Top 25 Baseball Stories of 2017 — No. 1: The Astros Win Their First Ever World Series

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We’re a few short days away from 2018 so it’s a good time to look back at the top 25 baseball stories of 2017. Some of them took place on the field, some of them off the field and some of them were more akin to tabloid drama. No matter where the story broke, however, these were the stories baseball fans were talking about most this past year.

The Houston Astros’ title drought lasted only about half as long as the drought ended by the Cubs in 2016, but at least the Cubs and their fans had a banner they could look at which told them, yes, as some point in our history we were champions. The Houston franchise had been in existence for 55 years — living under two names and playing in two leagues — without a title to show for it. That all changed in 2017, when the Astros beat the Dodgers in seven games to win their first ever World Series.

They drove a long road to get there.

The Astros of the 1990s and 2000s were always pretty good. Led by Hall of Famers Jeff Bagwell and Craig Biggio, Houston made the playoffs six times and won the NL pennant in 2005. By the time those two hung ’em up, however, the cupboard was bare. The major league roster was mostly devoid of talent and the farm system had almost no promising prospects — even marginal ones — in the pipeline. The team was sold to Jim Crane in 2011. That same year the Astros lost 106 games. Crane hired Cardinals scouting and player development executive Jeff Luhnow in December of that year and the rebuild was on.

It was not a pretty rebuild, at least at first. Luhnow and his staff — populated by analysts and scouts recruited from the masthead of Baseball Prospectus, among other places — tore things down to the studs and poured their efforts into the draft and international signings. The major league product suffered mightily during this time — the Astros lost 107 games in 2012 and 111 games in 2013 — but the talent began to emerge like green shoots in late winter.

The losing continued in 2014, but then something funny happened.

Taking a look at what Luhnow had been doing with the team’s rebuild and liking what he was seeing, Sports Illustrated’s Ben Reiter wrote an article in June about the promise in the organization. It became SI’s cover story that week, with the words “Your 2017 World Series Champs” cheekily applied. The cover was widely mocked, as no one in their right mind thought the Astros — often dubbed the “Lastros” in those days — would be an elite team so quickly, even if it was expected that they’d be at least somewhat better.

Houston shocked baseball the very next season, however, winning 86 games and taking the eventual World Series champion Kansas City Royals to a Game 5 in the ALDS. In 2016 they took a step back, winning only 84 and missing the playoffs. This year, though, everything clicked and Houston won 101 games, walked away with the AL West and, vindicating Sports Illustrated’s seemingly crazy prediction, won the whole dang thing.

They may have more whole dang things in their future.

There are no guarantees in baseball, let along guarantees of multiple championships, but the Astros have built an organization that doesn’t seem to be going anywhere. Their core — led by Jose Altuve, Carlos Correa, George Springer, Alex Bregman, and Lance McCullers — are under team control for several years. They have aces Dallas Keuchel for 2018 and Justin Verlander for the next two seasons and, if his player option vests, one more in 2020. Role players  Josh Reddick, Brad Peacock and Collin McHugh are under team control for at least a couple more years. Prospects Derek Fisher, Kyle Tucker, Francis Martis have promise. Beyond just them, the Astros have a top-10 farm system according to most experts.

Are the Astros a perfect team? No, even with 101 wins and a title under their belt. Manager A.J. Hinch had to employ some industrial smoke and mirrors when it came to his bullpen usage in the postseason. They certainly could’ve used one more starter for long stretches of the regular season but got away with it somehow. As with any team, there are always flaws to address. And, of course, injuries can always change the game, even with the most talented of squads.

But the 2017 Houston Astros season is over. It ended with a World Series championship. It was, by our estimation anyway, the top baseball story of 2017.

Have a happy and safe New Year, everyone.

Swanson, Olson go deep vs Scherzer, Braves take NL East lead

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ATLANTA — Dansby Swanson and Matt Olson homered off Max Scherzer, lifting the Atlanta Braves to a crucial 4-2 victory Saturday night over the New York Mets and a one-game lead in the NL East.

The defending World Series champions beat aces Jacob deGrom and Scherzer on consecutive nights to take their biggest lead of the season in the division. New York, which held a 10 1/2-game cushion on June 1, faces its biggest deficit of the year with four games remaining.

Atlanta will try for a three-game sweep Sunday night, with the winner earning the season-series tiebreaker between the teams. Even though both teams are headed to the postseason, that’s important because the NL East champion gets a first-round bye in the playoffs.

Swanson’s 24th homer, a go-ahead, two-run shot in the fifth inning, touched off a frenzy among the sold-out crowd at Truist Park, the ball sailing a few rows up into the seats in left-center to make it 3-2. Olson hit his 32nd homer in the sixth, a solo shot into Chop House seats in right to put Atlanta up 4-2.

Austin Riley led off the fourth with a double and scored on Olson’s single to make it 1-all.

Kyle Wright (21-5) gave up two runs and seven hits with one walk and three strikeouts in five innings as he won his eighth straight decision. The Braves have won 16 of his last 17 starts.

New York went up 2-1 in the fifth when Pete Alonso, Francisco Lindor and Jeff McNeil hit consecutive two-out singles.

The Mets led 1-0 in the first when Brandon Nimmo singled, advanced on a walk and a single and scored on Eduardo Escobar‘s groundout. Wright, who threw 30 pitches in the first, stranded two runners in scoring position to prevent further damage.

Scherzer (11-5) allowed a first-inning single to Riley and a third-inning infield single to Ronald Acuna Jr., who advanced to third on a fielding error by Lindor at shortstop but was stranded when Michael Harris II lined out to center. Scherzer patted his glove and pumped his fist as he walked off the mound.

Scherzer was charged with nine hits and four runs with no walks and four strikeouts in 5 2/3 innings as the Mets were knocked out of first place for only the third day all season.

The Braves have won five of the last six against New York to tie the season series 9-all, outscoring the Mets 37-16 over that stretch.

Atlanta’s bullpen, which posted a 1.70 ERA in September, got a perfect inning from Dylan Lee in the sixth. Jesse Chavez faced four batters in the seventh, Raisel Iglesias faced the minimum in the eighth and closer Kenley Jansen pitched a perfect ninth for his NL-leading 39th save in 46 chances.

Since the Braves were a season low-tying four games under .500 at 23-27 after play on May 31, they have gone 76-32, tying the Los Angeles Dodgers for the best record in the majors over that span. They were a season-worst 10 1/2 games behind the first-place Mets on June 1.

Wright, the only 20-game winner in baseball this season, hasn’t officially become the first Braves pitcher to lead the league in wins outright since Russ Ortiz had 21 in 2003, but the Dodgers’ Julio Urias has 17 and can’t reach 20 before the regular season ends.

Wright will become the first Braves pitcher since Hall of Famer Tom Glavine in 2000 to lead the majors in wins. Houston ace Justin Verlander also has 17.

Wright began the game 1-4 with a 6.75 ERA in six career starts and one relief appearance against the Mets.

The Braves, who got homers from Riley, Olson and Swanson off deGrom on Friday, lead the NL with 240 homers.

TRAINER’S ROOM

Mets: All-Star RF Starling Marte (right middle finger fracture) has yet to begin swinging or throwing. Manager Buck Showalter said Marte is experiencing less pain but not enough to take the next step in his recovery. Marte has been sidelined since Sept. 7.

Braves: RHP Spencer Strider still has not thrown as he gets treatment on a sore left oblique. Manager Brian Snitker said there is no timetable for the rookie’s return. Strider has been sidelined since Sept. 21.

NICE GLOVE

Harris ran back and jumped to catch Nimmo’s fly against the wall in center field for the first out of the third.

UP NEXT

Mets RHP Chris Bassitt (15-8, 3.27 ERA) will face RHP Charlie Morton (9-6, 4.29) as the teams conclude a three-game series.