HOUSTON -- Now that everyone has recovered from the Astros’ epic American League Division Series victory over the Mariners on Saturday -- capped off when rookie shortstop Jeremy Peña broke a scoreless deadlock with an 18th-inning homer -- it’s time for some rest and reflection for the hometown team.
The Astros, after a wild clubhouse celebration following the Game 3 marathon clincher, spent the night in Seattle and flew back to Houston on Sunday evening. Some are dubbing the AL Championship Series as the “Houston Invitational,” considering it’s the sixth consecutive year the Astros have played for a pennant -- only the Braves (eight in a row from 1991-99) have more consecutive LCS appearances.
The Astros will once again be facing the Yankees in Game 1 of the ALCS on Wednesday night, and here are five reasons they have to be optimistic.
1. Rest for the weary
Despite playing for six hours and 22 minutes on Saturday, the Astros did themselves a huge favor by closing out the Mariners in three games in the ALDS. They pretty much emptied their bench and bullpen to pull out the clinching 1-0 win, so they’ll need as much rest as they can get. That’s especially true for a staff that covered 18 innings between eight pitchers.
Astros manager Dusty Baker said postgame Saturday that ace Justin Verlander would have started Game 4 of the ALDS on Sunday if Houston had lost the marathon bout. The Astros will instead have him ready for Game 1 of the ALCS on seven days of rest. They could throw Verlander in Games 1 and 5 and Framber Valdez in Games 2 and 6. Lance McCullers Jr. could start Game 3 on the road, though he’s pitched so well at Minute Maid Park in his career (2.67 home ERA vs. 4.43 on the road) that they could choose to throw him in Game 2 and have him ready for Game 6 -- both in Houston.
Then there are the other three starters: Cristian Javier, José Urquidy and Luis Garcia. Javier threw in relief once in the ALDS and remains a candidate to start, while Urquidy was the only pitcher on the roster not to see action. Garcia, of course, finished off the Game 3 with five scoreless innings. Pitching depth remains the Astros’ strength, even in a best-of-seven series with one off-day.
2. Home-field advantage
Four teams with at least 100 wins in the regular season made the playoffs, and only the 106-win Astros remain. The 111-win Dodgers’ loss to the Padres in the NLDS on Saturday means the Astros will have home-field advantage throughout the rest of the playoffs, including the World Series if they make it.
Since losing all four games at home in the 2019 World Series to the Nationals -- it’s still amazing that happened -- the Astros have gone 7-3 at Minute Maid Park in the playoffs, including two ALDS wins over the Mariners this year. Houston has won the three most recent ALCS in which it has had home-field advantage at Minute Maid Park ('17, '19, '21).
3. Altuve is due
Lost in the champagne-soaked celebration of Saturday’s win was an absolutely unfathomable stat: Astros second baseman Jose Altuve went 0-for-16 in the ALDS, including 0-for-8 in the Game 3 win. That was coming off a regular season in which Altuve hit .300 with a 160 OPS+ -- the same mark he posted when he won the AL MVP Award in 2017.
No, the Astros aren’t going to bench Altuve. Don’t be silly. He remains an elite hitter who has a terrific postseason track record that includes 23 home runs (second most in playoff history) and 92 hits (ninth most). There’s no one else that Baker would rather have step to the plate in the bottom of the first inning in Game 1 of the ALCS than Altuve.
4. The kid is all right
One of the big storylines heading into the playoffs was whether Peña was ready for the bright lights of October. Not only did Peña rise to the occasion in the ALDS, but he may be built for October -- just like his predecessor, Carlos Correa.
Peña set up game-winning homers by Yordan Alvarez in Games 1 and 2 in Houston with two-out singles, then decided to provide the muscle himself with a leadoff 18th-inning homer off Mariners reliever Penn Murfee in Game 3. His breakout ALDS performance was something to behold, leaving everyone anxious to see what’s next.
5. This one’s for Dusty
Baker won his 2,000th career game on May 3, likely cementing his Hall of Fame résumé. Of the previous 11 managers to reach 2,000 career victories, 10 of them are in the Hall of Fame. The only one who isn’t is Bruce Bochy (2,003 wins), who’s not yet eligible for induction.
The only thing missing from Baker’s résumé is a World Series championship, so could this finally be his year? He lost the 2002 World Series while managing the Giants and dropped last year’s Fall Classic to the Braves. The 73-year-old now finds himself four wins shy of another shot at a crowning career achievement.