Love ’em or hate ’em, Series-bound Astros keep on winning
DAVID BRANDT AP Sports Writer
They’re off to the World Series for a fourth time in six seasons, a remarkable feat of staying power for a franchise in any era of baseball history, let alone one that includes a 12-team playoff gauntlet filled with potential pitfalls.
Astros pitcher Lance McCullers Jr. put it succiently on Sunday night: “This is not easy.”
Even so, the dichotomy that is this generation of Houston Astros will probably never go away.
It should be a lovable group. There’s pint-sized star Jose Altuve, two-time All-Star Alex Bregman, ace right-hander Justin Verlander and a slew of up-and-coming players like ALCS MVP Jeremy Peña, Yordan Alvarez and Kyle Tucker. There’s also Dusty Baker, the 73-year-old manager who is still searching for his first World Series title and the oldest man to lead a team to the Fall Classic.
The stench of the 2017 cheating scandal — when the Astros were found to have illicitly stolen signs that season — still lingers, even though 21 of the 26 players on this year’s ALCS roster were not on the 2017 team.
Only Altuve, Bregman, McCullers, Verlander and Yuli Gurriel remain. The quintet has endured a firehose of hate from fans and even fellow players since the scandal was brought to light before the 2020 season. The catcalls were still heard at Yankee Stadium over the past few days, but as the Astros piled up the runs and wins, there was a hint of another emotion.
“They got better treatment here this time than in previous times here,” Baker said. “So maybe it was a different crowd or maybe the crowd has finally forgiven things of the past.”
That’s probably wishful thinking.
But it’s also probably time to admit that these Astros — trash cans or no trash cans — are simply really good at baseball.
“When everything happened a few years ago, we knew the one thing that we could do is we could win and we could win and win a lot,” McCullers said. “I understand people are still not going to like us. They’re going to boo us, but at some point you have to respect what we’re doing.”
It’s a franchise that’s kept rolling despite the upheaval the cheating scandal wrought. Manager A.J. Hinch and general manager Jeff Luhnow were suspended for a year by MLB and eventually fired before being replaced by Baker and James Click. Many of the best players from that 2017 team have retired or moved on to other teams.
Star outfielder George Springer left for the Blue Jays. Two-time All-Star shortstop Carlos Correa signed with the Twins. Right-handed pitcher Charlie Morton left for the Rays and is now with the Braves.
Those who wanted the Astros to suffer a quick, embarrassing downfall in the aftermath of 2017 continue to be disappointed.
“When you talk about Springer, Charlie Morton, Carlos Correa, you’re talking about all superstars, and to get players to fill that spot it’s not easy,” Altuve said before Game 4 on Sunday. “The fact that we’re still playing really good and being in these situations, like I said, we just have to give a lot of credit to the front office group.”
In a way, the Astros saga is a fitting chapter for a sport that can never seem to completely enjoy its biggest moments.
Judge set the AL record for homers with 62 this season and the debate raged about whether he should be considered the all-time single-season record holder. Barry Bonds, Mark McGwire and Sammy Sosa all hit more in the National League, but for many, their accomplishments are overshadowed by links to performance-enhancing drugs.
Now the debate will rage about the Astros.
Altuve has become a pro at deflecting vitriol. He knows some in baseball would love for them to go away.
That doesn’t appear to be happening any time soon.
“I do as best as I can to keep everything away and just focus on the game and just be ready to help my team,” Altuve said. “Like I said, it doesn’t matter where I play, I just got to be 100% focused on the game.”
Is it the best team in baseball history or just media hype in the Twitter age? The Yankees are on pace for 115 wins, but they’re 2-3 against the Houston Astros, the team they should face in the American League Championship Series.
Eric Christian Smith
Dusty Baker’s ninth life might be his best managing job yet. The hated Astros remain America’s best bet to save us from a Yankees-Mets World Series.
Nam Y. Huh
No wonder White Sox Chairman Jerry Reinsdorf didn’t want Steve Cohen buying the Mets. Spending tons of money apparently works, and hiring a wise, old man in Buck Showalter was the correct move to take the Mets to the next level.
The tracks of Freddie Freeman’s tears took on a life of their own, but the former MVP made the best lineup in baseball even stronger. With so many current and former All-Stars on the roster, the Dodgers can cruise into the postseason without adding on. But they will anyway because they’re the Dodgers.
They woke up four games under .500 on June 1 and suddenly remembered they were the world champions. The Braves went on a 14-game winning streak and entered the final weekend of the first half winning 31 of 41 games and challenging the Mets in the NL East.
Starter Shane Baz this week became the 17th Rays player — and 12th pitcher — on the injured list. But you don’t hear manager Kevin Cash complaining about it because the Rays have an abundance of depth and play through injuries.
The Brewers have no real stars in their lineup outside of Christian Yelich, yet they’re fourth in baseball in home runs and getting enough starting pitching to lead the majors’ weakest division. How long can this last? At least until 2023.
Replacing manager Joe Girardi with Rob Thomson proved to be the right move by GM Sam Fuld. But they’re 3-9 against the Mets, and Bryce Harper is out with a fractured thumb, leaving it all on Kyle Schwarber to carry the load. So far, so good.
The “meh” contender in the “meh” division. The Cardinals should be running away with the NL Central with sluggers Paul Goldschmidt and Nolan Arenado, but they’re still treading water at the halfway mark under first-year manager Oliver Marmol.
Frank Franklin II
They have nothing to play for but a wild-card spot, and losing two of three to the Cubs sent them into a tailspin in July. Ace Chris Sale came back hoping to lift the Red Sox but lasted only one inning in his second start before suffering his next deflating injury, a broken left pinkie after getting hit on the hand by a line drive.
Their latecollapse last year is fresh in everyone’s minds, so skepticism remains after another strong start. Bob Melvin replaced Jayce Tingler, but it could be 2021 was the players’ fault after all. Padres fans are piling on President A.J. Preller.
Give peace a chance? No thanks. A disappointing season turned around after their epic brawl with the Angels. The M’s went 11-1 during the player suspensions and roared into the weekend with 14 wins in 15 games.
Still living off their potential instead of living up to it, which led to Charlie Montoya’s firing Wednesday. Like the White Sox, the Jays still have hope that their talent will make a difference in the long run. What else is there?
The Marlins posted a 2.56 ERA in 15 games from June 29 through Thursday, and Sandy Alcantara might be the best starter in baseball. But all that pitching is being wasted on a young team that’s always a couple players short of turning the corner.
Give the Twins credit for staying in first place this long. But they had better hang on because Carlos Correa probably will opt out for more money after the season. Then it’s back to the rebuild.
Brandon Hyde should be AL Manager of the Year if the Orioles finish above .500 after a 110-loss season. Even the weakest link in the AL East is better than some contenders with superior records.
Baseball’s biggest bust in the first half? Hall of Fame manager Tony La Russa is taking a beating on Twitter, sports-talk radio and the Sox postgame show. GM Rick Hahn can’t be happy with the way his team has played.
New name, same old team. The Guardians are a young bunch accidentally contending in a bad division. When the players get better, they’ll be dealt for more prospects. It’s a vicious cycle in Cleveland.
The Rangers went big this offseason, setting a record by spending more than a half-billion dollars on players, notably signing Corey Seager and Marcus Semien to long-term deals. They still suck, and their longest winning streak is four games.
They won 107 games last season but will be lucky to finish .500 the way they’ve been playing since June. Defensively inept is a polite way of putting it.
Kris Bryant playing third base appears to be history, but his back issues aren’t, so the Rockies have some explaining to do if he doesn’t revert to form.
Javier Báez needed an audience to perform to but somehow wound up in Detroit. This was supposed to be the year they turned the corner, but it’s still the same old Lions ... I mean Tigers.
Their No. 5 starters combined for a 7.93 ERA, so they called up Dallas Keuchel to stop the bleeding. Should we tell them? Nah.
Firing manager Joe Maddon for Phil Nevin was like replacing Steve McQueen with Don Knotts. The Angels hitters have a strikeout rate of over 26%, which is worse than many T-ball teams.
Nam Y. Huh
The rebuild that can’t be called a rebuild looks a lot like a rebuild that’s going the wrong way. But Cubs fans are leading the league in beer-cup snakes, so there’s that.
The Bucs lost to the Cubs 21-0 and it still wasn’t their low point of the season.
Frank Franklin II
At least Joey Votto seems to be having fun while the Titanic sinks. The Reds’ only saving grace is getting to play in the same division as the Cubs and Pirates.
Ten players couldn’t make the trip to Toronto because they were unvaccinated, which should be embarrassing to baseball and the Royals front office. But GM Dayton Moore and manager Mike Matheny are embarrass-proof.
Juan Soto reportedly turned down a $440 million, 15-year contract offer to remain with the Nationals that would have been the most lucrative in baseball history. And that’s a shame, because he’s the only player worth watching on that team.
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Four fans at an A’s game reportedly were injured by bullet fragments from people in Oakland shooting bullets in the air to celebrate the Fourth of July. One more reason to avoid going to an A’s game.
Kevin M. Cox
Fans watch play during the fifth inning in Game 1 of baseball's American League Championship Series between the Houston Astros and the New York Yankees, Wednesday, Oct. 19, 2022, in Houston. (AP Photo/Kevin M. Cox)