Someday, the cloud that hovers over the Astros will dissipate. Someday, when all of the names have changed and all of the memories are distant, the baseball world won’t cringe at the notion that the Astros are contending for another World Series title so soon after MLB determined they stole signs on their run to the 2017 championship.
But that day is not here yet. The accusations aren’t going away. But after they beat the White Sox, 10-1, in Game 4 of the ALDS on Tuesday, neither are the Astros. They are headed to their fifth straight AL Championship Series.
“We don’t pay too much attention to that. In the clubhouse, it’s all positivity,” shortstop Carlos Correa said. “We love each other and care for each other. We have each other’s back, and that’s the most important to us.”
Their relentless lineup wore down an impressive White Sox pitching staff pitch after pitch, inning after inning. And on Tuesday they did it at Guaranteed Rate Field in Chicago.
“Disrespectful words with no facts,” Correa said of Tepera’s comments during his postgame interview on Fox Sports, pointing to the Astros’ MLB-leading road on-base-plus-slugging percentage (.780, just a tick below the .788 they turned in at home). “He needs to know the facts, or you know what he needs to do.”
The facts of Tuesday’s deciding game were uncomfortable for anyone wishing the Astros would quietly slink out of the way. The same old names made the difference: Correa and Alex Bregman each drove in two runs with doubles — the first knocked White Sox starter Carlos Rodón out of the game in the third, and the second gave the Astros some breathing room in the fourth. In the ninth, José Altuve hit a three-run homer to prove the point one last time.
“I don’t know if they feed off it necessarily, but we’ve been constantly bombarded by negatives, you know, especially on the road,” said Manager Dusty Baker, who was hired to be a different, steadying presence after the scandal. “But these guys, they came in — they come to play, and they love each other.”
That Correa and Bregman and Altuve remain so critical to the Houston operation is one reason resentment lingers among those who believe the Astros were not punished as harshly as they should have been. The coaches involved were suspended, but two of the most prominent members of that staff, Alex Cora and AJ Hinch, have managerial jobs again. Cora will be waiting on the other side in the ALCS after managing the Boston Red Sox to a surprise berth with a wild-card win over the New York Yankees and a four-game upset of the AL-best Tampa Bay Rays.
Altuve, Correa and Bregman still have their 2017 World Series rings, still have all the accolades and still have all the playoff experience. They were allowed to continue playing uninterrupted.
And because the coronavirus pandemic prevented fans from being in the stands for most of 2020, when MLB’s findings were made public, the Astros didn’t get much of a taste of their displeasure until this season. The fans have not held back — and neither have the Astros’ opponents, though few levied accusations the way Tepera did.
“It’s sad [Tepera] said those words,” Correa said, “because we came out hungry.”
Even when satiated, the Astros have one of the more potent and disciplined lineups in the game. New, untarnished names have joined the fray: Yordan Alvarez, for one, has emerged as one of baseball’s most productive hitters at 24. Kyle Tucker, also 24, finished the regular season with an impressive .917 OPS.
But the biggest difference between the old Astros teams and this group is the coaching staff. They are now led by Baker, who this season became the first manager to lead five different teams to a division title.
The 72-year-old is the only reason many around the game — from coaches to broadcasters and even players — have said they are even slightly conflicted about Houston’s fate. The consensus, fairly or not, has long been that Baker needs to manage a World Series winner to seal his case as a Hall of Famer. Baker insists he won’t let anyone make him feel like a failure if he doesn’t get one. He won a title as a player, with the Los Angeles Dodgers in 1981. He is 12th in wins as a manager, standing just 13 from 2,000. Everyone ahead of him on that list — besides 11th-place Bruce Bochy, who isn’t eligible yet — is in the Hall of Fame.
“A lifetime of success with the number of wins he has and the championships he has, I think he has the credentials already,” said White Sox Manager Tony La Russa, who is second in wins and enshrined in Cooperstown, N.Y. “… I don’t want to advance his case here in this series, but I feel that way now. You don’t have to beat us for me to feel better about that.”
Now, Baker’s Astros are off to face the Red Sox in the ALCS beginning Friday in Houston, and that adds a complicating wrinkle: Cora was the bench coach for those scandal-scarred Astros teams. After leading the Red Sox to a World Series title in 2018, he was suspended for the 2020 season but returned to his post this year, never hiding from the trouble and appreciative of his second chance.
He has endeared himself to Boston fans and seems to have a knack for postseason maneuvering — and his team has never had to answer questions about the legitimacy of its wins. Booing the Astros means, in some ways, booing Cora, too.
That doesn’t mean it won’t happen; cognitive dissonance rarely stands a chance against the power of rooting interest, especially when a title is near. But even if it does, the Astros are used to it. Resentment is their reality, and it hasn’t stopped them yet.