• The San Juan Daily Star

Like it or not, the Houston Astros are back in the ALCS

Carlos Correa emphatically celebrated his two-run double in the third inning.

By James Wagner

No, they haven’t gone away.

To the chagrin of many around baseball, the Houston Astros — a franchise still reviled, still jeered and still trailed by a cloud of suspicion for cheating during its 2017 World Series winning season — continue winning.

With a 10-1 victory over the Chicago White Sox on Tuesday in Chicago, the Astros capped a three-games-to-one division series win to advance to familiar territory, the American League Championship Series, for the fifth year in a row. They are the first franchise to compete for five straight AL pennants since the Oakland Athletics did so from 1971 to 1975.

Also on Tuesday, Atlanta advanced to the National League Championship Series with a 5-4 win over the Milwaukee Brewers in Game 4 of their division series.

“To come out this season and kind of have to face the music, so to speak, and play well and win our division and come out here to win on the road, it’s very cool and it’s very impressive from the group of guys we got and the guys that have come before,” Astros starter Lance McCullers Jr. said.

Beginning Friday in Houston, the Astros will face the Boston Red Sox in a rematch of the 2018 ALCS. The Red Sox, who won the World Series that year, are led by manager Alex Cora, who was the Astros’ bench coach during the infamous 2017 season and was later suspended for the 2020 season for his role in Houston’s illegal sign-stealing scheme.

Although the Astros haven’t won a championship since 2017, they have come close — dropping a decisive Game 7 of the 2019 World Series to the Washington Nationals — and have remained a perennial contender.

Not even an investigation by MLB, after the cheating allegations came to light in November 2019, and the punishment that came as a result, could slow the Astros. Their general manager, Jeff Luhnow, and manager, A.J. Hinch, lost their jobs and were suspended. Opposing players and fans, when they returned to ballparks after a 2020 season staged largely without crowds because of the coronavirus pandemic, have since taken out their fury on the Astros in the form of signs, boos, hit-by-pitches and strong words.

“I never hear them really jeering back or saying much,” Astros manager Dusty Baker said of his players. Added Astros shortstop Carlos Correa, “We don’t pay too much attention to that. In the clubhouse, it’s all positivity.”

Still, the Astros won. Under general manager James Click and Baker, both hired from outside the organization after the cheating fallout, the Astros reached the ALCS against the Tampa Bay Rays last season and fell one win short of another World Series appearance.

This season, the Astros continued with their time-tested formula: a relentless offense, vacuum-cleaner defense and a strong pitching staff. They won 95 games, claiming their fourth AL West division title in five years. And in October, they — again — posed a difficult challenge to opponents because their hitters led baseball in scoring during the regular season and were the hardest to strike out.

Over the years, stars have left (starter Gerrit Cole and outfielder George Springer), some have gotten injured (starter Justin Verlander), and others have emerged (outfielders Michael Brantley and Kyle Tucker). But the Astros remained a formidable force because of their core group: first baseman Yuli Gurriel, second baseman José Altuve, shortstop Correa and third baseman Alex Bregman. According to the Elias Sports Bureau, those four have played in more postseason games together (now 61) than any other four teammates in MLB history.

The talent and experience of that group showed again this October. White Sox designated hitter Gavin Sheets gave his team a 1-0 lead in the second inning with a solo blast. But the Astros’ lineup is a buzz saw.

“We kind of picked them apart in every aspect of the game, from Game 1 to today,” said McCullers, who left Tuesday’s game after four innings because of discomfort in his elbow. Five of his teammates combined for five scoreless innings of relief.

“We were the better team,” he added.

The Astros, too, had additional motivation. After the White Sox won Game 3 in Chicago, reliever Ryan Tepera vaguely accused the Astros of continuing their sign-stealing ways at their home stadium of Minute Maid Park. The Astros, though, bristled at the continued criticism because they had performed just as well at home as on the road this season.

“I don’t think it’s going to stop anytime soon,” McCullers said of the skepticism. “All we can do is just keep doing our thing, keep winning.”

Added Correa about Tepera: “It’s unfortunate that he had to say those words because we came out hungry.”

As Altuve faced more boos and chants of “cheat-er! cheat-er!” in the third inning, White Sox starter Carlos Rodón hit his opponent in the left arm with an errant pitch. Altuve dropped his bat and hung his head, and the Chicago fans cheered. He promptly stole second base, unfazed by all the jeers he had received all year.

“If you are paying attention to something else, you might not be able to hit,” Altuve said. “You have to be 100% focused.”

The mood quickly changed when Bregman and designated hitter Yordan Álvarez resisted swinging at close pitches from Rodón with two outs and drew walks to load the bases. Then came the backbreaking blow from Correa.

Rodón jumped ahead of Correa, 0-2. But when he tried to sneak through another high 97 mph fastball, Correa was ready. He adjusted his swing to the pitch just above the strike zone and flicked it into the left field gap for a double that gave Houston a 2-1 lead. Standing at second base, Correa looked at the Astros’ dugout and pointed at his wrist, where he would normally wear a watch.

“You know what time it is, baby: It’s October,” he said later.

The Astros, of course, didn’t stop there. They took a 5-1 lead in the fourth inning when catcher Martín Maldonado drove in a run with a single and Bregman, swinging at a 3-0 pitch, added two more with a double. It went on from there, with a three-run rally in the top of the ninth pushing the score to 10-1.

“It was a pretty classic Astros win,” McCullers said. “Good pitching, good defense, timely hitting. Away from home, imagine that.”

As they kept tacking on more runs, the reality sunk in at Guaranteed Rate Field and across baseball: The Astros are back — again.

“I don’t know how they feel,” Corea said of his opponents, “but we’re not tired of being here.”

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