“That’s cool,” Baker said. “I ain’t commenting on everybody’s comments. So go ahead. You want to beat on us? Go ahead.”
In the middle of the next question, he paused to add, “I didn't think Markakis talked too much.”
“He doesn't,” a reporter responded.
“Okay,” Baker said. “Well, maybe he had his Wheaties.”
Later that day, New York Yankees outfielder Aaron Judge unloaded on the Astros, too, calling on Major League Baseball to invalidate their 2017 World Series title, but the aftershocks of the sign-stealing scheme felt lessened on Day 6. Judge and Markakis, while bold, echoed others and were among the last in baseball to address the scandal. The fuel behind their ferocity won’t wane completely — spring training games, after all, begin Friday — but the daily back-and-forth seems nearly settled.
The Astros’ own message shifted as well as they continue trying to push public conversation about them back to where it has been for the past three years. Players will ride phrases such as “We’re moving forward” and “We just want to play baseball,” but the further from the start of the apology tour they get, the more audacious they have become. Listen, they’re saying, we’re still a juggernaut to be reckoned with.
“At some point, you have to move on and not give a s---,” outfielder Josh Reddick said, adding, “We’re going to go out there and win and shut everybody up.”
This much is true: The Astros are too good to ignore. They lost an American League Cy Young Award finalist, Gerrit Cole, but return the winner in Justin Verlander and a candidate for this year’s in Zack Greinke. The lineup that scored the third-most runs in baseball last season (920) brings back everyone except catcher Robinson Chirinos, who often hit eighth.
Baseball’s brainiacs and traditionalists find common ground in forecasting the Astros as one of the majors’ best teams this season.
The heart of the order — including George Springer, José Altuve, Alex Bregman and Carlos Correa — knows the pressure is on. A fan alluded to the scandal by banging a trash can during the team’s first public batting practice of spring training, and it served as a reminder that their reputations are at stake. If they don’t hit well this year, as Reddick pointed out, “people are going to look back and say, ‘They’re not using anything, so they obviously suck without it.’ But that’s not the case. We got too many good players in here.”
Larger question marks lurk in the rotation. Verlander admitted “you can’t replace Gerrit” but argued the Astros will be fine. Their projected third starter, Lance McCullers Jr., is coming back from Tommy John surgery but could return to all-star form, and their fourth, José Urquidy, two-hit the Washington Nationals over five innings to win Game 4 in the World Series. The organization’s top prospect, right-hander Forrest Whitley, could round out the rotation down the line.
“We’re still pretty set with talent,” Verlander said. “I love our team. I love the rotation.”
Time — and the bravado of Correa — has seemingly sparked this surge in confidence. The shortstop recently told the Athletic that one of the Astros’ most vocal critics, the Los Angeles Dodgers’ Cody Bellinger, should “shut the f--- up,” and Correa’s teammates have since either declined further comment on the scandal or puffed up themselves. What once required contrition has molted into motivation.
“[The teams talking trash are] going to have to play us,” McCullers told The Washington Post. “Except for the guys who are popping off the most.”
That was a thinly veiled reference to the Dodgers, whose stars have torched the Astros. Justin Turner argued “they shouldn’t have rings,” and Bellinger delivered one of the harshest rebukes by arguing Altuve “stole” the 2017 MVP award from Judge like the Astros “stole” the World Series title from the Dodgers. The teams aren’t scheduled to face each other this season.
“Those guys aren’t going to have to face us, which is maybe why they feel like they can speak like that,” McCullers continued. “But we’re moving on. That’s not what people may want to hear, but we stood here as men and we addressed [the scandal]. … We’re just looking forward to playing baseball again.”
A reporter asked: Would the Astros like to settle their dispute with the Dodgers in the World Series?
McCullers grinned. He exhaled and looked up at the ceiling. If he was indeed waging an internal debate about whether to lob one more grenade, he opted for de-escalation.
“If we get to the World Series, we'll play any team,” he said.
This was, in one small way, the Astros acting on the principles they have preached since their apology tour began. They want to put the scandal behind them, to discuss what they have learned, to play baseball. The war of words seems on the verge of subsiding, and if they continue to counter criticism as Baker and McCullers did Tuesday — with humor and restraint — then it will matter a little less if the rest of baseball continues firing. They will be one step closer to what they want: a chance to prove they are the team they say they are.