HOUSTON -- Here's the thing: The Houston Astros really are just that damn good. They were that damn good in 2017 when they were cheating, and they are still that damn good in 2021 when, it's reasonable to assume, they are not. And no matter who they face in the World Series, which they're heading to for the third time in five years after dispatching the Boston Red Sox in impressive fashion Friday night, they play a brand of baseball worth savoring.
If you are from Boston or New York or Los Angeles or, perhaps better put, are a baseball fan with a pulse anywhere outside of the Houston metropolitan area, the previous paragraph might cause teeth-gnashing, eyebrow-furrowing, nausea, irritability or any number of other reactions typically listed on a TV commercial for a new pharmaceutical. The Astros are Major League Baseball's villain, and nothing beleaguers fans -- baseball, football, wrestling, any sort of entertainment really -- quite like the heel finding success.
It's just that since the Astros became baseball outlaws, they've also become something else: the second team ever to reach five straight American League Championship Series and the first in the AL to go to three World Series in a five-year span since the early 2000s Yankees. Almost two full decades of baseball and no team has mustered what the Astros locked in with a 5-0 floor-wiping of the Red Sox in Game 6 of the ALCS at Minute Maid Park.
The first appearance in the trilogy led to a championship that's now disgraced because of the sign-stealing, trash-can-banging scheme that accompanied it, and the second ended with a Game 7 loss weeks before the revelation of that scheme. But these Astros are far enough removed from the versions in those series to appreciate this team for what it is: a fearsome assemblage of hitters, an excellent group of fielders and a team that has cobbled together enough pitching to find itself four wins from another ring.
Even those who despise the Astros can't help but respect them. They play the kind of baseball that doesn't exist anymore. They led MLB in batting average. Struck out the fewest times. Fouled pitches off more than anyone. Swung and missed at the lowest rate in the league.
In many ways, the Astros are a superior offensive team now than they were even in 2017. Yordan Alvarez, the 24-year-old slugger and ALCS MVP, went 4-for-4 in the clincher with a pair of doubles and a triple and batted .524 in the series. Kyle Tucker, the 24-year-old right fielder, walloped a three-run home run that took an uncomfortable two-run lead and turned it into a five-run cushion. Both spent 2017 in the minor leagues.
The Astros' pitching staff doesn't have as many stars as it did then -- Justin Verlander, a free agent in 2022, missed the entire year; Dallas Keuchel and Charlie Morton have moved on. Instead, they have Luis Garcia, who pitched brilliantly in Game 6, is 24 and spent 2017 playing in the Dominican Summer League. Framber Valdez, 27, shut down the Red Sox in Game 5. He still hadn't made his big league debut that season. Both helped limit Boston to five hits total over the final two games. Alvarez himself had seven.
All of the things the Astros did so well when they were cheating -- they still do those things now. Which, of course, might lead even a person who is not particularly cynical to think they still are. And that, as much as anything, is the consequence of what the 2017 Astros did. It didn't just sully that championship; it also cast skepticism on their pursuit of any further ones. So why is it reasonable to assume they're not running afoul of rules anymore? Beyond the utter hubris it would take to cheat again, the combination of MLB's crackdown on in-game electronic communication and the shame that chases the Astros everywhere they go is compelling.
Beyond that, winning clean does change the Astros' narrative. It makes what they did in 2017 even sadder -- yes, in the same way Barry Bonds' and Alex Rodriguez's use of performance-enhancing drugs is sad. It wasn't necessary. They didn't need the boost.
After how poorly the Astros handled the revelation of their cheating, how long it took them to apologize, how they bungled more or less everything about the aftermath, the possibility that any sort of recognition for what they're doing today wouldn't be seen through the lens of what they did in the past is lost for most. That has hardened the players, made them even more insular than they were. It sometimes seems odd when people derive motivation from their own misdeeds, but that's exactly what the Astros have done.
"We've made mistakes in the past, but you can't go back," said injured starter Lance McCullers, one of the few members of the '17 team still in Houston, alongside first baseman Yuli Gurriel, second baseman Jose Altuve, third baseman Alex Bregman and shortstop Carlos Correa. "All we can do is continue to move forward, play good baseball, stay within our clubhouse and our fan base and our amazing city, and just do our thing."
That thing is win.
"We were talking about it the other day," Correa said. "It was me, Altuve, Yuli, Bregman. We've asked the same question. We said, 'Why? Why do we keep showing up and getting it done?' And we came to the conclusion that it's because we hold each other accountable. And what I mean by that is we expect everybody to be better than [the] previous year, and we expect everybody to show up in great shape. ... We make sure that they prepare every single day to help us win because we know that the four of us can't get it done by ourselves."
They couldn't. They needed Alvarez and Tucker and Michael Brantley, whose professional at-bats remain a hallmark, and Martin Maldonado, the catcher whose half of a strike-'em-out-throw-'em-out double play to end the seventh inning was magnificent. They needed Valdez and Garcia, and Phil Maton and Kendall Graveman, two trade-deadline acquisitions who in Game 6 served as the bridge to Ryan Pressly, who secured the final out.
When AJ Hinch, their manager, was fired in early 2020 following MLB's report on the scheme, they needed stability, too, and Dusty Baker took over and provided a semblance of that. Baker is 72. He hasn't been to the World Series since 2002, when he was managing the San Francisco Giants. That's four teams ago. Around the game, Baker is beloved, and even those who are refusing to appreciate what the Astros do on principle have a hard time not rooting for Baker.
"Game 6 has been my nemesis in most playoffs, and that's what I was thinking," Baker said. "I mean, you got to get past your nemesis. I was afraid of electricity when I was a kid, so now I'm an owner of an energy company. You try to get past things in your life."
You try to get past things in your life. There might be no better way to describe the 2021 Houston Astros. They know that nobody will feel sorry for them when they get jobbed on ball-strike calls, like reliever Ryne Stanek did twice in the same eighth-inning at-bat. They know that when Correa does things like look at his wrist and tap it, saying the postseason is "my time," that it will be met with derision, even though if Fernando Tatis Jr. did it fans would love him for it. They know that outside of the 713, 281 and 832 area codes, they're still the bad guys.
And that's fine. Fans will feel how they're going to feel, because fandom is at its heart an emotional and irrational thing. But amid the booing and sneering and everything else that's about to hit the Astros, whether in Atlanta or Los Angeles, there is a kernel of truth that everyone needs to recognize, as much as it might pain them to do so.
The Astros are that damn good. So if -- or when -- they win another World Series, it shouldn't surprise anyone.