But here, at Minute Maid Park, in the southeastern corner of downtown Houston, in the southeastern corner of Texas, if there was a hint of distaste, or even ambivalence, about the Astros’ march to a third AL pennant in five seasons, it was drowned in a sea of orange-shirted, full-throated love.
The Astros couldn’t hear your groans and screams over the roars of 42,718 adoring fans celebrating a pennant-clinching, 5-0 win over the Boston Red Sox in Game 6 of the ALCS. They couldn’t read your angry tweets, owing to the champagne in their eyes. They don’t have time to engage in your cheating talk, because they have to get ready for another World Series.
After closer Ryan Pressly secured the final out on a flyball to left, he threw himself into the bearlike hug of catcher Martin Maldonado, while a sea of white jerseys converged from all directions toward the mound, where the Astros formed a teeming, bouncing huddle of elation. Infielders Alex Bregman, Carlos Correa, José Altuve and Yuli Gurriel, the four remaining holdovers from 2017, shared their own mini-huddle before joining the larger one.
“It’s extra-special after everything we’ve been through as a team, as a family,” said Correa, speaking of the criticism, media scrutiny and vitriol from fans on the road. “Our motivation is to show the world how great we really are."
In a game that could have swung one way or the other in almost every inning, series MVP Yordan Álvarez, the Astros’ designated hitter, was the game-changer, figuring prominently in each of the Astros’ first two runs. In the first, he ripped an RBI double off Red Sox starter Nathan Eovaldi — the drive to right-center nearly run down by Boston center fielder Kiké Hernandez, only to see it clank off the heel of his glove.
And leading off the sixth, he tripled to right, scoring two batters later on Kyle Tucker’s sharp double play grounder to first. Red Sox first baseman Kyle Schwarber may have had time to throw out Álvarez at the plate, but he chose the safer play of tagging the base runner and stepping on the bag for the double play.
An opposite-field, three-run homer from Astros right fielder Kyle Tucker in the bottom of the eighth accounted for the final runs.
But it was the Astros’ pitching that did the heavy lifting Friday, holding down Boston’s vaunted offense for the third consecutive game. Starter Luis Garcia carried a no-hitter into the sixth. Relief ace Kendall Graveman ended Boston’s first-and-third, one-out threat in the seventh with a strike-out/throw-out double play, with Maldonado firing a laser to second to nab Alex Verdugo, who had taken off from first on a hit-and-run. At that point, the Red Sox were a staggering 0 for their last 19 with runners in scoring position.
“I told Maldy when we came in, ‘You’ve been saving that bullet all year long — because you haven’t made a throw like that all year,'” said Correa, who caught Maldonado’s perfect throw and applied the tag. “That was a huge play in a key point in the game. That guy is a defensive guru.”
It was a collection of wild swings of momentum, beginning with the Astros erasing a 3-1 deficit and stealing Game 1, 5-4. Then came the blowouts, with the Red Sox winning Games 2 and 3 by a combined score of 21-8, only to see Astros clobber them in the next two by a combined 18-3. Though Friday night’s win wound up being by five runs, that undersells the taut nature of a game in which the Red Sox brought the go-ahead run to the plate in the seventh.
Still, there is no getting past the fact the Red Sox, after entering the eighth inning of Game 4 with a one-run lead, were outscored by a margin of 22-1 over those final 20 innings.
“I thought we grinded our butts off in this series,” Schwarber said. “It just didn’t work out. ... It was a full-on battle. You’re not going to go out there and score ten runs in every postseason game. You’ve just got to be realistic, and you have to tip your cap sometimes. Those guys are good."
Garcia, a 24-year-old rookie who carried a 24.55 ERA this postseason into Friday’s start, looked like a completely different pitcher than the one who collected only three outs in his Game 2 start, which he exited in the second inning with what the Astros said was a knee injury. In the days following that aborted start, Astros pitching coach Brent Strom made a tweak to Garcia’s delivery, ostensibly for the purpose of putting less strain on his compromised knee. But the involved parties were all hush-hush about the nature of the tweak.
Whatever the reason, Garcia’s fastball Friday night was by far his best of the year, sitting a few ticks above his 93.3 mph season average and occasionally touching 98 mph, a level he never reached in 28 regular season starts.
The mechanical tweak, Garcia said, was designed to make his delivery more “balanced.” Asked if the purpose was to spare his knee or improve his velocity, he said, “It helped my knee, and it helped everything else.”
With his unique windup — the first move of which is a rocking motion with his arms, as if he were cradling a baby — Garcia breezed through his first five innings, his only base runners reaching on a walk and a strikeout/wild pitch.
It says something about the state of baseball in 2021 that the prevailing question at that point wasn’t whether Garcia could throw the third postseason no-hitter in history, but whether the Astros would allow him to face Boston’s order for a third time. As he threw his first pitches of the sixth — working on a no-hitter — Houston’s bullpen was already in action.
And after Hernandez, with two outs in the sixth, bashed a 3-2 fastball off the wall in left-center for a triple — Boston’s first hit of the night — Manager Dusty Baker wasted no time climbing the dugout stairs and strolling to the mound to yank him. Garcia sauntered off the mound to a rousing standing ovation.
As Houston’s bullpen went to work cobbling together those final 10 outs, it was time to recalibrate and reassess this Astros era. Yes, they were found to have cheated — by stealing opponents’ signs with a center field camera and transmitting the information to the hitters by banging on trash cans — throughout their run to the 2017 World Series and again in the regular season of 2018.
But they made it to another World Series in 2019, where they lost to the Washington Nationals — who made some veiled (and not-so-veiled) accusations of more nefarious stuff on the part of the Astros, none of it proven — and are back there again this month, for the third time in five years. By this point, MLB’s leaguewide crackdown on electronic espionage in the game in the wake of the Astros scandal can only lead to the conclusion the Astros have done it clean this time.
“Ever since the news came out [about] what happened in 2017, I think we’ve all wanted to prove what kind of class of players that we are,” Alvarez, who joined the team in 2019, said through a translator. “I wasn’t here with the team in 2017, but I’ve gotten booed just as equal as anybody else. So I think we all have the same mentality — that we really want to win a World Series to demonstrate that we are just a great team.”
Some of the names have remained the same throughout this five-year run of dominance: infielders Bregman, Correa, Altuve and Gurriel played their 67th postseason game together Friday night, a record for any four teammates. Their ties to 2017 have made them the prime targets of fans’ vitriol on the road, and it will probably be no different when they go to Atlanta or Chavez Ravine next week.
But plenty of other faces have changed, most notably in the dugout, where the 72-year-old Baker — whose presence these past two years has increased the franchise’s likability and credibility factors by exponential degrees — became the ninth manager in history to win a pennant in both leagues, having previously guided the 2002 San Francisco Giants to the World Series. But Baker’s Giants lost to the Anaheim Angels in seven games, leaving a world championship as the only hole on an otherwise sterling and Hall-of-Fame-worthy résumé.
“There’s four more wins we gotta have,” Baker said late Friday night. “I want to win — and then I want to win again.”
Somewhere, folks will be pulling for Baker to lose again, because it would mean the Astros losing again. They are baseball’s greatest villains. Between now and the first pitch of the World Series, they will answer the questions all over again.
But on Friday night, deep in the heart of Texas — as the Astros chugged beer out of the ALCS championship trophy, sprayed champagne and danced and chugged and danced some more — that was the furthest thing from their minds.