Everybody loves a champ: Austin turns out to see Astros

When the Houston Astros’ winter caravan stopped in Austin four years ago, the players planted a flag outside Palmer Auditorium, a symbolic attempt to reclaim the market from the Texas Rangers.

The gesture was cheered by a few dozen diehards. After all, the ‘Stros were coming off three consecutive 100-plus loss seasons.

My, oh, my, how times have changed. When the caravan pulled up on the same turf Thursday, more than 1,000 fans were on hand to celebrate the state’s first Major League Baseball championship and get a look at the World Series trophy.

Earlier in the day, an estimated 650 fans waited in a long snaking line that extended around the store at Academy Sports & Outdoors in Sunset Valley. Before that, nearly 200 packed Pluckers on South Lamar.

“I’ve been in Houston since 2013, and it was never, ever like this on these stops,” said pitcher Brad Peacock, who hurled two shutout innings in Game 7 of the World Series against the Dodgers.

“You want to be yourself, but no question this offseason has been quite a bit different,” he said. “People stop you, want to talk to you, pat you on the back. It’s exciting. Yet it’s nice to have some quiet time, too. My favorite thing over the winter was being able to go fishing.”

Peacock, a starter-reliever off a spectacular 13-2 season with a 3.00 ERA, delivered in stressful situations throughout the playoffs and pitched in four Series games, allowing two runs in seven innings.

“It was a crazy year, one I’ll never forget,” he said. “Game 7? I think about it all the time. As a kid you dream you get in a situation like that. When it happens, you tell yourself, ‘be calm, be calm.’

“Now we move on, and people want to know, ‘can we defend?’ We have a terrific young team, but we won’t be sneaking up on anyone, that’s for sure.”

Houston is rock solid at every position and has beefed up its bullpen in the offseason, signing reliable set-up man Joe Smith from the Indians and hard-throwing Hector Rondon from the Cubs.

“I like what we’ve done,” said reliever James Hoyt, who struck out 66 batters in 49 innings. “We’ve added veterans with a different mix of pitches. Our depth is improved, which is good because you’re always going to have injuries.”

The rotation could get a major boost if the Stros fork over a big package in a trade for Pittsburgh’s Gerrit Cole. Even without Cole, a group led by Justin Verlander and Dallas Keuchel, with Lance McCullers Jr., Charlie Morton, Collin McHugh and Peacock following, is more than solid.

“I can’t tell you about our chances at getting Cole — that’s not my area — but how could you not like adding a quality arm like that?” Hoyt said.

Peacock can be an important swing man again.

“I’m happy to fill any role,” he said. “I’d like it if they used me as a pinch hitter. I love to hit.”

The Astros stacked deck makes it tough for a prospect like third baseman J.D. Davis to break through. The 24-year-old clubbed 75 home runs over his last three seasons but finds himself behind Alex Bregman and others at the position.

“That can be a little discouraging if you let it play on your mind,” said Davis, who appeared in 24 games for Houston last year. “But I’ve got to become a more polished player. I’m known for the power, but I want to hit to all fields, take more walks and improve my defense. If I accomplish those things, then I trust there will be a path forward.”

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