Astros hoping youth and talent are the recipe for World Series hangover

George Springer spent most of November being transported. Two days after the end of the World Series, he rode through downtown Houston on the back of a firetruck for the Astros' championship parade, and the next day he was carried, along with two teammates and Mickey Mouse, through Disney World atop a purple, motorized, balloon-festooned float. There were flights to whisk him off to the next city, and limousines that would show up to ferry him to "Saturday Night Live" for a skit with Leslie Jones, or to the New York Stock Exchange to ring the trading bell.

He never knew a monthlong parade could be so exhausting, or such a time-suck.

"Thanksgiving," Springer said Wednesday, "snuck up on me real quick."

So it went for the merry band of men in orange from the Lone Star State, who spent last fall captivating America on their way to the first World Series title in franchise history - and enjoying every last drop of its intoxicating aftermath - then spent the winter trying to fight off the inevitable hangover.

"It was crazy. I did everything you can think of - shows, appearances, interviews," said Springer, a college football nut who would have normally spent October and November weekends on the couch watching games. "I remember, my first weekend with nothing to do was Week 11 of college football."

But now comes the hard part. On March 29, the Astros will launch their title defense following what is believed to be the shortest offseason in baseball history, lasting a mere 148 days - thanks to a seven-game World Series that stretched into November and a 2018 regular season that will start on the earliest date ever. If there truly is such a thing as a World Series hangover (and just ask the 2017 Chicago Cubs about that), the Astros have the shortest window ever in which to beat it.

"I think that demand on your time is more of the quote-unquote hangover than anything else," said Astros right-hander Lance McCullers, who started Game 7 of the World Series against the Los Angeles Dodgers. "It's just the time you didn't get to devote to preparing for the season. I did all the media stuff, all the requests - sometimes two, three times a day - which plays into it as well. That's not an offseason. That's a media tour.

"That first month after the World Series - other guys are lifting, getting stronger, getting ready for the season and you're running around doing interviews and other stuff. Which is great - because you won the World Series. But at the same time, it just contributes to the mental fatigue that you deal with during the season."

As manager A.J. Hinch said soon after the team reconvened in Florida last month: "If these are the questions and this is the misery we have to go through - worrying about hangovers and fatigue and all that - then sign me up for it again in 2019."

Most members of the Astros said they started their typical offseason workout regimens three to four weeks later than usual. For third baseman Alex Bregman, that meant mid-November. ("I've never felt better," Bregman said.) For McCullers, it was right after Thanksgiving. For Springer, mid-November. For lefty Dallas Keuchel, Dec. 1. For second baseman Jose Altuve, late-December.

"It certainly wasn't a normal winter," said veteran right-hander Charlie Morton, who said he started throwing again three weeks after the World Series - a month later than usual. "I have a greater appreciation for the teams that are in the postseason every year, because the guys on those teams - that's a lot of baseball. That's a lot of high-energy, high-pressure games. It's exhausting to watch it, let alone play it. I don't know if I would call [the aftermath] a hangover, but let's just say I understand the sentiment."

Altuve said the Astros are dealing with the perception of a World Series hangover by acknowledging it, talking about it and joking about it. "We're managing it really good," he said. "The guys here are smart enough to know what they have to do in spring training. If you need to take it easy, you can take it easy. I think we're going to be totally fine. I tell you what - I like what I see."

It isn't difficult to see what Altuve means. At first glance, the Astros have the best and deepest roster in baseball, one through 25, and their core is impossibly young and potent. Bregman and shortstop Carlos Correa are 23. McCullers is 24. Altuve and closer Ken Giles are 27, Springer just 28.

And then there is newcomer Gerrit Cole, a 27-year-old flamethrower who arrived on Jan. 13 from the Pittsburgh Pirates in a trade that cut through a winter hangover like a triple-shot of espresso.

"Everybody was pretty fired up when that went down," McCullers said. "There was a lot of excited texting going on between guys."

Of the Astros' top three starting pitchers, two of them - Cole and ace Justin Verlander, acquired last August in a trade with the Detroit Tigers - were not with the team 12 months ago. Given a full season of both, it is tempting to go ahead and pencil the Astros into the 2018 World Series.

"We already did it. That's the strongest indicator of what we can do. We already did it, and we got better," Morton said. "You can make the case for any number of teams. But when we're in the clubhouse, looking at each other in the face, we're the World Series champs. We just did it a few months ago."

Except there is a reason only one franchise in the past 40 years has managed to repeat as World Series champs - the 1998, 1999 and 2000 New York Yankees. For a team to win a championship, by necessity everything must go right, from good health to good chemistry to good karma. And it isn't easy to replicate it the year after. Just ask the Cubs - who won the World Series in 2016 with a young core, brought back essentially the same team in 2017, but won 11 fewer games and bowed out of the playoffs in the National League Championship Series.

"We're not the Cubs," Keuchel fired back when presented with that example. "I firmly believe we have better players."

Already, there are signs that things might not go as smoothly for the Astros as they did in 2017, when they opened up a 10-game lead by late May and won the AL West by 21. So far this spring, they have seen first baseman Yuri Gurriel lost until at least mid-April to a hand injury (upon his return to health, he will also have to serve a five-game suspension for the racially insensitive gesture he made toward pitcher Yu Darvish during the World Series). They also saw top pitching prospect Forrest Whitley, a 6-foot-7 right-hander expected to pitch in the majors by the end of the season, nailed for a 50-game drug suspension.

And still opening day creeps closer, approaching the three-week mark now until it arrives. If the Astros thought October was a grind, and November one interminable parade, those are nothing compared to the task of trying to muddle through April with the mother of all hangovers.

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