'Because of them, we're here now': Astros' young stars, led by Yordan Alvarez, lead old guard back to World Series

HOUSTON – When the Houston Astros were plotting and executing the most craven sign-stealing scheme the game had seen in decades, Yordan Alvarez was slogging through Buies Creek, North Carolina and Davenport, Iowa, wondering what sort of future he had in his new organization.

As signals were decoded and trash cans banged, Luis Garcia accepted the Astros’ $20,000 signing bonus and left his native Venezuela for the club’s complex in the Dominican Republic, eight levels from Houston and guaranteed nothing more than the modest check in hand.

And as the sordid scheme boosted the Astros to 101 wins and a romp to the 2017 World Series title that included an 8-1 record at home, Kyle Tucker slugged his way from the Carolina League to Corpus Christi, on the Astros’ radar but still lodged far from their immediate plans thanks to a bevy of veteran outfielders in Houston.

Four years later, many of the schemes’ protagonists remain, and bear the wrath of opposing fans from Los Angeles to New York, a pandemic not enough to soothe the ire of the aggrieved. Yet not much has changed: Carlos Correa, Jose Altuve, Alex Bregman and Yuli Gurriel are headed back to the World Series, a near-perfect 5-0 victory over the Boston Red Sox in Game 6 of the American League Championship Series-clinching their third pennant in five years.

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They bear the burden of the scandal, a stain that may never go away, even if, as former center fielder George Springer knows, you relocate your workplace to Canada.

Yet on this Fall Classic trip, these Astros will have company in a young core that claims a larger share of the glory with each passing year.

In some cases, they are simply surfacing, like Garcia, a rookie right-handed pitcher. For Alvarez – the ALCS MVP after thumping five extra-base hits in Games 5 and 6, including the go-ahead wallops in each game – and Tucker, it is completing the final steps from major league regulars to something resembling superstardom.

And while they can’t erase the transgressions of their veteran teammates, nor deodorize their reputations among countless opposing fans, the young Astros are poised to carve out their own legacies while at least partially covering the backs of the veterans who have theirs.

“I just want to win a World Series for the rest of the guys in the clubhouse,” says Tucker, 24, who slugged 30 home runs this year in his first full season as a starter. “They’ve been a big part of my life and my career so far and I’m trying to help them win the World Series as much as I can.

“This group of guys has been a big part of my life, including guys on other teams now. I’m still friends with a lot of them guys. We’re a family and that’s really what we are.”

ALCS Game 6: Astros designated hitter Yordan Alvarez celebrates with teammates after winning ALCS MVP.
ALCS Game 6: Astros designated hitter Yordan Alvarez celebrates with teammates after winning ALCS MVP.

'They got no chance, man'

Tucker’s locker in the Astros clubhouse is next to veteran outfielder Michael Brantley, who FaceTimes almost daily with Springer, who signed a $150 million deal with Toronto. Tucker will jump in and glean wisdom from Springer and absorb what he can from the other veterans.

Yet while the new guard hasn’t yet taken over, there’s little doubt the Astros would be nowhere without them.

Already without past aces Justin Verlander and Gerrit Cole, and with this year’s No. 1 starter Lance McCullers out since the ALDS with a forearm injury, the young trio of Framber Valdez, Luis Garcia and Jose Urquidy would have to carry the pitching load.

While all three fell flat in Games 1-3, Valdez and Garcia combined to shut out the Red Sox over 13 2/3 innings of Games 5 and 6. Valdez dazzled with his trademark curveball and power sinker, but Garcia took his repertoire up another level, sitting at 96 mph with a fastball that usually tops out at 93.

“When I saw him throwing 97 and the cutter was nasty and the command was there, I said, ‘They got no chance, man,’” says Correa. “He’s a special young man and he had the special stuff today.”

Garcia, 24, was in Class A as recently as 2019, but blew the Astros away at the alternate training site and debuted in 2020 before making 28 starts this season. Yet after his Game 2 pratfall – just three outs recorded but five runs allowed, including a grand slam – he was pining for a chance after the first significant failure of his career. He stewed in the bullpen during three games at Fenway Park, hoping for immediate redemption.

The Astros had another plan: Pitch the potential Game 6 clincher at home.

“I did the job that they needed from me tonight,” says Garcia, who walked just one and struck out seven. “And as far as being in the World Series, just really excited to be part of my first World Series. It's like a dream come true really.”

Says manager Dusty Baker: “Without those young guys to fill in around the nucleus and the core of this team, there's no way that we could have won it, and you can tell by how young Framber and young García pitched the last couple of days.

“They grew up before our eyes.”

Forging new legacies

To be certain, Alvarez, 24, was a known commodity before this October. He slugged 27 homers in 87 games in claiming 2019 Rookie of the Year honors and batted .412 in the World Series. Yet knee surgeries took away all but two games of his 2020 season, out of sight in a year already contested behind closed doors due to the pandemic.

A 33-homer, 104-RBI season got him back in the conversation. Winning ALCS MVP might make him a household name.

“He’s unbelievable,” says Bregman. “Yordan is special and we saw that from the first day he came to the big leagues.”

The sudden success followed by the deferred dreams of 2020 – the Astros still made the ALCS thanks to Correa and Springer’s playoff heroics – only made Alvarez want to get back even more. At 6-5, 225 pounds, he is a massive presence in the middle of the lineup. Yet he worked diligently to improve defensively, starting 39 games in the field and enabling Baker greater flexibility with the DH spot.

Posing alongside the ALCS MVP trophy conjured significant emotions.

“It means everything. It means everything,” he said through an interpreter. “I think there's a lot of things that I could say that's behind that trophy, but all I can say is it just means everything.”

Now, they await a World Series date, beginning Tuesday against the Atlanta Braves or Los Angeles Dodgers, the latter matchup beginning in L.A. in front of more than 50,000 embittered fans seeking some form of non-specific justice for the sins of 2017.

Alvarez and Co. might just shrug it off. They weren’t around for that and besides, they’re carving out their own legacies, all the while easing the burdens of those who still bear the scarlet letter of 2017.

For that, the old guard is appreciative.

“They’re studs, and they’re stars,” says Correa. “Yordan, Tucker, Garcia, Framber, all these guys – underrated. They’re so good, and so talented, they show up when we needed them the most.

“And because of them, we’re here now.”

This article originally appeared on USA TODAY: Astros' young stars Yordan Alvarez, Luis Garcia lead World Series run