2021 MLB playoffs: love them or hate them, but the Houston Astros are really that good

2021 MLB playoffs: love them or hate them, but the Houston Astros are really that good

HOUSTON – Here’s the thing: The Houston Astros really are that good. They were so good in 2017 when they were cheating, and they are still so good in 2021 when, it is reasonable to assume, they are not. And no matter who they face in the World Series, which they are heading to for the third time in five years after eliminating the Boston Red Sox in impressive fashion on Friday night, they play a brand of baseball worth savoring. .

If you are from Boston or New York or Los Angeles or rather a pulse baseball fan anywhere outside of the greater Houston area, the above paragraph could cause grinding your teeth, frowning your eyebrows, nausea, irritability or whatever another set of reactions typically listed in a television commercial for a new pharmaceutical product. The Astros are the villains of Major League Baseball, and nothing annoys the fans more (baseball, soccer, wrestling, any kind of entertainment for that matter) than the villain succeeds.

It’s just that since the Astros became baseball outlaws, they’ve become something else too: the second team to reach five consecutive American League Championship Series and the first in the American League to go to three World Series in a five-year span spanning the Yankees in the early 2000s. Nearly two full decades of baseball and no team has accomplished what the Astros did with a 5-0 sweep over the Red Sox in Game 6 of the American League Championship Series at Minute Maid Park.

The first appearance in the trilogy led to a championship that is now in disgrace due to the sign-stealing and trash-can hitting scheme that accompanied it, and the second ended with a loss in the Game 7 weeks before the reveal of that. scheme. But these Astros are far enough removed from the versions of those series to appreciate this team for what it is: a fearsome group of hitters, an excellent group of fielders, and a team that has improvised enough pitchers to find themselves four wins away from getting. another ring.

Even those who despise the Astros can’t help but respect them. They play the kind of baseball that doesn’t exist anymore. They led MLB in batting average. They struck out the fewest times. They hit fewer fouls than anyone else. They had fewer hits and misses than any other team in the league.

In many ways, the Astros are a superior offensive team now than they were even in 2017. Yordan Alvarez, the 24-year-old slugger and SCLA MVP, was 4-for-4 in the final game with a pair of doubles and a triple and hit .524 in the series. Kyle Tucker, the 24-year-old right fielder, hit a three-run home run that took an uncomfortable two-run lead and turned it into a five-run cushion. They both spent 2017 in the minor leagues.

The Astros pitching staff doesn’t have as many stars as it did then, as Justin Verlander, a free agent in 2022, missed the entire year; Dallas Keuchel and Charlie Morton are gone. Instead, they have Luis Garcia, who pitched brilliantly in Game 6, is 23 years old and spent 2017 playing in the Dominican Summer League. Framber Valdez, 27, shut down the Red Sox in Game 5. He still hadn’t made his major league debut that season. Both helped limit Boston to a total of five hits in the last two games. Álvarez himself had seven.

All the things the Astros did so well when they cheated, they still do now. Which, of course, could lead even a person who is not particularly cynical to think that they are still cheating. And that, more than anything, is the consequence of what the Astros did in 2017. Not only did it taint that championship; he also cast skepticism about his search for others. So why is it reasonable to assume that they are no longer breaking the rules? Beyond the sheer arrogance it would take to cheat again, the combination of MLB’s crackdown on electronic communications in the game and the shame that haunts the Astros wherever they go is compelling.

Beyond that, winning clean changes the Astros’ narrative. It makes what they did in 2017 even sadder, yes, in the same way that Barry Bonds and Alex Rodriguez’s use of performance-enhancing drugs sad. It was not necessary. They didn’t need that boost.

After how poorly the Astros handled the reveal of their hoax, how long it took them to apologize, how they pretty much got everything wrong about the aftermath, the possibility that any kind of acknowledgment for what they’re doing today wouldn’t make it look like. through the lens of what they did in the past is lost to most. That has hardened the players, made them even more isolated than they were. Sometimes it seems strange when people get motivation for their own misdeeds, but that’s exactly what the Astros have done.

“We’ve made mistakes in the past, but you can’t go back,” said injured starter Lance McCullers, one of the few members of the 2017 team still in Houston, along with first baseman Yuli Gurriel, second baseman Jose. Altuve, third baseman Alex Bregman and shortstop Carlos Correa. “All we can do is keep moving forward, play good baseball, stay within our clubhouse and our fan base and our amazing city, and just do our part.”

And what they have to do is win.

“We were talking about it the other day,” Correa said. “It was me, Altuve, Yuli, Bregman. We asked the same question. We said, ‘Why? Why do we keep showing up and doing it?’ And we came to the conclusion that it’s because we hold each other accountable. And what I mean by that is that we hope everyone is better than last year, and we hope that everyone shows up in great shape … make sure you all prepare. the days to help us win because we know that the four of us can’t do it alone. “

They couldn’t have. They needed Alvarez and Tucker and Michael Brantley, whose professional at-bats remain a hallmark, and Martin Maldonado, the catcher whose half of the strikeout-sack-robbery double play to end the seventh inning was magnificent. They needed Valdez and Garcia, and Phil Maton and Kendall Graveman, two trade deadline acquisitions that in Game 6 served as a bridge for Ryan Pressly, who secured the final out.

When AJ Hinch, their manager, was fired in early 2020 following MLB’s report on the scheme, they also needed stability, and Dusty Baker took over and provided a semblance of that. Baker is 72 years old. He hasn’t been to the World Series since 2002, when he was managing the San Francisco Giants. That was four teams ago. Throughout the game, Baker is loved, and even those who refuse to appreciate what the Astros do in principle have a hard time not supporting Baker.

“Game 6 has been my nemesis in most of the playoffs, and that’s what I was thinking,” Baker said. “I mean, you have to get over your nemesis. I was afraid of electricity as a kid, so now I own a power company. You try to get over things in your life.”

You try to get over the things in your life. There may be no better way to describe the 2021 Houston Astros. They know that no one will feel sorry for them when they are affected by ball and strike counts, as reliever Ryne Stanek did twice in the same at-bat in the eighth. entry. They know that when Correa does things like look at his wrist and touch it, saying the postseason is “my time,” he will be greeted with derision, even though Fernando Tatis Jr. did, fans would love him for it. They know that outside of area codes 713, 281, and 832, they’re still the bad guys.

And it’s OK. Fans will feel how they are going to feel, because fanaticism is deep down emotional and irrational. But amid the boos and jeers and everything that is about to hit the Astros, whether in Atlanta or Los Angeles, there is a kernel of truth that everyone needs to acknowledge, as much as it hurts to do so.

The Astros are so good. So if, or when, they win another World Series, it shouldn’t surprise anyone.

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