And as they came hurtling out of their dugout after the final out Wednesday night, amassing behind the pitcher's mound and tossing gloves, hats and care to the air, they did so with all the euphoria befitting a franchise's first World Series title and with all the confirmation they needed: This was the Astros' time after all.
In a definitive and thorough 5-1 victory over the Los Angeles Dodgers, the American League champion Astros broke a taut, nine-day stalemate with the National League champs, in a series full of intrigue and drama, and validated the organization's long teardown and rebuild that for a long while made them an industry laughingstock.
"Going through Boston and going through New York," Astros Manager A.J. Hinch said, naming the two American League behemoths they conquered to win the pennant, "and now coming to Los Angeles and winning the World Series, it's pretty unbelievable. It's hard to draw it up any better."
The Astros, a 101-win juggernaut during the regular season, had to win their second Game 7 in two weeks, following the one at home against the Yankees in the AL Championship Series, and thus became the first team since the 1985 Kansas City Royals to pull that off.
The Astros' first championship comes 55 years after the franchise was born as the Colt .45's, 12 years after they lost to the Chicago White Sox in their only other Series appearance, four years after their teardown bottomed out with 111 losses, three years after Sports Illustrated foresaw their rise and anointed them "Your 2017 World Series Champs" and two months after Hurricane Harvey devastated the Houston area and thrust the Astros into the center of the region's emotional rebuild.
"I'm so happy to be part of it — to bring a championship back to a city that desperately needed it," said center fielder George Springer, who was named the series MVP after hitting .379 with five homers, seven RBI and eight runs scored. The five homers equaled a World Series record held by Reggie Jackson (1977) and Chase Utley (2009).
If the Astros truly believed their time had come, it was hard to argue otherwise. It was all lining up for them, from the fateful blessing of a 2014 magazine cover to the karma of representing a hurricane-ravaged city to the way Game 7 meandered and flowed and wound up delivering the perfect Astros ending: four exquisite innings of relief from right-hander Charlie Morton, a starter by trade, an assassin by demeanor. It was a reversal of roles from Game 7 of the ALCS, when Lance McCullers Jr., Wednesday night's starter, closed out a win in a game started by Morton.
Dodger Stadium, the third-oldest stadium in baseball, the onetime home of Don Drysdale and Sandy Koufax and Kirk Gibson, had never hosted a World Series Game 7. Baseball hadn't seen two 100-win teams in a World Series Game 7 since 1931. The stage was set for a topper to one of the wildest, most exhilarating World Series in history. It just didn't quite work out that way.
The Astros, resplendent in their orange tops and gray pants, ambushed Dodgers starter Yu Darvish for the second time in five days, putting up five quick runs before Manager Dave Roberts could get him out in the second inning, silencing a raucous crowd of 54,124.
Springer, the new Mr. November, doubled to lead off the game and came around to score, then crushed a two-run homer to left-center in the second inning to give the Astros a 5-0 lead and end the nasty, brutish and short outing of Darvish.
"He was the best player in the series," Hinch said of Springer. "He really is the energy we provide."
While Springer was a deserving MVP, in terms of his total contribution to their series victory, it could be argued no one was more valuable to the Astros than Darvish.
Darvish, acquired at the July 31 trade deadline at a cost off three prospects, collected a total of 10 outs in his two World Series starts against the Astros, leaving him with a 21.60 ERA for the series and taking a chain saw to his upcoming free agent market. His downfall Wednesday was swift and merciless. He threw his first pitch at 5:21 p.m. Pacific time and by 5:23 was trailing by a run. By 5:25, he was down two.
"I know he wanted the baseball. I know he was prepared," Roberts said of Darvish. "I just can't explain the results. I really can't."
With both starters — Darvish and Houston's McCullers — combining for just 12 outs, and with both teams' bullpens in varying states of exhaustion and disarray, three pitchers who had started games earlier in the series appeared in relief Wednesday, as both Hinch and Roberts exhausted every fiber of every usable arm on their staffs. Dodgers ace Clayton Kershaw delivered four brilliant innings to keep the Dodgers within striking distance, and Alex Wood got the last six outs for the Dodgers. But it was Morton, pitching in relief on three days' rest, who earned the victory with his overpowering, four-inning relief stint.
"Twenty-seven outs is hard to get," Hinch said. "We proved that a lot of different ways. But that 27th one felt pretty sweet tonight."
The Dodgers knew they had the services of Kershaw at some point even though he had started three nights earlier in Game 5. They might have loved to save him for the end of the game; instead, they brought him in to start the third inning, and he restored order to the proceedings by holding the Astros scoreless for four dazzling innings. (That, in turn, raised another question: If the Dodgers were going to stay with Kershaw this long, why not bring him into the game in the second, before Springer's homer off Darvish pushed the lead to 5-0?)
"I understand it's Game 7, but I just felt [Darvish's] stuff was good," Roberts said. "And I think anything other than a homer would have been considerably better. . . . There's always going to be second-guessing."
In any case, the Dodgers had bigger problems to consider: They needed to make up five runs, and they were running out of innings.
McCullers, at 24 the youngest pitcher to start a World Series Game 7 since Anaheim's John Lackey in 2002, managed the death-defying trick — don't try this at home, kids — of allowing seven of the 13 batters he faced to reach base, including a record four on hit-by-pitches, without allowing any to score. The Dodgers stranded six runners in the first three innings and eight in the first five and were 0 for 9 with runners in scoring position before pinch hitter Andre Ethier finally broke through with an RBI single off Morton in the sixth. It was 5-1, Astros.
But whatever hopes the Dodgers held of climbing back into the game died at the right hand of Morton — the Astros' Game 4 starter, who entered in the sixth and, after that brief stumble, began mowing down the Dodgers with 98-mph fastballs and 96-mph sinkers.
"What Charlie Morton did tonight — heh, heh," said Astros catcher Brian McCann, chuckling at the absurdity of Morton's darting pitches. "He's throwing whiffle balls up there at 97 miles per hour. When we handed the ball to Charlie and I saw the stuff he had, we were all very confident he was going to close this thing out."
Coming one year after the Chicago Cubs captivated the nation on their way to their first title in 108 years, the 2017 World Series may have been even better.
The first pitch of this World Series was thrown in 103-degree heat and the last, Wednesday night, in a cool 64. In between, it produced two bona fide, first-ballot classics — a Game 2 that featured five extra-inning homers and a Game 5 that produced five tying or go-ahead homers. The series had seen 16 lead changes across its first six games. Five of those six were decided by two runs or fewer, and the sixth was tied going into the ninth inning. It had 25 homers in all, shattering the 2002 World Series record. It had controversies involving racial insensitivity and slick baseballs. The Dodgers' bullpen carousel peaked during a stretch in which they used 17 pitchers in a span of 20 innings. There were walk-offs and bat-flips, aces blowing leads and great closers blowing saves.
"This was a great series between two 100-win teams, two great teams, two great offenses, two great defenses, two great pitching staffs," Springer said. "And the wildness of this series, the wackiness of this series, the emotional ups and downs — being able to play in this is something that I will never, ever forget, even if this is the only time I will ever get here."
The Astros, whose offense ranks among the best the game has ever seen, won because they simply destroyed some of the best pitchers in the sport, including Kershaw in Game 5 and Darvish in Games 3 and 7 — a pair of pitchers with 11 all-star appearances and four strikeout titles between them. They tied one game and won another off Dodgers closer Kenley Jansen, arguably the best in the game.
In fact, the only game of the series that in any way could be considered a dud was Game 7, and even this one was elevated in its own way — by the history behind it, by Springer's brilliance at the plate, and by Morton's on the mound. And this was a World Series that, by its end, didn't need any elevating in the first place. It was already near perfect, and in the Astros, it gained a near-perfect champion.