HOUSTON – Capping a decade like no other in baseball history, the Houston Astros are returning to the World Series, aiming to win the club’s second championship, one that would shine a little bit brighter than the original.
From shameless losers to industry innovators, from dominant champions to cheating chumps, the Astros took the next step in their unprecedented arc Friday night, getting a second dominant performance from an unheralded starter in as many games to defeat the Boston Red Sox, 5-0, and capture the American League Championship Series in six games.
They advance to face either the Atlanta Braves – back here at Minute Maid Park – or the Los Angeles Dodgers in the World Series with Game 1 on Tuesday evening.
“We feel like we deserve this,” says second baseman Jose Altuve, whose eighth-inning home run in Game 4 turned the series trajectory, “and we’re together in this.”
A date with the Dodgers would only intensify the grim feelings associated with the club’s electronic sign-stealing scandal, which boosted the 2017 champions all season and through a bitterly-contested seven-game slugfest with the Dodgers.
Since Houston’s organizational indiscretions – from top baseball executive Jeff Luhnow and manager A.J. Hinch, both fired in January 2020, down to the players – were revealed in November 2019, the club’s lone championship has been rightfully sullied. Its protagonists have been scorned from coast to coast and in this season during which fans returned to ballparks, booed mercilessly from the Bronx to Chavez Ravine.
Another title won’t soothe all the deep-seated bitterness outside Houston. But it would certainly legitimize the baseball greatness of Astros old and new.
“It’s extra special, after everything we’ve been through as a team, as a family, we stuck together, we fought back and we’re here, man,” says shortstop Carlos Correa. “We’re a great team and we’re just proud, once again, to be in the World Series.”
In Game 6, it was the leaders of the new school who carried them to the pennant.
ALCS MVP Yordan Alvarez, acquired from those Dodgers in a fateful trade, drove in the game’s first run with a double and later tripled and scored the other run, capping a startling final two games in which he mashed six hits, five for extra bases.
Right fielder Kyle Tucker, picking up the offensive slack once carried by former Astro George Springer, iced the game with an opposite-field, three-run homer, his fourth of this postseason.
And rookie starter Luis Garcia, chased ignominiously from Game 2 by a then-unstoppable Red Sox offense, carried a no-hitter for 5 2/3 innings as he and four relievers completed a thorough vexing of Boston’s bats.
When Ryan Pressly recorded the final out, the crowd of 42,718 at Minute Maid – one place the Astros can be sure they’re loved almost unconditionally – erupted in celebration of the pennant and anticipation of what comes next.
There was also a fair share of relief for a turnabout their club managed in an ALCS with wild momentum swings.
Garcia recorded just three outs and gave up five runs in Game 2 at Minute Maid Park Oct. 16 before exiting with a knee injury that the club said Garcia worked out in a bullpen session the following day.
In Game 6, he looked like an entirely different pitcher.
Running his fastball up to 97 mph, Garcia allowed just two baserunners through five innings – Kyle Schwarber striking out but reaching on a wild pitch to open the game, and Alex Verdugo drawing a second-inning walk. Still, Garcia was nursing just a 1-0 lead and the Astros had Phil Maton warming as he recorded the first two outs of the sixth, the massive stakes outweighing the potential milestone.
Good thing: Kiké Hernández nearly tied the game with a booming triple into the nook in left-center field. That gave Baker an easy call – he lifted Garcia, who received a thunderous standing ovation as he departed, and Maton induced a pop out to shortstop on one pitch.
It was a command performance, Garcia’s fastball regularly hitting 95-96 mph, 3 mph over his regular season average, and his pitch mix only deepened an ignominious Red Sox funk. Garcia leaned heavily on his fastball early but struck out Christian Arroyo and Hunter Renfroe almost entirely on cutters in the fifth. He opened the sixth punching out pinch-hitter Danny Santana on a changeup before Schwarber’s deep fly to left preceded Hernández’s triple.
Hernández staged an MVP-worthy performance throughout the postseason – 20 hits in 49 at-bats (.408) and five home runs, three in this ALCS. Yet a Boston offense that scored 21 runs in Games 2 and 3 to briefly seize command of the series went AWOL: From the second inning of Game 4 until Hernandez’s triple, the Red Sox recorded seven hits in 73 at-bats (.096 average) and were outscored 20-1.
The series pivoted, pitching coach Brent Strom said, when young pitchers such as Garcia and Game 5 winner Framber Valdez determined if they would go down, it’d be with their nastiest stuff.
“They were spitting on so many non-competitive breaking balls the first couple games,” Strom said of the Red Sox, “I basically told the group, ‘If you’re going to get beat, throw your best stuff over the plate, and then you can sleep at night, rather than dance around the strike zone. Young pitchers start dancing a bit, and you can’t do that.”
And the Astros played nearly flawless baseball when they had to the most.
Game 6 started with Schwarber reaching on the strikeout-wild pitch, and Hernández followed with a smash up the middle. But Altuve – positioned like a shortstop in the shift – made a sparkling diving grab and one-hopped a perfect throw to first for the out.
The Red Sox nearly caught Baker slipping in the seventh, when Graveman – who pitched two innings in Game 4 – wobbled by issuing a leadoff walk and single to Alex Verdugo. With nobody warming in the bullpen and runners at the corners, it would be Graveman’s game to lose.
Red Sox manager Alex Cora countered with lefty bat Travis Shaw, who worked a full count count. Verdugo took off on the pitch, but Graveman struck out Shaw and catcher Martin Maldonado, as is his wont, unloaded a bazooka of a throw, shortstop Carlos Correa letting it travel long enough to nab Verdugo for the 2-6 double play.
“That was huge,” says Baker. “There are people who were wondering why Maldi was playing, hitting .075.”
By then, it was party time once again in Houston. For sign-stealing protagonists Correa and Altuve, Alex Bregman and Yuli Gurriel, the coming days will bring more criticism from fans and pundits alike, certainly thunderous boos in L.A. and probably some why-not catcalls in Atlanta, too.
Yet if the boos never abate, the criticism may ring hollower if the Astros keep winning. With four more wins, a cast of characters old and new will have plenty to celebrate.
“These guys felt that we were going to get to this point, and it’s a matter of belief,” says Baker. “Before it happens, you have to believe it.
“These guys believe it.”