Houston Astros cement dominant run with second World Series title


HOUSTON — The center-field fence at Minute Maid Park sits 409 feet away from home plate. The green batter’s eye that resides behind it stands 40 feet tall. Players don’t ever hit baseballs beyond it.

And yet on Saturday night, with the game in doubt and a title on the line, Yordan Alvarez did.

His sixth-inning home run, against the left-handed reliever brought in exclusively to retire him, traveled 450 feet to straightaway center field, clearing the towering batter’s eye, scoring three runs, sending his jubilant teammates streaming onto the field and propelling the Houston Astros to a 4-1, title-clinching victory over the Philadelphia Phillies in Game 6.

The Astros, one of the most dominant teams of this era, are World Series champions for the first time since 2017, a season tainted by scandal. Jeremy Pena, the rookie shortstop who strung together three consecutive multi-hit games, was named World Series MVP, the same award he won in the American League Championship Series.

A strong case could have also been made for Framber Valdez, who shut down the Phillies in Game 2 and contributed six stellar innings in Game 6. The Phillies’ only run off Valdez came on a sixth-inning leadoff home run by Kyle Schwarber. Moments later, Alvarez delivered the decisive blow, a notable theme of this postseason.

Zack Wheeler dominated the Astros through the first five innings, erasing any concerns about lingering arm fatigue. But with two on and one out in the bottom of the sixth, Phillies manager Rob Thomson turned the game over to Jose Alvarado, eyeing the left-on-left matchup with Alvarez due up.

Alvarez, 25, had gone homerless in his last 10 postseason games and had accumulated only five hits in his last 42 at-bats. Then he turned on a 2-1 sinker out over the plate and demolished it, producing the second-longest World Series home run of the Statcast era (surpassed only by Freddie Freeman’s home run in Game 5 of last year’s World Series). It was Alvarez’s third home run this postseason, all of which came while the Astros were trailing and gave them the lead. No other player had ever hit two of those in an entire postseason career.

From there, the Astros cruised, their dominant back-end relievers retiring the Phillies’ batters with ease over the next three innings.

The Astros have now claimed two titles during what has evolved into a dominant six-year stretch, but this is the first that won’t be mired in controversy. The Astros were found to have illegally stolen signs through an elaborate trash-can-banging scheme during their championship season of 2017, a revelation that prompted the suspensions and subsequent firings of their architect (Jeff Luhnow) and field manager (A.J. Hinch) heading into the 2020 season, among other penalties.

The Astros, however, continued to win. They recovered from a slow start to the pandemic-shortened season to reach the American League Championship Series, then went all the way to the World Series in 2021, losing in six games to a shorthanded-but-resurgent Atlanta Braves team.

The ensuing offseason saw Carlos Correa leave via free agency, following the path of Gerrit Cole and George Springer in prior winters. Superstars departed, their dynamic core aged, but the Astros kept thriving.

Pena replaced Correa at shortstop and made a case for the AL Rookie of the Year Award; Alvarez, acquired in what initially felt like a minor trade with the Los Angeles Dodgers, evolved into arguably the sport’s best hitter; Valdez, Cristian Javier, Luis Garcia and Jose Urquidy — all obtained through well-below-market deals on the international front — developed into top-tier starting pitchers; and the likes of Hector Neris, Bryan Abreu, Ryan Stanek and Rafael Montero formed a dominant bullpen bridge to lights-out closer Ryan Pressly.

Around them, their stars shined. Alex Bregman and Jose Altuve performed among the best at their respective positions; Justin Verlander pitched like a Cy Young favorite as a 39-year-old coming off Tommy John surgery. The Astros were hardly challenged in the AL West in 2022. They finished the regular season with a 106-56 record, winning the division by 16 games, then won their first seven postseason contests to quickly dispatch the upstart Seattle Mariners and the decorated New York Yankees in the first two rounds.

The Phillies, a team that won 19 fewer games, proved to be the Astros’ most formidable foe. They tested their mettle, but the Astros responded.

When the Phillies staged a five-run comeback to steal Game 1, the Astros rode a dominant Valdez to earn a split from Houston. When the Phillies cranked out five home runs in a Game 3 victory, the Astros recovered to win back-to-back road games in a hostile environment, riding a combined no-hitter in Game 4 and a collective effort — highlighted by Chas McCormick’s improbable ninth-inning catch — in Game 5.

In Game 6, Valdez dominated, Alvarez came up with the big hit and the bullpen shut it down.

The Astros’ latest victory could be legacy-defining, necessary affirmation for a superior franchise whose highest prior achievement was marked by a cheating scandal. It came, fittingly, at home, in front of the fans who rallied around them while the rest of the country vilified them.

The Astros had been seen largely as the cold, calculated franchise whose win-at-all-costs mentality pushed them to cheat the game in ways many of their peers found egregious. Now they can be defined, at least in part, by how they overcame — the sudden firing of two of their most influential people, the loss of two first- and second-round picks, the steady departure of superstar talent, the animosity of an entire sport.

Their manager overcame, too. Dusty Baker, hired shortly after Major League Baseball’s investigation into the Astros’ sign-stealing practices concluded in January of 2020, has finally won his first World Series championship as a manager, a crucial milestone for what is certain to become a Hall of Fame career.

Now 73, Baker had spent a quarter century chasing a championship he only won once, as an outfielder for the Dodgers in 1981. He took 12 different teams to the postseason and claimed 2,093 career regular-season victories before finally winning the game that mattered most.

The Astros now have some important decisions to make. Baker and James Click, hired as the general manager less than a week after Baker came on board, were both on contracts that have now expired. Baker could retire, and Click has not seen eye-to-eye with Astros owner Jim Crane on some baseball-related decisions, sources said, placing unexpected uncertainty around his future. Resolution on both should arrive soon.

For now, the Astros will celebrate.

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