Richard Justice: Close games, new stars and another World Series for the Astros.

Mandatory Credit: Photo by Gail Burton/AP/Shutterstock (13417941j) Houston Astros’ Jose Altuve, right, celebrates his two-run home run with Maurico Dubon in the third inning of a baseball game against the Baltimore Orioles, in Baltimore Astros Orioles Baseball, Baltimore, United States – 24 Sep 2022

Richard Justice: Close games, new stars and another World Series for the Astros.

Here’s hoping we never forget how lucky we’ve been to watch this team play baseball. Still, despite all the joy this team has given us these last eight years, it has never been this good.

   None of those other postseason teams was this dominant. The Astros have opened these playoffs with seven straight victories: a three-game sweep of the Mariners and a four-game sweep of the Yankees.

   It’s even better than it looks. The Astros trailed in four of the seven games. They had to come from behind three times in Game 1 of the Seattle series. In Sunday’s 6-5 clincher against the Yankees, they trailed 3-0 in the second inning and 5-4 in the seventh.

   Their margin of victory has been microscopic. They won four of the seven games by one run, two of them by two runs and one by five runs. Even in the 5-0 Game 3 win, it was 2-0 into the sixth inning when the Astros created some breathing room for themselves.

   These are games decided when one player makes a winning play. That’s a swing of the bat or a pitch in a critical situation or a defensive gem. In every single one of them, the Astros made a play that won the game.

   Or in the case of Games 3 and 4 in New York, it was Yankee defensives mistakes that positioned the Astros to win. In both cases, the Astros made the Yankees pay for their mistake. That’s what championship teams do.

   The Astros will step onto the field at Minute Maid Park on Friday for Game 1 of the World Series as nearly overwhelming favorites. The Phillies won 19 fewer regular-season games than the Astros, which is the second-largest difference in a World Series. Only in 1906, when the Cubs won 23 more than the White Sox, has there been a greater disparity, according to‘s Sarah Langs.

If you’ve watched the Astros play these last seven months, it seems almost inevitable. Only thing is, the Phillies, having eliminated the Cardinals, Braves and Padres, believe they are the team of destiny. They believe they will write their own ending to this thing, and that’s what makes this World Series matchup so fascinating.

Those of us that have watched the Astros win the American League pennant four times in the last six seasons and have seen the depth of the pitching staff grow to ridiculously great levels this season believe they’ll be the ones writing the ending. We’ve seen too much to think otherwise.

   “That’s a great run but it’s not going to be complete until we get it done,” Astros owner Jim Crane said. “I really want to win another one for the city, for the great fans and for the players who worked so hard.”

   Jeremy Peña? Are you kidding me? The ACLS MVP combines talent, confidence and poise. Says the right thing, always. How many times has be brought us out of our seats this season by making the difficult seem routine? These playoffs have introduced him to millions of fans around the country who appreciate his brilliance. He won the scoreless 18-inning game in Seattle with a homer, and then Sunday night, his three-run shot and accompanying majestic bat flip erased a 3-0 Yankee lead and changed the dynamic of the contest. At that point, the Yankees knew that the Astros would just keep scratching and clawing until they got what they wanted.

   “It’s surreal,” Peña said. “You dream about this stuff when you’re a kid, and shout-out to my teammates. We show up every single day. We stayed true to ourselves all year. Yeah, we’re a step away from our ultimate goal.”

   Same thing with Chas McCormick. He also has risen to the moment in a season in which he was on the verge of being sent to the minor leagues. We probably aren’t celebrating another trip to the World Series, the fourth in six seasons, without his home runs in Games 1 and 3 of the American League Championship Series.

   Bryan Abreu? Around midseason, Jeff Bagwell told television viewers, “I really like this kid. He has a chance to be special.” Abreu’s 2022 season has been a transformation from a back-of-the-bullpen long reliever to high-leverage close-the-door arm. Dusty Baker handed him the baseball in three of the four ALCS victories, and Abreu delivered every single time.

   Peña and McCormick and Abreu represent something larger. To go to the playoffs six straight seasons is extraordinary, especially when free agency has cost the Astros a boatload of talent.

   Jose Altuve is the only common thread running from the breakthrough 2015 postseason team to the one that finished a four-game sweep of the Yankees. To a core that now includes Justin Verlander and Alex Bregman and Ryan Pressly and others, the Astros have filled in masterfully with guys like Peña and McCormick and Abreu, along with Kyle Tucker and Yordan Alvarez and Cristian Javier.

   For this, we owe a thank you to Crane, who bought the Astros in 2011 and transformed it into a model franchise on the field and off. His most important hire, general manager Jeff Luhnow, has been gone for almost three years, yet the structure he built and the front office talent he brought into the mix continues to pay dividends.

Former Astros executives can be found in the front offices of the Orioles, Brewers, Giants and Braves. All those young pitchers are a byproduct of a scouting and player development system that’s first rate in every way.

   “We have grown this culture to spread around the clubhouse and the entire minor league system,” bench coach Joe Espada said. “So when the guys get up here, they know they belong. They know they can do it.”

   When Crane fired Luhnow and A.J. Hinch in 2020 after the sign-stealing scandal became public, it was hard to comprehend that the train would keep rolling.

   Crane’s hire of James Click to be his general manager and Dusty Baker to be his manager were brilliant moves. Baker, with six decades in major league baseball, was the perfect hire.

   Into the churning waters of scandal stepped a man who had seen and done pretty much everything and brought a desperately needed sense of calm. His leadership is why a clubhouse with players from a variety of cultures function as one.

   “That’s what kind of makes the world go around for us,” he said. “To accept each other’s cultures and take a person for who he is and not where he’s from.”

   Amid the wild clubhouse celebration, Baker excused himself and stepped into the hallway to accept a congratulatory hug from Yankees manager Aaron Boone.

   “I always love you, you know that,” Baker told him.

    Plenty will be written these next few days about his quest to add a championship to his managerial resume and punch his ticket into the Hall of Fame. Hundreds of players, executives, etc., throughout the sport will be rooting for him.

   But the larger quest simply is winning. The Astros have done more of that than almost anyone these last eight years. For five decades, we could not comprehend our baseball team playing in a World Series. Now the World Series is the Astros’ stage.

   “They beat us in every facet,’’ Yankees ace Gerrit Cole said. “I watched the series and didn’t really see an area where we played better than them.”  

Related Posts:

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *