BY MIKE FITZPATRICK
WEST PALM BEACH, Fla. (AP) — Soon as George Springer and his World Series MVP trophy arrived at Houston Astros camp, the All-Star leadoff hitter began knocking balls over the fence in batting practice.
Carlos Correa and Alex Bregman picked up right where they left off, too, silky smooth fielding grounders on the left side of the infield.
“Brings back some pretty good memories,” Bregman said.
Bet it sure does.
Coming off a championship and with all that young talent in place, no wonder this tight-knit “family” is talking openly about the D-word.
“We don’t want to be just a team that people are going to remember for one year,” Correa said. “We want to be able to build a dynasty here, to win two, three years in a row if we can do that. We have the team to do it, it’s just upon us to put in the work.”
For several of Houston’s twenty-something stars, their work together started again on Friday. And as far as they’re concerned, there’s no reason it can’t be fun.
After reporting to spring training three days before the first scheduled full-squad workout, Springer jumped in the cage and quickly drove one a long way out.
So much for needing a few swings to warm up.
“I don’t know. It’s Day One. You don’t think you’re going to square one up out there and I did,” he said later. “I might as well have stopped for the day. You want to end on a high note.”
So as teammates hooted and hollered, the 28-year-old outfielder feigned being all finished.
“We mess around all the time,” Correa said. “Today I guess we were picking on Springer.”
Last fall, Springer picked on Los Angeles Dodgers pitching, batting .379 with five homers, three doubles and seven RBIs as Houston won a back-and-forth World Series in seven exhilarating games.
This spring, his MVP trophy will take up residence at the club’s 2-year-old training complex, along with all the photos from the 2017 title run hanging on the walls.
“Yeah, it’s special. I think it’s more special because of what our team was able to do,” Springer said. “You can’t win that without the team having to win something first. So I’m happy about it, I’m proud of it, but I’m more happy about the world champion stuff that’s up around here now.”
Springer was hardly the only Astros player making everything look easy Friday.
The 23-year-old Correa, who batted .315 with 24 homers and 84 RBIs in just 109 games last season, smiled as he took grounders at shortstop and snapped off accurate throws from his back foot.
To his right was Bregman, the confident third baseman who compiled an .827 OPS in his first full major league season. He turns 24 next month.
“They’re all so talented,” veteran catcher Brian McCann said. “The sky’s the limit for all of ’em because they’re going to continue to learn. … It’s a scary thought.”
Not to mention second baseman Jose Altuve, a three-time batting champion and the reigning AL MVP at age 27.
“We’re as strong as it gets top to bottom,” McCann said. “A lot of these guys came up together and it is — it’s a big reason for our success. Everyone’s pulling in the same direction and everyone knows how special this group is and we want to make the most of it.”
Just about all the key pieces from last season are back. But the Astros didn’t rest on their laurels this winter, acquiring former Pirates ace Gerrit Cole in a trade and adding Joe Smith and Hector Rondon to the bullpen.
“Now, we’re the hunted,” Bregman said. “I think everybody in this clubhouse every day when they wake up is still chasing something. We want to be great. We want to be a great team and not just for one year, but for a lot of years, and we have the opportunity to do that.”
Cole joins an outstanding group of starters that includes Cy Young Award winners Dallas Keuchel and Justin Verlander, who was obtained from Detroit last Aug. 31.
Lance McCullers, Brad Peacock, Charlie Morton and Collin McHugh are nothing to sneeze at, either.
“I’ve always wanted to have a star-laden rotation,” Keuchel said. “It’s got a chance to be one of the best, I think, ever.”
Correa thinks this team is even better than last year’s edition.
“We won 100 games and we didn’t have Justin for a whole year, Lance was hurt for quite a bit, Keuchel was hurt for quite a bit, Springer was hurt for quite a bit and I was out for two months. If you put that in perspective and you put that team healthy for a whole year, it can be really scary,” he said.
Correa said he enjoyed the offseason but missed spending time with his teammates.
“We’re like family, so who doesn’t like to be around family?” he explained.
A family that’s beginning to grow up — quickly. Springer recently got married, and fans all across the country watched Correa get engaged on national television immediately after the World Series finale at Dodger Stadium.
Bregman said he started getting recognized in public more often.
“I think we became a lot closer. Shoot, our families are closer now. They traveled to every game, so it’s one big, giant family,” he said. “We learned a lot, man. We experienced a lot.”
Now, other clubs around the majors are attempting to model the Astros’ rebuild.
The next challenge? Trying to become the first team since the 1998-2000 New York Yankees to repeat as World Series champs.
“It’s hard to win one, let alone two,” Springer said. “We kind of have the recipe for it. We understand what it’s going to take. … We can’t go out there and settle for one.”
Correa insisted that won’t happen.
“We’ve had the feeling of winning the championship. It was great, but we had the feeling of losing in the playoffs, too, in 2015, and we don’t want to experience that again,” he said. “We’ll never forget that feeling. To see guys across the clubhouse literally crying because of that loss, we don’t want to experience that again, so we’re still hungry. We want to do more.”
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