NEW YORK — Maybe the Houston Astros are just this much better than everyone else. Maybe the rest of the American League was not as competitive as it appeared at times this season — or last season or two years before that.
But whatever the ratios of talent to happenstance, good baseball bones to good baseball fortune, the Astros are AL champions again, the third time in four years and the fourth time in six years they have gone at least that far. They are as undeniable as they are inconvenient for the rest of the baseball world, which remains reluctant to forgive them after a sign-stealing scheme helped them to the 2017 title. But they are in the World Series again anyway — and they have yet to lose a postseason game this year.
“At this point in time right now, we got beat by a better team right now and that’s the reality of it,” Yankees Manager Aaron Boone said. “They’re clearly setting the mark in this league that we’re aspiring to get to.”
The baseball industry’s relationship with the Astros and their success is complicated. They are, and have been, innovators. They have also become a Goliath, the only team in recent history capable of transforming the Steinbrenners’ Yankees into something even remotely resembling a David. Any team they play holds the presumed moral high ground, one those around the Astros argue they should no longer have to cede.
But what they have ceded more willingly is the ability to surprise anyone anymore. A few hours before Nestor Cortes Jr. threw his first pitch to open Game 4, the Philadelphia Phillies had sent their city into revelry with a stunning, pennant-clinching win over the San Diego Padres. That National League frivolity, and the fact that four different teams have represented that league in the World Series the past four years, demonstrates just how difficult it is to do what the Astros have done.
“This ain’t easy. It ain’t easy. Damn near every game is a one-run game," said Houston’s Dusty Baker, the winningest active manager in baseball who is still searching for his first World Series title. “These guys know how to win these close games.”
It also highlights what is missing from this series: Revelry did not exist in this ALCS. There was history, and there were expectations. And Sunday, there were the undefeated Astros barreling into a team that looked utterly incapable of resisting — a team that, despite itself, admitted as much later.
“It’s hard to say,” Yankees star Aaron Judge said when asked just how much better the Astros are than the second-best team the American League had to offer — his. “I could sit up here and make excuses . . . when it comes down to it, they just played better than us.”
The Yankees scored four runs total in the first three games of this series. They looked offensively challenged, defensively unstable and emotionally disconnected. They arrived on a rainy Sunday in the Bronx all but beaten, then were forced to wait through an hour and a half of rain delays before taking the field before a lighter crowd than might have been in attendance under different circumstances. They were alive but barely — in line for the ferry to Hades, just waiting for their ticket to print.
Then suddenly, five batters into the game, they had a two-run lead. And for the first time in 10 games against the Astros between the regular season and postseason — a span of 91 innings — they led an inning that wasn’t the last one. They even added a run to that lead an inning later.
But this time of year, for this generation of Astros and this team in particular, no lead feels insurmountable. Cortes started missing the zone, his velocity dropping, and walked two batters. A trainer came to check on him. Five pitches later, rookie shortstop Jeremy Peña, who would be named ALCS MVP after going 8 for 20 in the series, hit a high flyball to deep left, a no-doubter. Within minutes, Yordan Alvarez, Kyle Tucker, and Yuli Gurriel all had hits, and Houston had a lead.
“Not easy. It was definitely not easy,” said Peña, the 25-year-old rookie who has replaced former Astros stalwart Carlos Correa so seamlessly this season that he, like his team, seems impervious to difficulty. “There was a lot of work that went into this — a lot of blood, sweat and tears. This team stuck with one another. We rooted for one another.”
Blow by blow, relentless at-bat after relentless at-bat, the Astros dismantled the Yankees’ momentum as quickly as it had appeared. But the Yankees scored to tie it an inning later. They even took a 5-4 lead in the sixth on Harrison Bader’s fifth homer of the playoffs. The Astros could have yielded the evening, already well past 11 p.m., and started fresh Monday for Game 5. But maybe, in retrospect, they actually couldn’t.
After José Altuve reached with one out in the seventh, Jonathan Loáisiga got Peña to hit a groundball to second. Torres fielded it and flipped to Isiah Kiner-Falefa at shortstop. Somehow, in ways that still remained unclear after multiple looks at replay, the flip flew by Kiner-Falefa and into the outfield. Both runners were safe, and the Yankees’ chance to escape the heart of the order was lost. Alvarez drove home the tying run, and Alex Bregman put the Astros ahead with an RBI single off Clay Holmes. In some ways, the comeback felt inevitable, which is precisely why these Astros, particularly right now, are so impressive.
“We haven’t even been operating on full cylinders, I’m telling you, the whole year, we haven’t been hot as a unit the whole year,” Baker said. “But we find a way to win.”
Alvarez, the Astros’ vaunted slugger, entered the game 1 for 10 in the series — the kind of neutralization any Astros opponent would be proud to have achieved. But when he had the chance to deliver the blow that would make the Yankees pay for their mistakes, he did it. So did Bregman, who struggled so much early in the season that carrying a .333 average and .915 OPS into the World Series — as he will do now — seemed unthinkable. Altuve started the postseason 0 for 25.
By the time Sunday turned to Monday in the Bronx, Altuve was standing on the field at Yankee Stadium, wearing an Astros American League Championship shirt, celebrating as Frank Sinatra’s “New York, New York” played the Yankees off the postseason stage. They had been the American League’s last hope to stop the Astros. Frankly, they never really had a chance.