After ALCS win, Astros in search of perfection | Catch My Job


NEW YORK — This Houston Astros team has a toughness, honed over years of hearing every insult imaginable, existing as a blotter, living the life of a perpetual villain. It’s something that by now everyone who wears the uniform understands won’t go away, because the narratives that surround them are more carvings in stone than pencil drawings. For all their greatness, for all the great baseball they’ve played in the first seven games of this postseason, the Astros, to those outside the Houston metropolitan area, will never be anything but the worst version of themselves.

Even with a mostly flipped roster, that won’t change. And accepting that — not accepting it, but submitting to it — has taken this extraordinary group of baseball players and made it stronger. The Astros are returning to the World Series for the fourth time in six years. They wrapped up the American League Championship Series over the New York Yankees on Sunday night with a 6-5 victory that set up a Friday game in Houston for Game 1 against the National League champion Philadelphia Phillies.

That they did it by erasing a pair of deficits and scratching out another one-run win — their fourth in seven games during this undefeated postseason run — suits this team well. The Astros did what any group grappling with the gravity of its own misdeeds would: absorb the negativity, internalize it and turn it into fuel. For some it fueled growth, for others anger. There is something for everyone.

“The disdain we have — this team is mentally strong,” Astros manager Dusty Baker said. “Sometimes when you go through adversity, it makes you stronger.”

Make no mistake, this Houston team is strong – mentally, physically, emotionally. She succeeds despite and because of her failures. One can accept that the Astros’ sign-stealing scheme during the 2017 season tainted their World Series victory, while admitting that what they’re doing in 2022 — putting themselves on the brink of an all-time postseason run — is a miraculous, cognitive curse of dissonance.

Just look at the results of their seven wins: 8-7, 4-2 and 1-0 in the division series against Seattle, followed by 4-2, 3-2, 5-0 and 6-5 against the Yankees. Six out of seven games tense, tight, capable of going sideways at any moment. But nobody did. The Astros defused bomb after bomb, watched the situations tense and intense, and came out on top each time. And now they find themselves in rare company, along with the 1976 Cincinnati Reds and 2007 Colorado Rockies, who went 7-0 in the playoffs, and one win shy of the 2014 Kansas City Royals record of eight straight wins. to the beginning. postseason.

The red-hot Phillies, fully buying into the team-of-destiny rhetoric that rightfully follows a No. 6 World Series seed, is all that stands between the Astros and perfection. That an undefeated postseason was even a possibility in October when the 111-win Los Angeles Dodgers and 101-win Atlanta Braves and New York Mets bowed out in their first series reinforces the aberrant nature of Houston’s run.

“Today was really the first time I thought about it,” said Lance McCullers Jr., the Astros’ Game 4 starter and one of only five players left from the 2017 team. “I saw a lot of people making a big deal about an undefeated postseason . It really didn’t hit me. I mean, baseball is so hard. These teams are so good. Like, Seattle, I said it the other day: I don’t think anyone else could beat Seattle. They played amazingly. We are coming here [to New York] — once again, close games. We’re just scratching and clawing and finding a way.”

Since baseball’s postseason expansion in 1969, only the Big Red Machine has gone through the postseason without a blemish, back in ’76. In the wild card era, the closest to flawless were the 2005 Chicago White Sox and the 1999 Yankees, who went 11-1. The 11-0 mark is still great for the Astros, too, with the Phillies set to start Aaron Nola and Zach Wheeler in Games 1 and 2, and left-hander Jose Alvarado and right-hander Seranthony Dominguez getting four much-needed days of rest and a lineup that led by Bryce Harper, has been making sticks for most of the month.

But it is by no means out of the realm of possibility. Through seven games, Astros pitchers have held opponents to a .178/.248/.291 line — essentially turning a pair of playoff lineups into nine hitters who would be demoted to Triple-A due to incompetence. In 33 innings, the Astros’ relievers have allowed two runs — a 0.55 ERA — on 14 hits and 10 walks while striking out 42. Their everyday players have committed just one error, a borderline one, on a bad pitch, a backhand in the hole by Jose Altuve speeding the throw out of the net. And they managed to score enough to win, despite the offensive absence of Altuve and, in the ALCS, New York holding Jordan Alvarez in check.

Near perfection with room for improvement is a scary combination, and yet here these Astros are: in their fourth Fall Classic in six years.

“Baseball is wild,” McCullers said. “The reason you don’t see a lot of teams go to that many postseasons, that many league championships, that many World Series is because the game isn’t played on paper. The best teams fail every year. We don’t win every year. And somehow, in some ways, we found ourselves the best team in the American League for the last few years. We’ve won the American League championship many times. Now we have to try to finish it.”

They couldn’t either in 2019, when they lost in seven games to the Washington Nationals, or in 2021, when Atlanta ambushed them and won the championship in six games. This year, though, they’re determined to — for Baker, who is more than 2,000 wins deep into a managerial career that still doesn’t include a championship, and for Michael Brantley, the veteran left fielder who missed the postseason after shoulder surgery . They want to do it as a final confirmation of McCullers and Justin Verlander’s return from arm surgery. And they want to do it to dispel the notion that the only way the Astros win championships is by cheating.

No one in the Astros dugout was banging on the trash can on Sunday, and yet there they were, down 3-0 and without a drop of sweat on their foreheads. Rookie shortstop Jeremy Pena, the ALCS MVP, launched a three-run home run to tie the game. Later, trailing 5-4 in the seventh inning, the Astros committed an error on a potential double that Peña hit into the flood: first an Alvarez RBI to score Altuve, then Alex Bregman’s RBI single to plate Pena. At that point, Baker turned to Brian Abreu, who pitched a scoreless inning, followed by Rafael Montero and Ryan Pressley, who continue to outscore hitters.

This is the idealized version of the Astros – better than everyone else at run prevention and good enough with the bat to make that stinginess stand up. They’re an exquisitely constructed unit that blends stars with depth and spits on the small-sample baseball vagaries that define October. And what they think about it in the opposite dugout or in the stands of their opponents, it simply doesn’t matter to them.

“I mean, it’s not like Tupac. It’s not us against the world, you know?” Baker said – and he said it with conviction, perhaps convincing himself that it was indeed so, even when the evidence said otherwise. Part of his job as a manager is to write his own story, to grab a hammer and chisel and carve a different kind of history for the Astros. Houston brought him in after the scandal to help create a new identity, which was truly an impossible task.

Baker, like everyone in the Astros clubhouse, is taking the most suitable bits and pieces of the past and using them to create a new future. While these Houston Astros aren’t the Houston Astros, they can’t deny that their past informs their present. It helped them become who they are. And that’s the kind of team the Yankees and the Mariners and everyone else in baseball wants to be.


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