Astros sweep aside Yankees to reach World Series for fourth time in six years

NEW YORK – They came into the house where they’re hated the most and doubled down on their dominance, leaning on a burgeoning star and a bevy of old ones to return to a place that now seems a birthright for the Houston Astros.

Atop the American League.

Five years after winning a World Series thanks in part to an illegal sign-stealing operation and three years after their tawdry scheme became public, the Astros came into Yankee Stadium and laid waste to a flawed nemesis, sweeping away the New York Yankees in the American Championship Series and qualifying for their fourth World Series in the past six seasons.

The end came Sunday night, when a Yankee error opened the door for a two-run rally capped by Alex Bregman’s go-ahead single, pushing the Astros to a 6-5 victory and a Fall Classic date with the Philadelphia Phillies.

Game 1 will be Friday night in Houston, AL Cy Young Award favorite Justin Verlander likely squaring off against Phillies right-handers Zack Wheeler or Aaron Nola. The Phillies come in riding high off a five-game conquest of the San Diego Padres in a raucous National League Championship Series, but they will see a different animal entirely at Minute Maid Park.

A perfect team.

Jose Altuve and Yuli Gurriel celebrate after the final out.
Jose Altuve and Yuli Gurriel celebrate after the final out.

See, these Astros are 7-0 in the postseason, four wins from running the table amid an October where 100-win juggernauts were ousted before the leaves turned. They are a stunning combination of seasoned veterans and talented upstarts, backed by a pitching staff where bullpen stalwarts have had to take a number, so deep is their dominance.

And most of all, they have Jeremy Peña.

This dynasty was supposed to be on the downside after the core of their 2017 champions began to attrit, with All-Star center fielder George Springer and shortstop Carlos Correa departing each of the past two off-seasons. But Peña has replaced Correa with aplomb and now, in this postseason, in spectacular fashion.

Sunday night, he erased a 3-0 Yankees lead, laying waste to a Nestor Cortes pitch and sending it 408 feet into the left field seats at Yankee Stadium, exiting at 104 mph and sending this series careening away from a potential Game 5.

When Harrison Bader’s home run gave the Yankees a 5-4 sixth-inning lead, it only set the stage for a grand pratfall. It came when second baseman Gleyber Torres and shortstop Isiah Kiner-Falefa botched an easy double-play ball that would have short-circuited an Astros rally in the seventh inning.

Game 4: Jeremy Pena celebrates his three-run homer in the third inning.
Game 4: Jeremy Pena celebrates his three-run homer in the third inning.

Instead, Yordan Alvarez drove home the tying run and Bregman the go-ahead tally. Three Astros relievers made it hold up, closer Ryan Pressly retiring presumptive MVP Aaron Judge to end it – and continue Houston’s reign of dominance.

That game-winning rally was started by second baseman Jose Altuve, who beat out a broken-bat hit off Yankees reliever Jonathan Loaisiga, who was pitching admirably in his third inning of work. The error portended bad things for the Yankees, whose uneven play in the second half dashed dreams of a 28th World Series title – dreams finished by the Astros.

Altuve and Bregman were part of the sign-stealing cabal that was shamed ever since that title. Now, they are joined by ALCS MVP Peña, the hulking slugger Alvarez and a stout pitching staff that will aim to cool a red-hot Phillies lineup.

The dominance was so thorough that by the time the ninth inning rolled around, Yankee Stadium was about half-empty and those that left forgot to boo Altuve, long the fall guy for the cheating Astros’ 2017 vanquishing of New York.

"It was sweet," says Astros starter Lance McCullers, who worked five innings in Game 5, and also notched a four-inning save in Game 7 of the 2017 ALCS. "This is the mecca of sports. We’ve had a lot of back and forth the last three years, mainly self-induced, but there’s been a lot of back and forth.

"There’s not a lot to say at this point."

Said Astros manager Dusty Baker: " Well, they got better treatment here this time than in previous times here. So maybe it was a different crowd or maybe the crowd has finally forgiven things of the past."

Indeed, the postgame tones of Frank Sinatra were quickly drowned out by a large contingent of Astros fans, giddily serenading Altuve with their standard chant as the club celebrated on the infield and headed toward the makeshift ceremonial stage.

Now, they’re headed home, their sins of the past further in the rear-view mirror and a second World Series title in sight.

This article originally appeared on USA TODAY: Astros sweep Yankees in ALCS to reach fourth World Series in six years