‘We’ll be back’: The Astros, the team America loved to hate, fought to the end in the ALCS

SAN DIEGO — They were taunted, cursed, and vilified in spring training.

They were intentionally hit by pitches during the regular season, incited into brawls and skirmishes, and mocked by opposing teams.

Yet, it wasn’t until eight months later, until the ninth inning of Game 7 of the American League Championship Series, on a neutral site on Saturday night, that they were finally knocked out.

The Houston Astros, the team America loved to hate, are no longer around, extinguished by the Tampa Bay Rays, 4-2, who are going to the World Series.

“It sucks man, it really does,’’ said losing pitcher Lance McCullers, who started Game 7. “It sucks because it just feels like we were right there.’’

And, it stinks, the Astros said quietly, knowing this could be the end of their legacy together.

George Springer, who was part of the team that won two pennants and a World Series, becomes a free agent. So does outfielders Josh Reddick and Michael Brantley. None are expected to return.

“Those are guys we love very much,’’ Astros shortstop Carlos Correa said.  “Hopefully, they’ll come back. If not, we’re going to miss them. It will be weird seeing them in a different uniform.’’

The Astros, who became only the second team in baseball history to force a Game 7 after trailing 3-0, are proud of what they accomplished. They lost Cy Young winner Justin Verlander to Tommy John elbow surgery. Co-ace Gerrit Cole departed in the winter for the New York Yankees. Their bullpen was devastated by injuries. They had nine pitchers make their major-league debut. My goodness, there were seven rookie pitchers on their ALCS roster, only four pitchers even appeared in last year’s World Series.

Still, they almost reached the World Series, unable to solve Rays starter Charlie Morton, their former teammate who won a World Series championship with them, with two of their biggest stars, Alex Bregman and Yuli Gurriel, struggling at the wrong time.

“I’m just (expletive) proud this team, man,’’ Correa said. “It’s been an unbelievable ride. I’ve never had more fun playing baseball than I did this year with this group of guys.’’

What they’ll forever remember about this season is that they stuck together, while the rest of the world tried to pull them apart, infuriated over the 2017 cheating scandal that was exposed last winter after MLB’s investigation.

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It certainly helped, Astros manager Dusty Baker said, that there were no fans in the stands to taunt them. They qualified for the playoffs with a losing record (29-31) only because of the expanded format. Still, they played fair and square, and nearly made a return trip to baseball’s biggest stage.

“We weren’t on a revenge tour,’’ McCullers said. “That’s not what this was. This was a bunch of guys coming together and wanting to play damn good baseball and go and win another World Series.

“We fell short of our goals, but it was impressive the way this team stepped up. We showed the way we fought together.’’

The Astros know they’ll be back. They have too much talent to go away. Maybe with enough time passed, people will let it go, and the hatred will stop.

“I just hope that people don’t assume the worst of everyone,’’ Morton said. “They did a heck of a job this year. I didn’t pay too much attention to what they were doing in regular season, but to see them in that Twins’ series, to see that in the A’s series and then here, they’re tough.

“For me, they showed a lot this postseason.’’

The loss will sting all winter, Baker says, who was just one victory short of managing in the World Series for the first time since 2002. But he’ll be back. So will his team.

“A lot of people didn’t have us even making the playoffs,’’ Baker said. “Most people didn’t have us beating Minnesota. Nobody had us beating Oakland. And then nobody had us beating the Rays when we were down 3 to nothing.

“The legacy of this group is that these guys are ballplayers. And these guys are men. They been through a whole bunch other than on the ballfield. These guys can forget whatever problems they had that were out there, and come together as a group.

“One thing is for sure. We’ll be back in this position again next year.’’

The Astros fell short of reaching the World Series for the fourth time in five years, but perhaps they have never been more proud of this group, refusing to succumb to the hatred.

“You want to go to the World Series, but at the same time, this group of guys are so special,’’ Correa said, “the way we battled back from adversity. I’m going home remembering this team forever. I’m very proud of what we accomplished.

“We did a good job on focusing what we can control, and that was showing up, playing hard, and fighting to the end.’’

Was there a message the Astros wanted to leave for everyone to digest?

“The Astros stayed in their dugout,’’ third baseman Alex Bregman said. “And we stuck together.’’

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