John P. Lopez – Astros vs. Astros: The mental game is what they do best

Mandatory Credit: Photo by Chris Szagola/AP/Shutterstock (13604514cy) Houston Astros’ Jose Altuve, center, reacts to the fans prior to the in Game 3 of baseball’s World Series against the Philadelphia Phillies, in Philadelphia World Series Astros Phillies Baseball, Philadelphia, United States – 01 Nov 2022

John P. Lopez – Astros vs. Astros: The mental game is what they do best

These unflappable, unshakeable Astros have put baseball immortality in their crosshairs by feeding on your doubt and hate. For six years now.

They have gorged on it, really.

The more you booed and heckled, the more galvanized they became.

“Bleep Altuve?”

Boom. Leadoff or walk-off home run.

“Astros suck?”

Boom. Yordaddy proves otherwise.

Fans banging trashcans in the stands?

Boom. Boom. Boom.

  • Justin Verlander busts a 98-mph fastball past your best player.
  • Alex Bregman bare-hands an infield dribbler and breaks your heart by half a stride.
  • Kyle Tucker goes yard.

And now this.

Cheater chants? Opposing players dropping not-so subtle hints and jabs at the Astros’ 2017 sign-stealing scandal? Even 2022 World Series opponent Nick Castellanos seemingly said, “look, no wires,” as he partied after a Game 3 Philly romp.

Boom. Cristian Javier took the mound and sparked a, “take-that,” combined no-hitter.

We should have known the Astros would answer. They always answer. Some people might try to tune out the noise and doubt, but these Astros always seem to want you to turn it up.

Nothing has epitomized what they are more than this 2022 Astros postseason run and specifically Javier. It has been one of the most unique and unexpected post-seasons both in good and very bad ways. Star Astros players underachieved. Cy Young pitchers flopped. And the Philadelphia Phillies, frankly, smacked the Astros across the face. Twice.

The Phillies came back from a five-run deficit in Game 1 and then hammered a World Series record five home runs in Game 3.

That seemed to be that, right? The Astros finally cracked and all would be right again in the game, as the hard-working everyman Phillies marched on past the cheaters. The Astros finally had the life sucked out of them. They finally would get theirs. This Series truly was too dire and daunting to overcome.

We should have known. For six years, we have seen it. Crristian Javier — literally not even sweating in the midst of it all in Game 4 — was the picture of how this team responds. Cold. Calm. Unwavering.

For six years, you could just as well have injected your criticism and doubt into the Astros’ collective veins.

It fed them. It inspired them. It hardened their will and drove their focus. And inevitably, these Astros broke your will.

For six years, it has happened – usually dramatically — over and over and over again, from New York, to Boston, Los Angeles, Seattle and all points in-between. Now Philly.

For six years and never more than going into Wednesday’s Game 3 at rowdy Citizens Bank Park, there were moments that could have and should have broken the Astros.

With a season and series on the brink, there they were again, facing their toughest opponent. Themselves.

Manager Dusty Baker was fumbling most every call, not trusting the best bullpen in the game or respecting the urgency of managing a World Series. Justin Verlander could not find his edge and confidence. Lance McCullers Jr. was a mental mess in Game 3. The best offensive lineup in baseball looked lost and the most reliable bats at the top of the lineup went silent. Citizens Bank Park was out of control and over the top.

But of course, the Astros won. Of course, when the mental game was toughest, they were at their best.

That is why the Series is returning to Minute Maid Park. That is why there are some very tangible and intangible reasons to believe the Astros finally will back up that 2017 World Series championship with another.

 “Our guys were poised and ready,” Astros manager Dusty Baker said. “They were strong.”

Baker was talking about the combined no-hitter of Game 4. But while that game might have been the most crucial turning point this Series has seen, he could have been talking about every year. Every Series. And so many moments that could have broken a weaker-minded team.

The Astros have reached six consecutive League Championship Series and four World Series in the past six years despite the constant pushback and doubt. This is how they live. This is how they thrive.

If they complete the job, they no doubt will be a baseball dynasty and deservingly mentioned among the greatest teams to ever play the game. Others might have won more titles, but no team had the obstacles and critics everywhere they turned: In every opposing stadium. Among their peers. In the MLB offices. And across baseball’s stoic and staunch baseball media community.

The Astros now turn to a pair of Cy Young candidates to seal the deal. One, Justin Verlander, has struggled mightily in the post-season. The Astros’ offense still has not exactly caught fire outside of the fifth-inning Wednesday night. There are still aces in the Phillies’ arsenal, a rested bullpen and an offense that has walloped great pitching.

But do you doubt the Astros’ will? Do you question their mental strength?

How cute. Inject it into their veins and find yourself a good spot for the victory parade.

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