The Pieces Around Them Change, but Houston’s Core Sets the Tone

The Pieces Around Them Change, but Houston’s Core Sets the Tone

PHILADELPHIA — It was at an All-Star Game several years ago that Justin Verlander was talking to CC Sabathia about life with the Yankees. Players often are curious about the inner workings of other teams, and this was when the vaunted “Core Four” — Derek Jeter, Jorge Posada, Andy Pettitte and Mariano Rivera — were still the heart and soul of the Yankees.

“‘Well, what No. 2 does, we do,’” Verlander recalls Sabathia telling him, referring, of course, to Jeter. “‘If he goes and hits, everybody goes and hits. And he hits most every day. So we hit most every day.’”

Verlander, Houston’s ace right-hander, recounted that memory here this week while discussing his own team’s long-running core of Jose Altuve, Alex Bregman and Yuli Gurriel. There are many reasons the Astros have enjoyed the extended run that has vaulted them into four World Series since 2017 and into the American League Championship Series in six consecutive seasons. Chief among them is the work ethic, stability, consistency and example set by their own timeless group of veteran infielders.

Stars such as George Springer, Carlos Correa, Gerrit Cole, Charlie Morton, Carlos Beltran and Brian McCann have come and gone, but some things do not change. The Astros’ wide net continues to restock talent, and Altuve, Bregman and Gurriel continue to lead the way.

“Derek Jeter, a first-ballot Hall of Famer, one of the best to ever play the game, if you show up in that locker room and you aren’t putting in the work he’s putting in, how can you show your face to your teammates?” Verlander said, likening that to the example set by Houston’s group. “We’re a family. We’re grinding for every win we can get.

“It’s like Michael Jordan. Michael Jordan works harder than anybody else. You have to match that energy. That creates an environment for an organization that goes well beyond a year or two. That’s how you create a dynasty. Guys like that.”

As the Astros play the second of three games in Philadelphia during the 118th edition of the World Series, Altuve, Bregman and Gurriel have now played together in 84 postseason games. That is the most ever in a six-year postseason span, as Jayson Stark noted in The Athletic, surpassing the old mark of 79 set by Jeter and Bernie Williams between 1998 and 2003. They have been as much a part of October (and now, November) as fun-size candy bars and apple cider.

And even with the revelations that the team employed an elaborate and illegal sign-stealing system during their World Series-winning 2017 season, which tarnished their accomplishments in the eyes of many opposing teams’ fans, they have remained close, productive and largely unapologetic. They are the core of a dynasty of sorts, in terms of American League pennants, and they hope to remain that way.

Altuve, 32, arrived first, signing as a 16-year-old, undrafted free agent out of Venezuela in 2007. He has won an A.L. Most Valuable Player Award (2017), three batting titles and a Gold Glove.

Gurriel, 38, signed with the Astros in 2016, after defecting from Cuba and playing 15 years there and in Japan. He has won a batting title and a Gold Glove.

Bregman, 28, was Houston’s first-round pick in 2015 out of Louisiana State. He has yet to play a full season in which his team did not reach at least the A.L.C.S.

“We’re happy, the three of us, that we’ve been together all of this time, achieving so much that the fan base deserves,” Altuve said in an interview conducted in Spanish.

Though the names in the box scores have rotated many times throughout the years, when youngsters such as Jeremy Peña, Kyle Tucker and Chas McCormick break in, the constant is that they fall in line behind Altuve, Bregman and Gurriel.

“Continuing to have them around on the field is obviously great for us, but at the same time, I think off the field is where the real benefit is,” said James Click, Houston’s third-year general manager. “Because as we continue to bring new players up, as we continue to have new personnel come in, as we continue to have turnover on our roster, those are the guys who establish the culture and expectations of what it means to be a Houston Astro, what it takes to be successful not only at this level, but in the postseason and deep into the postseason.”

They have grown as comfortable together as old friends over the years. Their respect for each other is evident as the wins pile up and the accolades flow.

“The common thing from both of them is consistency,” Bregman said of Altuve and Gurriel. “They’re both the same guy every single day when they show up to the ballpark. They get their work in, they have fun, there’s a smile on their face. They’re great teammates. They root for their teammates.

“Two winners.”

From Altuve, Gurriel said, he has learned how to make small adjustments in his plate appearances, especially against the harder-throwing pitchers that he did not face often in Cuba or Japan. From Bregman, he said, he’s learned some English and reciprocated by teaching some Spanish to the third baseman.

“Since I got here, I’ve had the fortune of having guys like Altuve, Latinos who taught me a lot about getting used to this new life and this new period of how to play baseball here,” Gurriel said in Spanish. “The same I can say about Bregman. Even though he was young, too, he helped me a lot.”

Together, they have comprised three-quarters of the Astros infield for the past six years — Gurriel at first base, Altuve at second and Bregman at third. Off the field, they have been the human beakers in that ever-changing yet ever-consistent Houston clubhouse chemistry.

“The leadership we get from those guys is just incredible,” Verlander said. “It sets the tone for our entire team. Those guys come here every day willing to do everything and anything to help us win a ballgame. They never take a day off. There’s no complacency, ever. And that trickles down to our young guys.”

But there is no escaping the fact that they are also the last three remaining position players from the 2017 cheating scandal. They survived the fallout, the stained reputations and the fierce booing at each stop around the league, simply by winning, year after year, with no hint of anything more untoward.

“Our motivation is to win,” Bregman said. “We love this game; we’ve loved the game since we were little kids.”

In an era of expanded playoffs, Altuve has 99 postseason hits and is one away from becoming only the sixth player in history to notch 100. Bregman owns postseason records for both home runs (15) and R.B.I. (45) by a third baseman. And Gurriel, heading into Game 4 of the World Series, had hit safely in eight of Houston’s 10 postseason games this year. His 33 postseason hits over the past two years are the most in baseball.

“The wonderful thing about Bregman is, with all the success, with the new contract, his work ethic is harder now than it was when he was a rookie,” Verlander said. “I think he knows how to direct his energy a little bit better.”

Bregman signed a five-year, $100 million deal that will keep him in Houston through 2024. Altuve also is tethered to Houston through 2024 on a seven-year, $163.5 million deal. Gurriel is eligible for free agency this off-season and has said that so far he has had no talks with the Astros regarding a new deal.

“Oh, yeah, I would love for him to stay,” said Bregman, who once said that Gurriel’s Hall of Fame candidacy would be a conversational topic had he come to the major leagues sooner.

“They always tell me that,” Gurriel said. “But God’s time is perfect. The things happen for a reason. I would’ve loved to have come in the best period of my career, from, like, 22, 23 to 27, 28 years old. But most importantly, I came here at 32 years old, and look at the blessings I’ve had. Four World Series in six years.”

Gurriel’s average plummeted from an A.L.-leading .319 last year to .242 in 2022, but his teammates say he hasn’t acted like it.

“Yuli has been able to turn the page from a season I know he would like to have had back but was able to turn it on when we need him in playoffs,” Verlander said. “Jose, everybody knows what he’s capable of and is just waiting for him to bust out. Bregman, obviously, he’s definitely one of the heart and souls of this team.”

Not only are Bregman and his wife, Reagan, new parents to their son, Knox (born in August), but he also has improved his diet with the help of a private chef. He called that a “game changer” and added: “My mom’s happy because this is the first year I’ve ever eaten seafood in my life. I never ate fish. I ate cheeseburgers, pizza and that’s about it.”

That, too, serves as a good example for the younger Astros.

“I think our organization has done an unbelievable job of player development starting the first day guys get into the system,” Bregman said. “They identify areas of strength, areas of weakness, and not only do they identify them, but they teach players how to improve where they need to improve and teach players how to make their strengths even better.”

And as they do, Bregman, Altuve and Gurriel are there at the top to reinforce those lessons. And, to win some more.

James Wagner contributed reporting.

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