The Houston Astros are back in the World Series for the second postseason in a row and fourth time in the past six years. They’ll face the Philadelphia Phillies this time, after dropping last year’s Series to the Atlanta Braves.
It should come as no surprise the Astros, with 106 wins to top the American League this past season, have won seven consecutive postseason games, sweeping the Seattle Mariners and New York Yankees in their first two rounds.
They have retooled nicely despite the losses of George Springer, Charlie Morton and Carlos Correa to free agency.
Still, the sign-stealing, Major League Baseball-sanctioned Astros may be the sport’s most hated team outside of its own home market.
Just ask veteran second baseman Jose Altuve, who raised the constant ire of fans at Yankee Stadium during Houston’s just concluded sweep of the Yanks in the American League Championship Series.
Altuve said the jeering and constant booing didn’t bother him, as the Astros eliminated the Yankees for the fourth time since 2015, including a Wild Card Game and three ALCS.
“I just try to focus on playing the game,” he said. “It doesn’t matter where I play, I’m 100% focused on the game.”
Although it might not be a popular position, the people sanctioned by MLB and fired by Astros owner Jim Crane—general manager Jeff Luhnow and manager A.J. Hinch—left the club with a deep enough organization to keep on winning.
James Click replaced Luhnow and only enhanced the talent that was already there.
The aforementioned free agents have been replaced by the likes of Yordan Alvarez, Framber Valdez and Jeremy Pena, the rookie shortstop who took over for Correa and was named MVP of the ALCS.
“When you talk about Springer, Morton, Correa, you’re talking about superstars, and to get players to fill those spots, it’s not easy,” Altuve said. “The fact that we’re still playing really good, and in these situations, we just have to give a lot of credit to the front office group.”
Altuve, third baseman Alex Bregman, first baseman Yuli Gurriel, pitchers Lance McCullers Jr. and Justin Verlander are the only players remaining from the team that began this run in 2017.
Verlander was brought in at the Aug. 31, 2017, trade deadline and helped that team beat the Los Angeles Dodgers in what’s now considered to be a tainted seven-game World Series. He was out for the 2020 and 2021 seasons recovering from Tommy John ligament replacement surgery in his right elbow.
The Astros kept winning without him.
Verlander was asked Thursday whether these Astros, who have been to the ALCS now for six consecutive postseasons, should be considered a dynasty after what they’ve already accomplished.
“I mean, how could you not?” said Verlander, who’s starting Game 1 Friday night at Minute Maid Park in search of his first World Series win after six losses in seven starts.
Hinch is now the manager of the Detroit Tigers and credits Luhnow for leaving Houston with a deep and productive minor league system.
“He was unbelievable, unbelievable,” Bregman agreed. “He identified not only strength, but areas of weakness, and in that case taught players how to improve.”
Luhnow is out of baseball and is currently in Madrid where he’s president of Leganes, a European soccer team.
One of his acolytes, Sig Mejdal, is now in Baltimore as assistant GM under Mike Elias, helping to rebuild the Orioles into a contender. Mejdal’s analytic approach to recruitment helped Luhnow assemble a player roster.
The Orioles went from a team that lost 110 games a year ago to 83 wins this season, only three games behind the AL’s sixth and final playoff spot.
Given time, the Orioles may be the new Astros, although they must overcome the big-spending Yankees and Boston Red Sox in the AL East.
But as the 87-win Phillies learned this season, just make the playoffs and good things can happen.
The Astros are the only one of four 100-win teams to survive the labyrinth of the new playoff structure. After winning the AL West by 16 games, they earned a bye in the Wild Card Series round.
A big part of their success the past three seasons has to be given to Dusty Baker, who took over for Hinch as manager with the task of raising the Astros beyond the scandal.
He has done so magnificently and is again seeking his first World Series title in 25 years as a manager, with five different teams. He won his only World Series as a player with the 1981 Los Angeles Dodgers. As a manager he has 2,093 victories and a .539 winning percentage. Each of his teams have at one time been to the playoffs, and this is his third pennant winner.
“Winning breeds winning,” Baker said during a media conference when asked how Houston has maintained success, sans key contributors.
“I’m hoping my presence has been about continuing the process and enhancing the organization,” he said. “I would like to think that most places I’ve been, I left the organization in better shape than when I got there. So, it’s a mindset.”
Asked what it would be like to finally win his first World Series as a manager, Baker added:
“Well, that’s why I’m here.”