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The Astros could be the villains these baseball playoffs need

The Astros celebrate their 2-0 series win over the Minnesota Twins. (Jim Mone/AP)

In April 2018, long before the world linked the Houston Astros with illicit sign-stealing, two of their pitchers discussed “Fortnite,” fashion and how Major League Baseball lacked heroes and villains. Collin McHugh and Lance McCullers Jr. were just recording a podcast. But more than two years later, after they were swept into one of the sport’s biggest scandals, that last topic feels more prescient than intended. The Astros are baseball’s trusty heel.

“I feel like baseball has lagged behind in terms of creating a gripping narrative,” said McHugh, a right-hander who hosts “The Twelve Six Podcast.”

“And what you need for those things are heroes and villains. We see it in basketball, we see it in football, we even see it in soccer, in hockey,” McHugh continued. “All these sports, I don’t know whether it comes more natural or what it is. But in baseball, I feel like we have a unique opportunity right now to really create a gripping narrative.”

What you need to know about MLB's postseason

Well, here it is.

Your villains? The Astros.

Your heroes? Anyone who beats them. (Or anyone who throws a baseball very hard in their direction before mocking them while walking off the field, as Los Angeles Dodgers reliever Joe Kelly did early in this pandemic-shortened season.)

So much has changed since McHugh finally uploaded that episode Dec. 29, 2018. He is no longer with the Astros. McCullers started their 10-5 win over the Oakland Athletics on Monday, giving them a 1-0 lead in the best-of-five American League Division Series in Los Angeles. The Athletics, a division opponent, have taken extreme exception to the Astros using video and trash cans to illegally steal signs in 2017 and 2018. And Athletics pitcher Mike Fiers — a former Astros pitcher — was the whistleblower who exposed Houston in a story published by the Athletic that kick-started a still-raging storm.

The Astros have dominated baseball headlines since the year began, relieved only by the novel coronavirus pandemic and an ensuing labor battle. But now they’re back, 3-0 in the postseason and leading the type of narrative McHugh and McCullers described. Few fans wanted the Astros to make the 16-team playoff field, but they did so with a 29-31 record. Then they swept the Minnesota Twins out of the postseason’s first round.

Then the show rolled on, with Houston bashing three homers in Monday’s Game 1 victory. After McCullers allowed five runs (four earned) in four-plus innings, four Astros relievers combined for five scoreless innings and Houston scored the game’s final seven runs.

“I know a lot of people were mad. I know a lot of people didn’t want to see us here. But what are they going to say now?” Astros shortstop Carlos Correa asked after Houston advanced to the ALDS. Correa lifted two of those homers Monday, and after the second he put a hand by his ear while jogging past the Athletics’ dugout.

“It was very rarely talked about. The role of the villain was given to us,” first-year Astros manager Dusty Baker added before Monday’s win. “It’s not something we took on, even though some of it was probably merited. Or most of it was merited. I’ve been a villain for most of my life, so I might as well join the group.”

Fiers vs. the Astros is far from the only subplot. The series is happening at Dodger Stadium, where, in 2017, the Astros faced the Dodgers in the World Series. Houston’s win was the subject of much debate in the spring, when many suggested the addition of an asterisk to the Astros’ championship or even stripping them of their title. That outcry only grew when MLB Commissioner Rob Manfred called the World Series trophy a “piece of metal,” defending his decision to not specifically punish Astros players.

On-field interviews (and f-bombs) are now part of playoff baseball, and not everyone’s thrilled

In February, Houston was roundly criticized for apologies that seemed, well, less than genuine. There was a promise of constant booing, of fans mobilizing, which began with the spring training opener against the Washington Nationals in West Palm Beach, Fla. Then the pandemic arrived, the season was delayed, and the Astros’ summer was devoid of jeering crowds. That left Kelly and others to remind the Astros of how the sport feels.

Kelly wasn’t pitching for the Dodgers in 2017. But he still threw at the Astros in late July and was suspended for eight games, becoming a momentary hero. Shortly after that, Athletics outfielder Ramón Laureano and Houston hitting coach Alex Cintrón incited a benches-clearing brawl in Oakland. Laureano told ESPN that Cintrón insulted his mother. Cintrón denied the claim. The incident, not ripe for social distancing, kept the narrative floating, baseball’s villains intact.

A’s starter Sean Manaea took aim at the Astros in July. In an interview with 95.7 the Game, a Bay Area sports radio station, the left-hander told the hosts, “I really don’t have much respect for any of those guys.” He added that everything the Astros had accomplished — the World Series, their statistical achievements — “doesn’t mean anything.” But he avoided further jabs Monday, even when asked whether his views of the Astros would add juice to his Game 2 start Tuesday.

“Nah, I’m over it,” Manaea said on a Zoom call with reporters. “I’m over them.”