along with lefty Dallas Keuchel, who was playing in his final season leading to free agency. The Astros didn't reach their goal and fell to the eventual World Series champion Boston Red Sox in the ALCS.
HINCH AND THE ASTROS RETURN TO THE FALL CLASSIC
Here we are now in October 2019 and the Astros are back in the World Series where they will open Tuesday against the Washington Nationals. The Astros are baseball's juggernaut winning a franchise-best 107 regular season games. They are the deepest and most balanced team in the majors and it's one reason why they are heavy favorites to beat the Nationals and win a second World Series title.
Hinch's calm demeanor since day one has been a reason for his success.
He's told the media numerous times, "You can't get too high with wins and can't get too low during the struggling times." To this day, he still believes that and it rubs off on the players between the lines and inside the clubhouse on a daily basis.
Hinch is the perfect fit in Houston as is Luhnow. They've built a winner and some believe an organization that could become a dynasty.
There's still work left to do and it starts at 7:08 p.m. Tuesday at Minute Maid Park. Perhaps within a week another parade in downtown could be in the works.