NEW YORK -- The Houston Astros made going to the World Series look easy.
This is October, after all, the time of year when it's easy to pencil in the Astros for making a deep postseason run -- and 2022 marked their sixth straight trip to the American League Championship Series. And somehow, this year's Astros team made things look even easier, steamrolling through the regular season to the tune of an American League-best 106 wins and sweeping all three games against the Seattle Mariners in the ALDS and all four games against the New York Yankees in the ALCS.
The Astros won Game 4 of the ALCS 6-5 on Sunday night to punch their fourth ticket to the World Series since 2017.
But under the facade of inevitability lies an organization culture that takes nothing for granted, that never assumes a deep trip into October, whose hunger for another World Series trophy never ceases.
"It's a long road to get here," said Astros manager Dusty Baker. "There's a lot that happens in the months to get here from spring training. It means that we persevered and we stayed together, and we made the necessary trades when we had to try to strengthen certain parts of our team."
The Yankees put up a fight Sunday night in an attempt to keep their season alive for another day. New York started off the evening's scoring in the bottom of the first when designated hitter Giancarlo Stanton singled on a sharp line drive to Astros right fielder Kyle Tucker, scoring Yankees center fielder Harrison Bader. By the end of the second inning, the Yankees found themselves with a 3-0 lead on a Gleyber Torres RBI single and an Anthony Rizzo RBI double.
The early lead did not startle Houston.
"The thing about this team is that they don't panic," Baker said. "They never panic. They try to find a way. It was early in the game and you would rather have that happen to you early in the game because you got time to come back and rebound."
Yankees starter Nestor Cortes cruised through the game's first two innings, striking out two and facing just eight batters while allowing no runs. But as Cortes started the third inning, warning signs started to flash. New York's crafty lefty started the evening with a fastball sitting between 91 and 92 mph, but as Cortes started the third, his velocity dipped to 87-88 mph.
And then the Astros came storming back. Cortes walked Martin Maldonado and Jose Altuve to start the inning, before rookie shortstop Jeremy Peña -- en route to being named MVP of the ALCS -- tied the game with a three-run homer. A few batters later, first baseman Yuli Gurriel knocked in an RBI single to give Houston a 4-3 lead going into the fourth inning. The home run was the nail in the coffin for Cortes, as Yankees manager Aaron Boone and the team trainer popped out of the dugout and took the lefty out of the game due to injury, later announced as a left groin strain.
But the Yankees responded immediately in the fourth inning with an RBI single from Rizzo to tie the game. The score remained tied until the sixth inning, when Bader hit his fifth homer of the postseason to give New York a 5-4 lead.
But just a half-inning later, the Astros yanked back the lead for the final time. A single by Álvarez tied the game at 5 apiece before Bregman drove in the go-ahead run for a 6-5 advantage, ultimately securing a matchup with the Philadelphia Phillies in the World Series.
"These guys here, we've never been afraid of the brightest lights," Verlander said. "Obviously New York brings the brightest lights, the most attention. More than anything, it's about not being afraid. I think we embrace it and we bring our A-game and we play our best baseball."
The Astros roster features an experienced group that understands the pressure of playing in October, but the team credits the clubhouse culture they've developed over the years for helping them make run after run deep into the postseason.
"I don't say this lightly, but this team, I can feel it, man," said Astros starter Lance McCullers, who went five innings and allowed four runs, three earned, and struck out six in Game 4. "We want it. Like, we really, really want it. Deep down, we want this."
Astros designated hitter Trey Mancini arrived from the Baltimore Orioles after the trade deadline, and the established culture of success created a smooth transition into the winning atmosphere in Houston.
"It's just infectious," Mancini said. "You just want to better yourself every day. These guys prepare better than anybody I've ever seen."
Baker said this iteration of the Astros is better equipped to win the World Series than last year's group because of the presence of a healthy Verlander and McCullers -- who missed the 2021 Fall Classic -- and the improvement of young players like Framber Valdez, Luis Garcia and Cristian Javier.
The red-hot Phillies, who've been playing like a team of destiny, will represent a formidable challenge for the Astros.
"The Phillies, they can hit," Baker said. "They got a couple top of the rotation type pitchers. They got their bullpen together. They play good defense. As you saw, they don't quit. ... You get this far, they got the same belief over there that we have over here."
The Yankees, meanwhile, end their season in disappointment, with Aaron Judge's game-ending groundout possibly his last at-bat as a member of his current team.
Boone acknowledged the Astros are the standard bearer for the rest of the American League.
"We got beat by a better team right now and that's the reality of it," Boone said. "They're clearly setting the mark in this league that we're aspiring to get to."
That team that the rest of the AL aspires to be is now one step away from winning their first World Series title since 2017.
"We show up every single day," said Peña, who earned ALCS MVP honors after hitting .353 with two home runs and four RBIs in the series. "We stayed true to ourselves all year. We're a step away from the ultimate goal."
Houston hosts the Phillies in Game 1 of the World Series on Friday at Minute Maid Park. The Astros opened at -180 to win the Fall Classic at Caesars Sportsbook.