Don’t ask the Astros if they could have envisioned this fourth consecutive trip to the American League Championship Series. Of course they could have. They probably expected it.
That’s because this core group of players has accomplished so much over the past six seasons that it believes it can write its own ending even if logic and rosters would seem to dictate otherwise. Even after a 29-31 regular season and losing 16 of its final 24 games. No sweat.
The Astros craved this opportunity, and that’s why the celebration they threw themselves at Dodger Stadium on Thursday after beating the A’s 11-6 in Game 4 to clinch the best-of-five AL Division Series might be the sweetest of all.
And that’s why being part of this team will forever have a special place in their hearts and minds. Because the 2020 season began with a sign-stealing scandal that tarnished their 2017 World Series win and cast doubt on everything they’d accomplished.
That was followed by a season filled with injuries and slumps so puzzling that it would be easy to wonder if the pressure of proving the world wrong about them hadn’t taken up residence in their brains.
In the end, though, they did something virtually no one thought possible in overcoming two division champions -- the Twins and the A’s -- and returning to the AL Championship Series, this time to face the Rays. To do it, they worked around some serious weaknesses on their roster and were again at their best in the sport’s brightest spotlight.
To review: the Astros were hit so hard by injuries this season that they used 15 rookie pitchers, tied with the Marlins for most in MLB. Of those 15 rookies, 10 made their Major League debuts. Their 4.31 ERA in the regular season was 13th out of 30 teams and more than half a run higher than their 3.66 mark in 2018.
At least the pitching problems could be explained. One ace, Gerrit Cole, left via free agency, and the other, Justin Verlander, made just one start before an elbow injury cost him this season and the next. In searching for reliable arms, the Astros used 26 pitchers, including 10 starters.
From Sept. 4 until the end of the regular season, only two teams -- the Pirates and the Tigers -- had a worse record than Houston’s 8-16. Only Pittsburgh and Detroit scored fewer runs (3.67 per game) in those 24 games, and Houston’s 4.66 team ERA was 21st. Offensively, some of the Astros' biggest stars -- Jose Altuve, Alex Bregman and Carlos Correa -- underperformed all season.
And yet, here they are again, four victories from a third trip to the World Series in four seasons. How did this happen? Besides the obvious explanation that sometimes things happen in sports that defy logic, the Astros planned smartly and executed brilliantly in sweeping two games from the Twins and winning three of four from the A’s.
1) Pitching strategy
They piggybacked starting pitchers to get past the Twins, needing just five outs from their regular relievers. Against the A’s, that strategy became more problematic with no off-days. Even worse, only one Houston starter -- lefty Framber Valdez, who pitched seven innings in Game 2 -- went longer than 4 2/3 innings. What Baker did so masterfully in the three victories was lean on three rookies, Cristian Santana, Enoli Paredes and Blake Taylor, who combined for 8 1/3 shutout innings. In all, rookies have pitched 24 1/3 of the Astros' 54 postseason innings.
2) Orange crush
Someone -- or several someones -- flipped a switch. Who is it that said hitting is contagious? From a mediocre offensive team -- scoring three runs or fewer in 13 of its final 24 regular-season games -- the slugging Astros of the previous three seasons were reborn. They homered 12 times, scored 33 runs and batted .322 in four games against the A’s. Correa hit four of their 12 homers, and Altuve, Michael Brantley and George Springer hit two apiece. Outfielder Kyle Tucker hit .400.
3) Dusty Baker
In his 53 years in the game, including 23 as a Major League manager, there’s pretty much nothing Baker hasn’t seen or done. There’s also almost nothing that could shake his sense of calm and dignity. Because of those qualities, the Astros couldn’t have hired anyone better, and his contributions may never be fully appreciated because so much of his work happened inside the clubhouse. Also, Baker's credibility and respect inside the game made him the perfect face for an organization in need of a remake.
When they were rolling in previous seasons, the Astros' side of the field had the look of a street party with epic bat flips, dugout poses and enough celebrations to push the line on ticking off an opponent. Through all the success, that joy and energy never dissipated. That is, until this season, when their 2017 World Series win was tainted by a sign-stealing scandal followed by a disappointing regular season. At times, they looked beaten down. Some of that swagger returned in beating the Twins, but it was Game 1 against the A’s when they came back from a 3-0 deficit to win 10-5 behind two Correa homers and one by Bregman that they finally got their swagger fully back.
Maybe this team is so comfortable on MLB’s biggest stage because it has been there so often. The Astros' 50 postseason games and 30 wins are the most in baseball the past four seasons. As Correa said, “Oh sure, we’re comfortable in these situations. As a player, this is what you live for.”