Alex Bregman is ready for prime time. He said as much to TBS sideline reporter Heidi Watney after Houston’s 11-3 win in Cleveland on Monday.
None of the Astros’ three ALDS games started later than 4 p.m. CT, a function of both National League series involving teams from later time zones and the other series in the AL bracket featuring the Yankees and Red Sox, a matchup that will always drive ratings. Bregman took this as a mark of disrespect on behalf of his team—it seems from this clip that Astros vice president of media relations Gene Dias put him up to it—and essentially cut a wrestling promo directed at whomever schedules playoff games.
As Bregman said, the Astros will get their shot in prime time, having swept Cleveland and punched their ticket to the ALCS. And, well, Bregman himself did more than his fair share of punching. In Game 1, he opened the scoring with a fourth-inning homer off Corey Kluber. In Game 2, he scored the winning run on Marwin Gonzalez’s sixth-inning double, then tacked on an insurance run courtesy of a hanging Trevor Bauer curveball.
Monday, Bregman went 2-for-3 with two walks, a double, and two runs scored, capping off a three-game stretch in which he hit .556/.714/1.333. The one out Bregman’s credited with making in Game 3 was a seventh-inning fielder’s choice that didn’t actually generate any outs; Bregman tapped the ball back to the pitcher’s mound, a surefire inning-ending double play, but Bauer’s throw pulled Francisco Lindor off the bag and everyone was safe. Two batters later, Gonzalez again doubled in the winning run.
This is the Astros’ third trip to the playoffs with their current core, and each time out a different infielder has been the face of the team’s effort. In 2015, it was Carlos Correa, who burst onto the scene at age 20 and won Rookie of the Year, representing the Astros’ bumper crop of homegrown talent. In 2017, José Altuve was the AL MVP, and his journey from obscurity to stardom represented the Astros’ own evolution from hard tanking to a championship. This year, the face of the Astros is their 24-year-old third baseman. He’s swinging the hottest bat in baseball right now, but the fielder’s choice, more than either of his home runs, encapsulates the kind of season he’s having and what it means to the Astros. Bregman’s doing more than just benefiting from lucky bounces; he knows how to capitalize on good fortune when it comes. Every year, at least one young ballplayer follows up a breakout regular season with a star-making playoff performance, but Bregman isn’t a typical rising star: He’s baseball’s emerging heel.
Counting the postseason, the Astros have won 106 games this year. Three of those wins, including Monday’s, came when Bregman reached base on a play that almost always turns into an out.
On April 7, Bregman came up with two outs in the bottom of the 10th in a scoreless game against the Padres and hit a high pop-up in front of the plate. Padres first baseman Eric Hosmer overran the ball, which dropped for a walk-off single.
Then, on July 10, Bregman came up with two on and one out in the bottom of the 11th against Oakland closer Blake Treinen. Somehow, this game-ending play was even more bizarre than the single against San Diego.
I’ve never seen anything like that play—between the ball rolling fair, then foul, then fair again, then Bregman dodging Jonathan Lucroy’s tag, Lucroy dropping the ball, then chucking it off of Bregman’s head and into right field. Yet stuff like this keeps happening over and over, and Bregman, like Forrest Gump, keeps popping up during weird and important moments.
Growing up in Albuquerque, New Mexico, Bregman was projected to be a high draft pick out of high school. The same thing was true then that is true now: He’s a freakishly gifted hitter. But he broke the middle finger on his throwing hand and missed most of his senior season. When Bregman fell to the third day of the draft, he decided to go to college instead. High school hitters as good as Bregman almost never make it to college, and he started at shortstop and hit in the middle of the order for LSU from his freshman season on. He hit .337/.409/.514 and became one of very few draft prospects who had the benefit not only of top-end offensive talent but three years’ experience playing against SEC pitching. (Bregman, like most top college prospects, left school when he became draft-eligible after his junior year.) The Astros picked him second overall in the 2015 draft and brought him to the big leagues within 13 months.
Bregman doesn’t look like an archetypal masher; he looks like a grinder, a dirty-uniform type. He’s a short middle infielder—Bregman’s listed height of an even 6-foot is off by 3 or 4 inches at the very least—with a scrambling running style, and he comes from a program whose biggest export is scrappy utility infielders: Jeff Reboulet, Andy Sheets, Ryan Theriot, Mike Fontenot, Warren Morris.
While Bregman is good enough that he doesn’t have to get by on grit and effort and will, it’s still all there. Sometimes that manifests itself in the hustle he needed to haul ass home on Gonzalez’s double in Game 2 of the ALDS, and sometimes that manifests itself in the presence of mind to dodge Lucroy’s tag on a weird dribbler in front of the plate.
But it also means he plays with an edge, which is important for this Astros team. In 2017 (and in 2015), the Astros were the underdogs, the up-and-comers who knocked off the Red Sox, Yankees, and Dodgers, the league’s three marquee franchises, en route to the title. It was enough back then that they were young and exuberant and earnest. The novelty hadn’t worn off yet.
Now, the Astros are the defending champions, the ones with the target on their backs for a change, and most of their big-name players are unsuited to playing the Darth Vader role. They’re still young and bat-flip-happy, and they play a ton of Fortnite, but for the most part they tend to come off as earnest and professional. That might work for a Yankees-style villain, but the Astros wear orange and play in Texas; they ought to be brash and nouveau riche, which Correa, Altuve, and George Springer seem constitutionally incapable of doing. Most of this team is too serious, or just too nice, to wear the black hat convincingly.
Not Bregman. Take his fielder’s choice in the seventh inning Monday, or when he took Bauer deep in Game 2. At one point or another, Bauer has gotten into it with just about everyone in the league. In May, he insinuated on Twitter that certain Astros pitchers had cranked up their spin rates by doctoring the baseball. Collin McHugh and Lance McCullers fired back but played it straight, while Gerrit Cole, who hasn’t gotten along with Bauer since their days as teammates at UCLA, said nothing. Bregman, however, went straight for the jugular.
Relax Tyler ... those World Series balls spin a little different.... https://t.co/MZ7iIPXhbC— Alex Bregman (@ABREG_1) May 1, 2018
When Bregman arrived in the majors, he struggled—in his first eight big league games he went 1-for-32—and he kept quiet until he found his footing. But the better Bregman’s performed, the more he’s come out of his shell and revealed not just an edge, but an infectious joy in playing the heel.
I mentioned this in my alternative-awards column, but it bears repeating: Bregman is a gifted heel in a league that could use one. He picks his spots and talks trash when he knows he and his team can back it up, as they have against Bauer and the Indians this year. It was Bregman who inaugurated the team’s now-famous dugout stare after home runs. His smirk has a Ryan Reynolds quality to it—charming and playful, but also slightly punchable.
While MLB has a bumper crop of fun, likable players, it’s short on antiheroes. For a while it looked like Bryce Harper would be the Rolling Stones to Mike Trout’s Beatles, but Harper seems to genuinely want to be liked. Bauer’s politics make it easy to root against him, but not necessarily fun. Bregman, crucially, is charismatic enough to be the bad guy while not coming off as a bad guy. Chase Utley had Bregman’s edge and star power, but didn’t love the spotlight the way Bregman seems to. Kyle Seager has Bregman’s smirking troll spirit, but was never a big enough name.
It’s already abundantly clear that Bregman is turning into a go-to postgame quote, and the further the Astros advance into October, the more exposure Bregman’s going to get, possibly up to and including the kind of national shine Madison Bumgarner got for the Giants in 2014 and Javier Báez got for the Cubs in 2016. If Bregman isn’t a household name now, he will be in a couple of weeks. And if Bregman’s proved nothing else this season, he’s shown that he knows an opportunity when he sees one, both on the field and in front of a microphone.