Last night, the Astros went through their first gut check of the 2017 season. Many of you probably know how the situation went down, so I will not spend too much time explaining what happened on the field.
Essentially, Rangers pitcher Andrew Cashner hit two Astros batters, Jose Altuve and Yuli Gurriel, in separate innings. A couple innings later, Lance McCullers threw behind Rangers slugger Mike Napoli, who had hit a solo home run in his previous at bat.
After that, Napoli started walking towards the pitcher's mound, and before you knew it both benches were cleared. While most people around the country might not take much away from this shouting match, I sense a complete difference in the mantra surrounding the Houston Astros organization.
With that in mind, I want to examine three ways in which last night's brief skirmish between the Astros and Rangers represents a significant change in the Astros attitude since the two clubs had their last brush up in 2015.
1.) THE 2017 HOUSTON ASTROS BACK DOWN FROM NO ONE
Ok yeah, I may need to chill on this one, BUT... Let us not forget the importance of the fight to the outcome of last night's game. After the benches cleared, McCullers went on to strike out Napoli in the very same at bat.
More importantly, however, the Astros ended up scoring four runs in the seventh inning and earned their first win over the Rangers in 2017.
In 2015, when Hank Conger and Rougned Odor nearly squared up in front of the home plate umpire, the Rangers went on to beat the Astros in that very same game. Astros fans and management were embarrassed, but the reality was that the Rangers were simply the tougher and more resilient team at that time.
In that very game, in fact, Conger looked to be the only one sticking up for himself. Conger homered later in that game and brought the Astros closer, but no one picked up their teammate well enough to earn a victory at Minute Maid Park.
Last night, however, the Astros immediately picked up their young teammate. Brian McCann was willing to go up against an army of Rangers that quickly greeted him at home plate, and then the Astros "Core Four" of George Springer, Carlos Correa, Alex Bregman, and Jose Altuve were the main contributors to a four-run seventh inning that sealed the deal for the Astros.
In tense moments such as the game after the brawl last night, the Astros looked for their big time players to make big time plays and put the nonsense behind them. Springer and co. did exactly that and made sure the team stayed the course against their rivals.
2.) The 2017 Houston Astros DO NOT use "Bulletin Board Material"
I was quite amused when I learned late yesterday afternoon that the Arlington Rangers had hung a poster of Alex Bregman's tweet in the Rangers locker room before their game in Houston.
While I am sure that the Astros got on Bregman for giving the Rangers reason to get fired up, and Bregman admitted that his actions were a "rookie mistake", I really did not even find Bregman's tweet to be that strange or unusual.
What is amusing to me is the culture that seems to have formed in the Rangers locker room. What is this, a college football team? Jeff Bannister, I'm not sure if you know this, but you certainly are not Nick Saban or Jim Harbaugh. You do not hang motivational quotes for your *professional* baseball team before a three-game series.
How do the Rangers veteran players not handle this? Do they really let a tweet from a second year player get to their heads? The veteran players in that clubhouse seem to have severely mismanaged this situation.
The absolute dysfunction present in the Rangers locker room is a second reason why I think this Astros-Rangers rivalry will be far different in 2017.
3.) The Veteran Presence on this Houston Astros team will prove to be the difference
While the Rangers veterans seem to not know what professionalism is all about, the Astros veterans are sticking up for their young stars. When you watch the replay of last night's skirmish, it's apparent that Josh Reddick and Brian McCann were two of the first group of Astros to come to McCullers' defense.
It was more important for McCann to be there to calm the emotions of his young teammate on the mound, but he was not going to let a single Rangers player lay a hand on McCullers.
This was exactly the plan that A.J. Hinch and Jeff Luhnow had in mind when they traded for McCann and signed Reddick, Carlos Beltran, and Nori Aoki. They knew that this Houston Astros club needed veteran leadership, and that is exactly what they have gotten so far.
Overall, I was thoroughly impressed with the way the Astros handled themselves during the course of last night's game. If they continue to carry themselves like professionals on and off the field, the American League West division will be no match for them this season.