HOUSTON — For five years, they’ve restored a level of excellence to Major League Baseball, making the World Series their near-annual playground while earning well-deserved off-field scorn and heartbreak.
Yet with a mighty swing from Yordan Alvarez, the Houston Astros — after scandal, organizational uproar, free agent defections and a maddening string of near misses — returned to baseball’s pinnacle on Saturday night, beating the Phillies. of Philadelphia 4-1 in Game 6. of the World Series, winning their first championship since a now-tainted title in 2017.
This electronic sign theft scandal, revealed two years after the Astros beat the Los Angeles Dodgers in seven games, threatened to cast every move of the organization, and certainly its protagonists, in a contested light. For some, this may still be the case.
But rather than chafe at their critics or wallow in guilt, the Astros simply got back to the work of building and maintaining excellence.
And by winning only the second championship in franchise history, they left no doubt.
“You can’t say it didn’t bother them,” Astros owner Jim Crane said of the sign-stealing scandal and aftermath, “but they got their way and played hard and tough.” you got a result tonight that is quite spectacular.”
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The Astros have won 11 of 13 games this postseason, joining the Chicago White Sox in 2005 and the New York Yankees in 1999 (each 11-2) and the Yankees in 1998 (also 11-2) as best teams of the wildcard era, a span in which the greatest teams often got carried away by playoff chance, bad decisions or bad luck.
Those Astros and their beloved 73-year-old manager Dusty Baker, who eventually won a World Series title as skipper on his third try, were just too good for that.
Southpaw Framber Valdez won his second game of this series, dominating the Phillies with one of the biggest curveballs in the game and a flowing fastball that left the Phillies flailing for most of the night. Valdez struck out five consecutive one-run batters and nine total, and his total in Games 2 and 6 was nearly flawless: 13 ⅓ innings pitched, six hits, two earned runs and 18 strikeouts.
Even his only blemish in Game 6 – a solo home run from Kyle Schwarber topping the sixth – only set the stage for the single greatest moment in Astros history.
As Phillies starter Zack Wheeler returns to ace status after a shaky Game 2, the Phillies’ 1-0 lead briefly inspired hopes they could force a Game 7 win-win on Sunday night . Still, No. 9 hitter Martín Maldonado ducked slightly and was hit by a Wheeler pitch in the top of the sixth. One out later, rookie shortstop Jeremy Peña, quickly becoming the Astros’ most indomitable plate presence, scored a single into center field.
Alvarez hadn’t homered in 42 at bats. Wheeler, at just 73 pitches, hadn’t allowed an extra hit all night. And dominating left-handed reliever Jose Alvarado had crumbled in a similar base-laden spot in Game 4, hitting Alvarez with a force pitch in the game’s first inning and allowing a two-run brace to Alex Bregman.
No matter. Rookie Phillies manager Rob Thomson came out and took the ball from Wheeler, thanking him emphatically for his effort on the off.
And then Alvarado sent a 2-1 lead at 98 mph to Alvarez.
“You know, man,” Alvarado said, “sometimes I win, sometimes I take my hat off to the batter. That’s the game.”
The Cuban slugger had been just 5 of 42 since hitting a pair of home runs in the AL Division series. But Alvarado’s pitch weighed like a grapefruit and Alvarez smashed it — 450 feet on a straight to the dead center field, hovering over the fence, above the fake greens hitting the background, in a jolly phalanx of celebratory Astros fans on a booth-room-only deck.
A herd of Astros leapt onto the deck of the canoe. Center fielder Chas McCormick was in the tunnel, too nervous to watch and with a towel draped over his head, but emerged giddy, in awe of Alvarez’s outburst.
“He’s the greatest hitter in the world,” McCormick said of Alvarez. “Nobody hits the home runs to center field. He hit it over the backstop.”
It was 3-1. Nine withdrawals. And in this playoffs, as well as over.
You see, the Astros’ bullpen put up the most dominant playoff run in history, and Saturday seemed like a mere formality as the same protagonists who helped complete a no-hitter combined in Game 4 – Bryan Abreu, Rafael Montero and Ryan Pressly, along with Hector Neris – covered the last four rounds with ease. The unit finished the playoffs with an 0.81 era, capped by another save from closer Ryan Pressly, who pulled out Nick Castellanos on a fly ball to mark territory in right field for the final to trigger chaos in H-Town.
“We’re mean,” said Pressly, who saved Games 5 and 6 and didn’t allow an earned run in 5 2/3 innings of the World Series.
They had only been celebrating like this for five years, after that Game 7 at Dodger Stadium. The intervening period was eventful and eye-opening, with a new GM and manager and years of boos for survivors like Jose Altuve and Alex Bregman.
On Saturday night, a trio of new heroes stepped forward. And now all – Astros old and new, involved and innocent, are undeniably champions.
“Every person did so much work. Every person believed,” said third baseman Alex Bregman, one of five survivors for the 2017 team.
“I’m so grateful and proud to be part of this ball club.”