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The mourning after: Astros' finish still a shocker

Houston Chronicle logo Houston Chronicle 11/1/2019 Melanie Hauser

It was a day no one expected. A day when so much of the city just pushed through.

The street in front of Minute Maid Park was empty. The orange and white barricades that had cordoned off the perimeter along Texas Avenue were gone. A bit of debris still lined the street and a run-over, damp handmade cardboard sign — "I Need Ticket$" — was still lying in the crosswalk.

Crews were packing up the generator that lit up the block of Avenida de las Americas that, just 12 hours earlier, had been filled with television trucks ready to capture the celebration. Workers were packing up fencing along Crawford Street. The sidewalk was empty.

The meeting to sort through every imaginable detail of another championship parade — the route was already lined out — was taken off dozens of schedules.

Organizers could only sigh. Maybe next year, right?

To be honest, the city was numb Thursday morning.

What to so many felt like a formality was anything but. That second World Series title was in the Astros’ grasp for six innings.

Then it wasn’t.

This one hit Houston hard. Smack-in-the-face hard.

The best team in the regular season lost to the best team in the postseason. Yes, those pesky Washington Gnats. They never stopped. They just kept at it until they found a way to win.

The NL Wild Card Game. The Division Series. The National League Championship Series. And, finally the 2019 World Series.

How in the world?

Yes, it’s simple math. Four wins in Houston during the World Series beats 107 wins in the regular season.

Maybe we should have seen it coming. Washington played with the same joy and intensity of kids going at it on a dusty field on a summer afternoon. They dug deep. They made magic.

They felt a lot like those 2017 Astros, who gave Houston a championship a couple months after Hurricane Harvey flooded the city. A team that was filled with some of the best in the league and budding superstars; a team that just wasn’t going to lose.

This was supposed to be the year the Astros were that team again; the year they took it back. Instead, they took it on the chin.

So did the city.

People looked at each other in elevators and sighed.

Bummer.

Still in shock.

Like I’m walking through a haze.

Shattered.

Numb.

Yes, it was business Thursday, but not entirely as usual. Business with a giant last-day-of-October Astros hangover. Business with a day of asides about just where things went wrong.

Talk radio was buzzing. The Chronicle's front-page headline was CRUSHED. The sports front page? OUT AT HOME.

People talked about the bats that couldn’t get going. So many left stranded on the bases once again. Things that didn’t happen that often in the regular season; things that happened far too often in the post-season.

Still, the Astros were there with a chance.

Zack Greinke had it going. Through six mesmerizing innings, he gave up one hit and frustrated Washington’s lineup. Batters left the plate shaking their heads and rolling their eyes. Greinke was so deliberate, so confounding with those pitches. It was a chess game and, with a 2-0 lead, it seemed like he was closing in on check.

Then he made one mistake and Houston native/Washington third baseman Anthony Rendon jumped on it. A home run.

Still up 2-1, A.J. Hinch pulled the trigger and went to his bullpen. He didn’t want to chance it and Greinke went to the dugout. Will Harris came in and . . . the Astros were down 3-2 in a matter of minutes. Check.

And, you know the rest.

Hinch? The bats? Destiny? And how in the world did we get a Series where neither team won at home? The discussions just kept going all day and radio callers kept venting.

And, oh, don’t forget free agency. Was Cy Young candidate Gerrit Cole saying goodbye to the Astros in front of his locker Wednesday night? Both catchers are free agents. The heart of Houston’s bullpen could be gone, too.

“A lot of us will be back next year,’’ George Springer said after the loss, “but no team is ever the same.”

Yes, a Houston team did get the best of a D.C. team Wednesday night. The Rockets made history, in fact, beating the Wizards 159-158.

Oh.

And, by the way, the Texans are heading to London today to take on Jacksonville at 8:30 a.m. Sunday.

Don’t forget to turn your clocks back.

Around noon, a bus filled with the Washington Nationals headed down Texas Avenue bound for the airport and a Delta flight where red rally towels with “FIGHT FINISHED” had been draped on the top of every seat.

The bus had the street all to itself. Another eerie moment in a very quiet day.

The only place downtown immune from the hangover was the George R. Brown Convention Center where — just a few blocks south of the Juice Box — thousands were milling around in anticipation of the International Quilt Festival.

A slow trickle of fans flipped through the racks of shirts and hoodies at the Astros team store where postseason merchandise was 50 percent off.

A pair of shoppers left with bags full of blankets and programs. Astros fans? No. They were Washington fans scooping up a few last-minute items before they headed out of town.

One Astros fan, shopping for one more shirt to add to his closet, sighed.

“I’m just glad it’s over,’’ he said. “It was so tense. Every inning.’’

He was worn out. He wasn’t alone.

Houston was sleepwalking through the day.

A team that was one of the best ever assembled in baseball came in second. It happens. It’s sports. It still boggled the city’s collective mind.

One office had a pumpkin decorating contest. The winner? An Orbit pumpkin with tears streaming down his face.

An Academy store not far from The Galleria had tucked the Astros gear into a few rounders in a corner. No discounts.

Astros flags were still flying from poles on trees and houses, but Wednesday’s orange and blue themed outfits — think T-shirts and jerseys — everyone seemed to be wearing were few and far between.

Social media was filled with posts of sighs, sad faces and memes. It was also dotted with more than a few tips of the cap to the Nationals for a series well played.

Sports writers put the game and the season into perspective and cast an eye toward the future. Hinch’s decision, those 10 runners left on base and free agency kept coming up.

As the day gave way to trick-or-treaters and the temperatures fell, the mood lighted up a bit.

Even the parents were decked out. A scarecrow, Ironman Tony Stark, a pirate and a witch all came knocking with their kids in tow.

But one mother in workout gear just sighed.

“I’m dressed as a recovering Astros fan.”

Enough said.

Yes, it was long, strange day of recovery in Houston.

But, that said, we leave those of you still trying to shake their Astros’ hangover with these final tidbits:

• Spring training is less than four months away. Pitchers and catchers report around February 20.

• And — even before free agency plays out — the Astros and Dodgers are early favorites for the 2020 World Series.

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