By DAVID BRANDT
AP Sports Writer
They’re off to the World Series for a fourth time in six seasons, a remarkable feat of staying power for a franchise in any era of baseball history, let alone one that includes a 12-team playoff gauntlet filled with potential pitfalls.
Astros pitcher Lance McCullers Jr. put it succiently on Sunday night: “This is not easy.”
Even so, the dichotomy that is this generation of Houston Astros will probably never go away.
They left no doubt that they’re the best team in the American League this season, sweeping aside slugger Aaron Judge and the New York Yankees in four games after Sunday’s 6-5 victory.
It should be a lovable group. There’s pint-sized star Jose Altuve, two-time All-Star Alex Bregman, ace right-hander Justin Verlander and a slew of up-and-coming players like ALCS MVP Jeremy Peña, Yordan Alvarez and Kyle Tucker. There’s also Dusty Baker, the 73-year-old manager who is still searching for his first World Series title and the oldest man to lead a team to the Fall Classic.
The stench of the 2017 cheating scandal — when the Astros were found to have illicitly stolen signs that season — still lingers, even though 21 of the 26 players on this year’s ALCS roster were not on the 2017 team.
Only Altuve, Bregman, McCullers, Verlander and Yuli Gurriel remain. The quintet has endured a firehose of hate from fans and even fellow players since the scandal was brought to light before the 2020 season. The catcalls were still heard at Yankee Stadium over the past few days, but as the Astros piled up the runs and wins, there was a hint of another emotion.
“They got better treatment here this time than in previous times here,” Baker said. “So maybe it was a different crowd or maybe the crowd has finally forgiven things of the past.”
That’s probably wishful thinking.
But it’s also probably time to admit that these Astros — trash cans or no trash cans — are simply really good at baseball.
“When everything happened a few years ago, we knew the one thing that we could do is we could win and we could win and win a lot,” McCullers said. “I understand people are still not going to like us. They’re going to boo us, but at some point you have to respect what we’re doing.”
It’s a franchise that’s kept rolling despite the upheaval the cheating scandal wrought. Manager A.J. Hinch and general manager Jeff Luhnow were suspended for a year by MLB and eventually fired before being replaced by Baker and James Click. Many of the best players from that 2017 team have retired or moved on to other teams.
Star outfielder George Springer left for the Blue Jays. Two-time All-Star shortstop Carlos Correa signed with the Twins. Right-handed pitcher Charlie Morton left for the Rays and is now with the Braves.
Altuve is among those who have witnessed it all. Now his team is back in the World Series: The Astros host the Phillies in Game 1 on Friday.
Those who wanted the Astros to suffer a quick, embarrassing downfall in the aftermath of 2017 continue to be disappointed.
“When you talk about Springer, Charlie Morton, Carlos Correa, you’re talking about all superstars, and to get players to fill that spot it’s not easy,” Altuve said before Game 4 on Sunday. “The fact that we’re still playing really good and being in these situations, like I said, we just have to give a lot of credit to the front office group.”
In a way, the Astros saga is a fitting chapter for a sport that can never seem to completely enjoy its biggest moments.
Judge set the AL record for homers with 62 this season and the debate raged about whether he should be considered the all-time single-season record holder. Barry Bonds, Mark McGwire and Sammy Sosa all hit more in the National League, but for many, their accomplishments are overshadowed by links to performance-enhancing drugs.
Now the debate will rage about the Astros.
Altuve has become a pro at deflecting vitriol. He knows some in baseball would love for them to go away.
That doesn’t appear to be happening any time soon.
“I do as best as I can to keep everything away and just focus on the game and just be ready to help my team,” Altuve said. “Like I said, it doesn’t matter where I play, I just got to be 100% focused on the game.”