Relegated to the shadows by scandal, the Astros are playing their way back into the spotlight

·MLB columnist
·5 min read

LOS ANGELES — There’s no way to say this gently, so here it is: The Houston Astros won again.

Maybe you didn’t hear. Maybe you didn’t want to.

On a warm Tuesday afternoon at Dodger Stadium, they’d drawn the JV start time (again). Then they continued along, tucked as they’ve been into a corner of baseball’s postseason, polishing their farmers’ tans, suppering at reasonable hours, bangin’ out the ol’ 9-to-5, starting over tomorrow.

Once not so long ago they were baseball’s sexiest team. They were the young stars. They were the charismatic, familiar and decorated veterans. They were the little team that rose from humiliating seasons, those fed into a furnace for the good of the process, for the good of the rebuild, and then folks could not get enough of them. Their scheme spawned copycats. General managers viewed a long, steady (and well-sold) plan as, among other things, bonus contract years. Opposing owners offered the Astros as the smart and virtuous way to build a champion and, also, as an airtight alibi for why they knocked another $30 million off their payrolls.

Hey, they’d say, it worked for the Astros, just like it worked for the Chicago Cubs before them. Only the contrarian would argue with the championships that flowered from the soot of bright men and last place. There are plenty of those.

The Astros, it seemed, were good for everyone, save the poor souls whose hearts aligned with franchises determined to replicate the Astros.

Course, the most thorough reverse engineering of what got the Astros from who they were to what they became would have missed a piece. You’d perhaps get an argument — certainly from the Astros — over how big of a piece. But, still big enough to end at least one career, stall a couple of others, and mark forever those who’d considered their own talents, considered the distance the organization had covered, and decided none of it was quite enough.

The shine was gone.

So maybe they are not primetime presentable like they once were. They get the lunchtime first pitches, then go home and watch the San Diego Padres, the New York Yankees, the Los Angeles Dodgers. If they finish off the Oakland A’s in the next three days, and it will take one win to do it, that will come on the front end of rush hour in L.A., on the back end of rush hour in Houston, and will have killed a few hours before the sexy teams show up.

El puertorriqueño Carlos Correa (izquierda) y George Springer, de los Astros de Houston, festejan la victoria sobre los Atléticos de Oakland en el segundo juego de la serie divisional de la Liga Americana, el martes 6 de octubre de 2020 (AP Foto/Ashley Landis)
With previous October heroics now shaded by the sign-stealing scandal, the Astros are making a new play for the spotlight. (AP Foto/Ashley Landis)

One more win here means they reach the American League Championship Series for a fourth consecutive year. One more win answers for some — not for others — what happens when their hitters have to guess, like everyone else. One more win and does George Springer look to you like George Springer again? He hit two more home runs Tuesday, the day after he had four hits. How about Alex Bregman? And Jose Altuve? Carlos Correa?

One more win and here come the introductions. To Framber Valdez, the 26-year-old lefty who in the absence of Zack Greinke becomes the ace, and who on Tuesday afternoon tamped down the A’s for seven innings in a very comfortable 5-2 win. To a handful of rookies in a bullpen that has allowed two baserunners over seven innings to the A’s. And the reintroductions. To Dusty Baker, who cooly asked them to breathe, who snuck them through the postseason’s back door and then counted on something like the past four games, all of them wins, perhaps none of those expected outside of his own dugout.

“You know, I’ve been up two-oh before,” Baker said. “You’ve got to put them away when you have a chance. If you let them off the mat, these guys know how to win. We’d like to win it tomorrow and not get any drama in Game 4 or 5. We know it’s not done yet.”

They’ll start 25-year-old Jose Urquidy in Game 3 because Greinke, according to Baker, has a sore arm. They’ll line up the guys who won two pennants, who won a World Series, went to another and who then had to explain themselves for going on a year.

Probably, it hasn’t been great. Probably, it shouldn’t have been.

Late Tuesday afternoon, as the Yankees and Rays were beginning their game down south and in primetime, Springer sat before a camera and said he can’t explain why he hits so well at Dodger Stadium. He had the four hits Monday. He had the two home runs Tuesday. Three years ago, over the final days of September and the first day of November, he raked here. It just is, he said. What he did know, he said, however, is that those guys, his teammates, could play. That they know what an October moment feels like. That they know how to win it.

“You’re in and anything can happen,” he said. “I’m honestly just enjoying the moment. … It’s not about stats in the playoffs. It’s about wins. And do what you can in the moment.”

It seems the Astros have been granted another. Actually, it seems they’ve insisted on another. They are that one win from playing again into the second half of October.

If, by the way, you were moved to line up the franchises most publicly put out by what the Astros had become, you might just start with the Oakland A’s, the New York Yankees and the Los Angeles Dodgers. The aggrieved are still out there. So, it turns out, are the Astros, working stiffs, still waiting for the lights to come on.

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