The Astros' past finally catches up to them, one game shy of a return to the World Series

Left standing by Major League Baseball, by karma, by a sub-.500 regular season and a three-games-to-none deficit in the American League Championship Series, the Houston Astros had but two remaining obstacles en route to an unlikely — and mostly unpopular — World Series appearance.

Game 7 against the Tampa Bay Rays.

Their past.

Those arrived together Saturday night in San Diego.

Only then were the Astros — disgraced by a cheating scandal last winter and 11 months later defiant in their refusal to succumb (or atone) — undone.

Charlie Morton, one of their own at a time when they won a World Series and lost their reputations, started for the Rays in this Game 7, pitched 5 ⅔ scoreless innings, celebrated a 4-2 win with his new teammates and prepared for a trip to Dallas to play the survivor of Sunday’s National League Championship Series Game 7.

Rookie Randy Arozarena hit his seventh home run of the postseason and his fourth of the series, Pete Fairbanks recorded the final four outs — the last two with the tying run in the batter’s box — and Mike Zunino homered and drove in two runs for the Rays, who will play in their second World Series. They lost to the Philadelphia Phillies in 2008, when they were still getting used to not being the Devil Rays.

This was, first, their victory, four games and four days after they had taken that three-games-to-none lead against the Astros. This was their time to recognize in themselves the depth, cleverness and talent of an organization that operates confidently and efficiently in areas where others are sloppy. About their only significant free agent signing in recent memory is Morton, who left the Astros for a two-year, $30 million contract, won 16 games in 2019 and three — one against the New York Yankees and two against the Astros — in the 2020 postseason. His ERA in five playoff starts for the Rays is 0.70. On Saturday he allowed two singles, no runs, and handed the ball to the Rays’ bullpen vision of the final 10 outs with a three-run lead.

Houston Astros Carlos Correa watches the eighth inning from the dugout in Game 7 of a baseball American League Championship Series, Saturday, Oct. 17, 2020, in San Diego. (AP Photo/Gregory Bull)

Morton had awakened Saturday morning with a Game 7 on his mind and the good part of the day to siphon away. His mind wandered to pitchers he’d known and admired, men such as Roy Halladay, Chris Carpenter, Adam Wainwright and A.J. Burnett, men he viewed as big-game pitchers. He thought back over how they’d won those games, those days and reminded himself, “You just want to go out there and be a pro and help your team win.” Simple like that.

Hours later he looked back over that Game 7 — two hits, no runs, all so clean — and said, “That was a really special one for me.”

By the looks of their smiles later, and the way they clung to each other on the Petco Park infield, it was special for all of them.

“This,” Zunino said, “was the best I’ve seen Charlie in the time I’ve been able to catch him, in the past two years.”

The Astros gathered their things. Some lingered. They’d had a going-to-the-World-Series party just like it a year ago. Another one three years ago. Now they could be sure that most were glad they were gone, and George Springer was asked what he thought about that.

“The Astros,” he said, “stayed in their dugout and stuck together.”

Those who rooted against the Astros for their crimes against the game, who raged against a system that would not — or could not — impose adequate judgment, who then watched as a mediocre regular-season team picked off the Minnesota Twins, the Oakland A’s and advanced to within a game of the World Series, and so wondered when the Astros’ past would come for them, would have to settle for Charlie Morton, who three years ago was the winning pitcher for the Astros in Game 7 of a World Series hardly anyone believes in.

It was Morton — along with 27 other Rays — who, it would be viewed, finally gave the Astros their due, except it was too late to surmise anything but that these Astros were very good, played exceedingly well, showed admirable resilience and were a hit or two away from being even better than that.

Tampa Bay Rays starting pitcher Charlie Morton throws against the Houston Astros during the sixth inning in Game 7 of a baseball American League Championship Series, Saturday, Oct. 17, 2020, in San Diego. (AP Photo/Gregory Bull)
Rays starter Charlie Morton shut down the Astros in ALCS Game 7 after winning the final game of the World Series for their later disgraced 2017 club. (AP Photo/Gregory Bull)

And the whole time, actually, while the taut Rays toiled to put away a team that was getting little from the likes of Alex Bregman and Yuli Gurriel, that endured defensive spasms from Jose Altuve, that dueled without ace Justin Verlander or closer Roberto Osuna, the thought simmered — why exactly did the Astros choose such a reckless path those seasons ago? They were good enough. Apparently only they suspected otherwise. They are still good enough, only now augmented by terrific young pitchers and Michael Brantley and a manager, Dusty Baker, who put a hand on their shoulders and asked only that they love each other and play the game.

That wouldn’t get them to the World Series, of course. Apparently it wouldn’t even get them a winning record. But something stuck, and it wasn’t under their shoes, and the Astros won some games, and it wasn’t until late one night in the middle of October when Aledmys Diaz flied to right field and the Astros were finished.

Baker had listened to Taj Mahal most of the morning, some blues about a guy who was painting his mailbox blue. Bregman had promised to get after the next four or five at-bats like no other four of five at-bats he’d ever taken before. You could argue that any hardships along the way were self-inflicted, maybe even deserved, and still these Astros had huddled against the fallout, stumbled across two months in which they looked very fragile, then perhaps rediscovered the notion they were decent ballplayers too.

Not as decent as the Rays, it turned out, by a game. And that truly seemed to surprise them. But, still, decent enough.

“We weren’t on a revenge tour,” pitcher Lance McCullers Jr. said. “That’s not what this was. Guys wanted to play ball and go to and win another World Series.”

Baker, 71, said of the losses, particularly those later in October, “They’re all painful,” and this — down oh-three, tied three-three, now done — absolutely qualified. He also said he’d overheard Josh Reddick on the phone with his father Saturday afternoon and thought, “I wish I could call my dad.” He’s said goodbye to some friends recently, some who were ballplayers, even Hall of Famers, and some who were just good people, and in the minutes after he learned he would not be going to the World Series, Baker reminded himself there’d be another baseball season.

“The eternal losses,” he said, “those are tough to heal.”

The Astros, then, would not be remembered as the team that got caught, that banded together, that in the face of loud and hard condemnation returned to the World Series because, after all, they were so good at baseball. They’d be remembered still as the team that got caught.

Also, as the team that survived for a few weeks in the playoffs, and that began to believe again, right up until the night their past caught up with them.

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