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The Supervillains of the MLB Playoffs Just Won’t Die

Two days ago, the Astros were on the verge of being swept out of the ALCS. Now, they’re right back in the mix. Carlos Correa and Houston keep defying the odds—and infuriating baseball fans everywhere.

League Championship - Tampa Bay Rays v Houston Astros - Game Five Photo by Ezra Shaw/Getty Images

During Game 4 of the ALCS on Wednesday, a man named Tim Kanter climbed onto a balcony athwart Petco Park. Armed with a bullhorn, he harangued the Astros, like Martin Luther at the Diet of Worms. Kanter listed members of the Houston teams that had been implicated in the sign-stealing scandal that defined the MLB offseason, and called out each of the cheating Astros by name.

“The baseball community has not forgotten your transgressions,” Kanter cried. The Astros won a tense Game 4 to avoid a sweep, and on Thursday evening Carlos Correa hit a walk-off home run in Game 5 to extend the series further. The Astros, all but dead two days ago, live to transgress another day.

Three Octobers ago, in a more innocent time before trash cans and embarrassing tattoos, I wrote the following after another late-inning Astros playoff home run:

Don’t stop fighting until you know Leatherface is dead. Don’t just hit him in the face with a pipe and run away, don’t just run him over with your car, and don’t just plug in your closer for six outs with a two-run lead and hit autopilot. If you’ve tossed him in the lake, wait to make sure he doesn’t crawl up onto shore. If you’ve pushed him down the stairs, lock the door and light the house on fire. If you’ve hit one go-ahead homer, make sure you get some insurance runs. Kill Leatherface, then kill him again just to be safe.

The 2020 Astros were dead when Justin Verlander blew out his elbow on Opening Day, and when Yordan Álvarez and José Urquidy couldn’t make it to camp. They were dead in mid-August when they ran out of viable pitchers and started giving up runs in Costco-sized bunches. They were dead when they finished the regular season with a listless 29-31 record, qualifying for the postseason only because of a unique pandemic-inspired 16-team playoff system. And they were dead when Zack Greinke loaded the bases in the very first inning of the wild-card round against a potent Twins offense.

They were dead when they went down 3-0 in the ALCS against a Rays team with the hottest hitter on the planet and more good pitchers than any two other playoff teams put together. They were dead when José Altuve forgot how to throw the ball from here to there and started running into outs like he forgot the rules of the game. They were dead when, while facing the threat of elimination, manager Dusty Baker handed the ball to (at best) the third-most-famous active ballplayer named Luis García, a 23-year-old rookie who’d previously made one start above A-ball in his entire career. And they were dead when Ji-Man Choi tied Game 5 with a home run in the top of the eighth, putting the game in the hands of a well-rested Rays bullpen led by Nick Anderson, who’d allowed just one earned run during the regular season. (On a home run by a different Luis García.)

Not dead enough. The Rays are the 39th team in MLB history to run up a 3-0 lead in a best-of-seven series. Thirty-seven of the first 38 managed to issue the coup de grace before losing four straight; up until Correa’s home run, it was borderline-inconceivable that the Rays would fail to join that overwhelming majority. Now, the Astros are mere 4-to-1 underdogs. At those odds, they’re very much alive.

Even though the math favors Houston more than it did two days ago, it still favors Tampa Bay in absolute terms. The Astros still have to beat Blake Snell and Charlie Morton to advance, with both operating on full rest. While Baker has been riding his top relievers hard, the Rays’ anointed troika of Anderson, Pete Fairbanks, and Diego Castillo did not appear in Game 4, and only Anderson took part in Game 5. Even with Framber Valdéz and Lance McCullers Jr. lined up for the Astros, the pitching matchups still seem to favor Tampa Bay.

The Rays will probably finish Houston off in the next two days. Even in a sport as random and unforgiving as baseball, the better team usually wins at least once in any four-game span. But the Astros just won’t go away, no matter how much Tim Kanter or anyone else wants them to.