Dusty -- and his Astros -- belong in October
This is about who the Astros are under Dusty Baker. And what they are. And what Dusty’s Astros are is pretty great.
Even in Baker’s first season managing the team, the short regular season when the best they all could manage was a record of 29-31, they nearly made it back to the World Series, coming from 0-3 down in the American League Championship Series before losing Game 7 to the Rays.
The biggest regular-season victory total the Astros had under A.J. Hinch was 107, in 2019, when they made it to Game 7 of the Series before losing to the Nationals, a Series when the Astros had led three games to two. This season, they won 106 under Baker, and now are a game away from going back to the ALCS for the third year in a row, with a chance to go back to the World Series for the second consecutive year. They are as much of a powerhouse in their league as the Dodgers are in theirs.
Of course, the Dodgers will have a beef with the Astros forever because of the sign-stealing scandal that looms over Houston’s 2017 title. So will the Yankees. All part of the Astros’ permanent record. But so is this part of the record: The way Baker’s team plays the game now. And what they continue to do is play the living daylights out of it, whatever happens across the rest of this month, and perhaps into November.
The Mariners still have their chance to come all the way back on them if Yordan Alvarez -- who is hitting like Big Papi Jr. -- stops hitting game-winning home runs in Seattle. If the Astros do make it to the ALCS, the Yankees may get another crack at them. Or the Guardians will get their crack if they can upset the Yankees.
Still: The Astros made two World Series in the last three years Hinch managed the team. The Astros now have a shot at playing in their second Series in the three years they have been managed by a tremendous old baseball man named Johnnie B. Baker, continuing to get the ride of his life in Houston.
The Astros have lost Gerrit Cole to the Yankees along the way. They have lost George Springer, the 2017 World Series MVP, to the Blue Jays. They lost Carlos Correa to the Twins. They made it to the World Series in 2021 with Justin Verlander recovering from Tommy John surgery. And here they come again, riding two memorable October home runs from Alvarez, who is having himself a week that shows all signs of turning into a month. Because of that they found themselves in better shape through the first two games of their division series than the Dodgers were in theirs.
Here is what Baker said after Alvarez hit his two-out, three-run walk-off homer off Robbie Ray in Game 1 of the Astros-Mariners ALDS. He had been asked where Alvarez’s big swing, coming when it did after the Astros had trailed 7-3, ranked with everything he’d ever seen in his long baseball life:
"I don't know what the top is, but that's very, very close to it," Baker said. "The baseball world had to be excited. I know the town is excited. Our team is excited. If you're not a baseball fan after watching that, there's a good chance you'll tune in Thursday."
The Astros and Alvarez made us tune in on Thursday, and what we saw was him turn another game around, hitting a two-run homer to the opposite field off Mariners ace Luis Castillo. The Astros were trailing, 2-1, before Alvarez stepped to the plate in the bottom of the sixth. But with two outs, a bloop hit by Jeremy Peña fell safely between Julio Rodríguez and second baseman Adam Frazier. It looked on replay as if it should have been Rodríguez’s ball. It turned out to be no one’s. And then Alvarez won the Astros’ second straight postseason game, making another one of those October swings.
Everybody knows how talented the Dodgers are. And how talented the Braves still are, even without Ozzie Albies, as they try to defend the title they won against the Astros last October. No team is more talented than the Astros are. And what they have shown the baseball world under Baker is that they are as tough as their manager was as a player.
Now the Astros are five hard wins away from another World Series. They will never get much love outside of Houston -- that is an established baseball fact. It doesn’t change the baseball fact of how much the whole world hates playing Dusty’s guys. At this time of year most of all.
Dusty’s right. If you don’t tune in tomorrow, you might miss something great. The Astros still do a lot of that at this time of year.