Like it or not, here they come: Astros are in it to win after weathering scandal

Carlos Correa, shortstop for the disgraced Houston Astros, has his answer. What they’re going to say now is, “Welcome to the American League Championship Series.”

Popped 11 months ago for dark choices their players, coaches and staff made across half of the finest era in franchise history, the Astros have knocked off the AL West champion Oakland A’s, this after sweeping the AL Central champion Minnesota Twins. It was after that series when Correa, among the game’s elite talents, asked of the cynics, “What are they going to say now?”

Late into a Thursday afternoon in Los Angeles, at the end of a Game 4 that had six home runs and a Division Series that saw a remarkable 24 of them, the Astros stood in an empty ballpark and shared some hugs and smiles. They’d won, 11-6.

Dusty Baker, their 71-year-old manager brought in to be their leader and soulful guide through the trauma of atonement and trials of daily hardball (and, it turned out, a pandemic), watched the final out with his forearms on the top rail of the dugout, his shoulders hunched like they do, his gloved hands dangling into the field of play. Dodger Stadium was among the ballparks of his youth, he having played eight seasons with it as his home field, three of those seasons before he turned 30. At the final out — his reliever Ryan Pressly struck out Oakland’s Khris Davis — Baker turned and fist-bumped his coaches, then hauled himself up the stairs and into the grass, where a line of Astros were waiting.

The loneliest team in baseball would play one more series to return to the World Series, that beginning Sunday in San Diego against the winner of the New York Yankees-Tampa Bay Rays ALDS.

Asked how they did it, Baker said, “I think that they closed the circle and got into each other.”

Laughter and singing could be heard in the background of Baker’s postgame Zoom call, sounds of October celebration. Correa had accepted long hugs from teammates Martin Maldonado and Michael Brantley on his way from the field. Other Astros appeared to hold each others’ gazes, proud certainly of how they have played over the past week, then perhaps of what they held up under in a season difficult for everyone and over an 11-month odyssey that was theirs alone to bear.

Houston Astros' Carlos Correa celebrates after hitting a three-run home run against the Oakland Athletics during the fourth inning of Game 4 of a baseball American League Division Series in Los Angeles, Thursday, Oct. 8, 2020. (AP Photo/Ashley Landis)
Astros shortstop Carlos Correa homered against the A's in Game 4 of the ALDS to help the Astros reach the ALCS once again. (AP Photo/Ashley Landis)

Many baseball fans across the country, notably those in places where teams believed they’d been wronged by the illicit sign stealing that became a full-blown scandal, had rooted against the Astros. They’ll have at least another four games for that. Opposing players were pointedly critical of the Astros’ behavior. Most of them are home now, watching baseball.

What they’ll see is a team that held up under injuries to their ace, Justin Verlander, and their closer, Roberto Osuna. Yordan Alvarez, the reigning AL Rookie of the Year, played two games. The Astros kept it together just long enough to qualify for the largest postseason tournament in baseball history, then were fed a Twins team that had lost 16 consecutive playoff games. That streak is now 18. Then the A’s, who’d won two postseason series since 1992, of eight. Now of nine.

The Astros team that arrived in Minneapolis, left there, arrived in Los Angeles and left there, looks rather like it is playoff-tested, wholly game, short in the starting rotation but long in the bullpen, and capable of raking. They scored 33 runs and hit 12 home runs in four games against the A’s, who’d pitched to a tidy 3.77 ERA in the regular season and 3.67 ERA in a three-game wild-card series against the Chicago White Sox.

If there’d been a notion the Astros would be diminished by the scandal’s fallout, both professionally and emotionally, well, for a time, they seemed to be. They were not a good team in the summer. By Thursday, however, the Astros looked every bit a capable, dangerous playoff team, one intent to prove it never needed the very devices that soiled so many of its members’ reputations.

Offered another chance to gloat, to insist the past week should serve to silence those who dared question these Astros, Correa passed.

“Absolutely not,” Correa said. “We’re motivated because we want to win. We want to bring another championship to the city of Houston. We know what it feels like, so we want to be able to have that feeling once again. 2017 was such a special year celebrating with the fans in Houston. The thing that motivates is to get to feel that again. To win another championship.”

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