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Nightengale: Astros, Off to Best Start, Have Eyes on World Series

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Astros righthander Lance McCullers Jr. Photo: Mike Ehrmann / Houston Chronicle

They are the best team in the land, threatening to win more games than any team in baseball history, but it’s not good enough.

They arguably have the brightest future of any major league franchise, with an array of young star power with a deep farm system that could beguile the American League for years, but want it to shine even brighter.

They can start putting the champagne on ice now with a 42-18 record entering Thursday, and a division gap so big that you can drive an 18-wheeler through it, but simply playing in October isn’t their goal.

Living in the moment is fine, but these young, lovable Houston Astros have their sights on becoming the first franchise in the state of Texas to capture baseball’s biggest prize, the World Series championship.

“Honestly, with the talent we have in here, and the way we’ve played,’’ 22-year-old All-Star shortstop Carlos Correa told USA TODAY Sports, “anything less than getting to the World Series would be a disappointment.

“I knew this team would be special, especially after getting the veterans we did in the off-season, you can’t help but feel like we have the team to accomplish it.

“I really believe this can be the year.’’

It may sound a little crazy for the Astros’ mantra to be World Series or Bust, but considering they are pace to win 113 games – just three shy of the major-league record – expectations for this franchise have never been grander.

The Astros, the laughingstock of baseball just four years ago, with Astros GM Jeff Luhnow actually getting a vanity license plate for his car that read: GM111 in honor of their 51-111 season in 2013, pushed their division lead to 14 games this week, third-largest ever through 58 games.

Considering they’ve outscored opponents by 102 runs, this breakneck pace is far from a fluke.

“It’s like an embarrassment of riches in here,’’ says ace Dallas Keuchel. “Our lineup is so dynamic, so talented and deep. It’s not like in a football blowout where you can put in your second team and kind of let off the gas. There’s no drop-off when we bring in guys from the bench.

“The way the offense is performing, I feel like we’re along for the ride now.’’

They’ve produced 331 runs, the only AL team with more than 300. They’ve homered in 15 games in a row, while scoring at least six runs in nine consecutive games until Wednesday – the longest streak in baseball since 2004. Their pitching staff has the lowest ERA in the American League, leading the league in strikeouts, and having the lowest opponent’s batting average.

The plans for a glorious future can also be a pitfall, the Astros quietly say. Sure, it’s nice to have a loaded farm system, with talented young controllable players at the big-league level, and a chance to emulate the old Atlanta Braves when they won 14 consecutive division titles.

But sorry, the Astros players say, they’re not concerned with 2018, much less 2028.

They want to win it all. Right now. And are imploring the front office to deal prized prospects for the pieces to help them in October. They can handle the next four months on their own, but if the Astros really want to be playing in late October, they’d love to have another front-line starter to go along with Keuchel (9-0, 1.67 ERA) and Lance McCullers Jr. (6-1, 2.71 ERA). Oh, and as long as they’re at it, a left-handed reliever too.

Houston Astros starting pitcher Dallas Keuchel (60) pitches during the first inning of a spring training baseball game against the New York Yankees at Osceola County Stadium. Mandatory Credit: Tommy Gilligan-USA TODAY Sports

Everyone saw what the Cubs did a year ago. They were 63-41 with a 7 ½ game lead when they acquired All-Star closer Aroldis Chapman from the New York Yankees for four players, including prized shortstop Gleyber Torres. They certainly didn’t need Chapman to win the division. But, did they ever need him to win the World Series.

“What we’re doing now doesn’t happen that often,’’ said Keuchel, vying for his second Cy Young in three years with his league-leading ERA. He will miss at least one start with neck discomfort and was placed on the 10-day disabled list Thursday.

“Usually, you get one shot at this. And if you do happen to take advantage of that one shot and it happens to work out, you’re probably set for the next decade, keeping fans off your heels. We’ve got plenty of talented guys in here, so it’s not to say we couldn’t win a World Series right now, but pitching wins in the playoffs. I’d like to see us get somebody who can dominate. Through the course of the World Series winners, you always see a couple of guys just take over.

“So if we’re going to out and get somebody, I’d rather get somebody who’s a proven winner and who can dominate a game.’’

We’re talking about you: Gerrit Cole of the Pittsburgh Pirates, Yu Darvish of the Texas Rangers, Jose Quintana of the Chicago White Sox, Sonny Gray of the Oakland A’s, Alex Cobb of the Tampa Bay Rays. Or dream even bigger with high-salaried aces Zack Greinke of the Arizona Diamondbacks or Justin Verlander of the Detroit Tigers.

“I think we need one more guy, a No. 1 or No. 2 type of guy in the rotation,’’ Correa said, “and another reliever. We get that, it would be a dream come true.

“And I think Jeff is going to get it done for us. I really do. This is the year.’’

Luhnow and the Astros front office have no intention of showing their hand with seven weeks still remaining until the July 31 non-waiver trade deadline, but one Astros executive, speaking on condition of anonymity, said it would be a “shock” if the club didn’t make a significant transaction.

They know their record – 42-18 currently – means nothing once faced with a playoff foe such as the Boston Red Sox, already boasting a powerful trio of Chris Sale, David Price and Rick Porcello.

“No matter what your record is,’’ Astros manager A.J. Hinch says, “you’d be foolish in our game not to augment even a good roster. I believe in this team, I like the players we have on this team, but the nature of this business is to make yourself better.’’

Luhnow showed his aggressiveness alreadyjust to get the Astros into this position, spending $109 million on free agents Josh Reddick, Carlos Beltran, Charlie Morton and Nori Aoki, and acquiring catcher Brian McCann from the New York Yankees.

If not for those moves, the Astros certainly aren’t sitting in the best position in baseball today, going 33-8 outside the AL West. They’ve had 21 comeback victories, rallying from three five-run deficits, including their their historic six-run deficit on Memorial Day against the Minnesota Twins, scoring 11 runs in the eighth inning to turn an 8-2 deficit to a 16-8 victory. It was the first time in MLB history that a team trailed by six runs entering the eighth and won by at least six runs.

“There have been multiple games that if not for them,’’ says outfielder George Springer, “we would have lost them last year. We don’t quit anymore. You look at the game against Minnesota. Last year, there was no chance we could have come back. We would have just laid down and just kind of accepted defeat.

“We believe in ourselves now.’’

Says Correa: “That’s what we were missing, leadership, and now we’ve got it. Just having that blueprint in the clubhouse, and the atmosphere they bring, how they bring us all together, is amazing.

“I’ve learned so much from Beltran, I can’t even begin to tell you how much I appreciate him.’’

It’s that way wherever you turn in the clubhouse. The players sit next to Beltran, 40, as much as possible, picking his brain before and during games. They watch the preparation by McCann, who has been relentless studying video. They see Reddick relaxing and acting silly before games with his large personality, but becoming deadly serious the moment the game starts.

“We’ve had a lot of talent the last three years,’’ says second baseman Jose Altuve, the four-time All-Star and two-time batting champion, “but it wasn’t a secret that we were really a young ball club. So this year, they brought the leadership that we needed. Now, we have everything.’’

McCann, who has never tasted victory in five wild card games or division series, believed so much in the Astros that when the Yankees put him on the trade block, he insisted on only one team.

This was a team that needed a catcher, and had a chance to win a World Series,” says McCann, who had a full no-trade clause. “It was a perfect fit. I couldn’t have asked for anything more.’’

It’s still too early to plan any parade routes, get their rings sized, or spend their playoff shares. Too many strange things can happen during a treacherous season. Still, the Astros already are exercising caution, giving their position players off days, having only one mandatory batting practice during this 10-game road trip, keeping their bullpen fresh, and even limiting the innings for Keuchel.

Keuchel, whose velocity has returned and his fastball command has been impeccable after pitching last season with an inflamed left shoulder, pitched seven or more innings in his first seven starts. He has yet to go more than six innings in his last four starts, averaging 85 pitches.

“I try not to look ahead,” says Keuchel, “but with what we’re doing, it’s hard not to. We’re looking at the big picture. The ultimate goal is to be playing until the end of October, and I think we’re in a really good position to do that.’’

Beltran was here for two months in 2004, and lost to the St. Louis Cardinals in a stirring seven-game National League Championship Series, and reached the postseason five other times.

“This might be my best chance, I don’t know,’’ says Beltran, who’ll be a strong managerial candidate after he retires. “I know this is a special team. And I believe in my heart that ownership knows it.

“I’m sure ownership will step up and do something to help us. I sure hope so, because I really believe this can be our time.’’

By Bob Nightengale

This article was republished with permission from the original publisher, USA Today. Follow Bob Nightengale on Twitter and Facebook

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