The Astros are here to play the villains in the World Series. They are also here to win

The Houston Astros have been at their best this postseason when they’re down to their final out of an inning. You can feel it if you watched the games, the way their wins felt like comebacks even when they led the whole night. And the numbers back that up: With a flair for the dramatic or a never-say-die mentality, they’ve collectively batted .341/.399/.619 with nine home runs and 44 RBIs in 126 at-bats with two outs.

Winning three straight after falling down 2-1 in the American League Championship Series — ugly losses, too, bad enough that people started to count out a proven division winner against a flawed wild-card team — showcased similar resilience.

It’s impressive, this ability to produce under pressure. It shows tenacity and focus and frankly self-confidence to play with the same steady conviction with your back against the wall. It’s also a self-made circumstance. They can only hit with two outs after making two outs. They have to fail first to make the success look like redemption. They got themselves into this mess, making it harder than it had to be. It’s their fault the story is so good. Do you see where I’m going with this?

There are two ways for an unbiased viewer to appreciate the Astros’ continued success in the wake of revelations about baseball’s biggest team cheating scandal in a century.

(Three, if you enjoy yelling obscenities and tweeting trash can emojis.)

First, the context: The Astros stole signs in their 2017 championship season and four years later — in their fifth consecutive postseason appearance — they’re heading back to the World Series after besting the Boston Red Sox four games to two in the ALCS. A 5-0 win in Game 6 at home on Friday night was perhaps the cleanest performance of the series: rookie Luis García took a no-hitter into the sixth, Martín Maldonado nixed a near-rally with a strikeout-em-out-throw-em-out double play, and Yordan Alvarez took home ALCS MVP honors after a four-hit game (double what the entire Sox lineup managed) to give him a record .522 average in the series.

There’s no way to exonerate the Astros who participated in the illegal sign-stealing operation, because it was wrong and it happened. When the deliciously named banging scheme was revealed shortly after the 2019 season in reporting by The Athletic, the fallout rocked baseball, infuriating fans and opponents alike while threatening to undermine public trust in the institution. The suspension and immediate firing of manager A.J. Hinch and general manager Jeff Luhnow did little to quell the bloodlust. And even through a pandemic, the stain never wore off. If anything, fury festered as fans were barred from booing for a full year after the scandal broke.

But they’re going to be there when you watch the World Series anyway and you’re missing some impressive performances if you avert your eyes from all the guys in orange and navy.

Carlos Correa and Yordan Alvarez share a moment of celebration after Alvarez's four-hit game helped the Astros clinch a World Series berth.

Over the course of their sustained relevance, two main narratives have emerged: enjoy the Astros because every battle needs a villain and they’re here to embody and perhaps even embrace the role; or enjoy the Astros because they’re barely even the same team now as they were in ‘17.

On the one hand, those seem mutually exclusive. On the other, such is the potential pitfall of painting with too broad a brush. But what are sports if not the erasure of nuance in favor of binary catharsis? It’s OK (really!) as long as you recognize the inherent oversimplification.

The core of the team — four infielders who have played a record number of postseason games together — is the same: First baseman Yuli Gurriel, second baseman Jose Altuve, third baseman Alex Bregman, and shortstop Carlos Correa. With Correa’s free agency looming, this is likely their last October together, the end of an era that will be remembered most for their respective performances in the apology tour and not the success that surrounded it.

Along with them is a collection of young and talented players, all helmed by 72-year-old Dusty Baker, hired as much for his likability as his leadership, and effective at leveraging the latter to imbue those around him with the former.

“I wasn't here with the team in 2017, but I've gotten booed just as equal as anybody else,” Alvarez said after the team celebrated in the only stadium where they’ve found sympathetic fans this season. “So I think we all have the same mentality that we really want to win a World Series to demonstrate that we are just a great team.”

“I'm sure they feel for the guys that were here,” pitching coach Brent Strom said earlier this week about the new additions who have become collateral damage on the road. “But they surely haven't distanced themselves from their teammates. They haven't said, ‘It was you and not me.’ None of that has ever happened.”

In an oft-cited sentiment among the Astros, he said the public furor has “galvanized” the team.

“We've kind of circled the wagons a little bit.”

At this point, fans have no choice but to acknowledge the ambiguity and either forgive or be forced to accept their reclaimed, post-hoc kayfabe-ification of the Astros’ wrongdoing.

The unsatisfying reality is that the distance between uncovering a team-wide scheme and assigning individual culpability was likely always going to be impossible to bridge. Baseball teams are not gangs aligned in their willingness to undertake felonious escapades. The Astros lied and cheated and won and then some of them went and played for your team that’s not as successful and others stayed and are now four wins away from another championship that they’ll share with innocent accomplices. It’s messy.

We call the World Series baseball’s biggest stage because the whole sport is a performance. Rooting interest and unmerited animosity is part of the experience. Dress the Astros up in a villain’s mantle because some of them deserve it, but also because it’s fun. Booing is the only form of vigilante justice that’s acceptable, and it’s also what you’d do to any out-of-town team. The storyline that says the Astros are the bad guys is rooted in truth that did real harm. But now it’s just a storyline — based on color schemes and conspiracy theories. Go ahead and derive a little satisfaction from it if they lose, that’s your reclamation.

But, if anything, after this past year, they’re better prepared than anyone else to thrive under the pressure of the Fall Classic.