Here is an incomplete list of everyone who did not want this to happen. You. Me. Joe Kelly. Orel Hershiser. Ramón Laureano. Bob Melvin, Billy Beane, and the whole of Oakland’s traditional right-field drum crew. The members of multiple angry group chats I’m in. Trevor Bauer. Cody Bellinger, Alex Wood, Clayton Kershaw, David Ross, and the collective Yankees dugout. Your ma, probably, too.
The worst part, other than them doing it, is that the Astros know nobody wanted them to stamp their ticket to the ALCS this week. Maybe just as bad: They have the gall to say so.
“I know a lot of people are mad, I know a lot of people don’t want to see us here, but what are they going to say now?” said Carlos Correa after Houston’s first-round sweep of the Twins. “They wanted us, they got us,” catcher Martín Maldonado wrote on Twitter on Thursday night.
But here we are. On Thursday, Houston toppled the A’s 11-6 to win a decidedly uneven ALDS. The Astros made easy work of Oakland this week, winning 10-5 in Game 1 and 5-2 in Game 2. After a close loss in Game 3, they wasted no time on Thursday. The A’s eked out a three-run lead in the second inning, but the Astros broke the game open with a five-run fourth. By the time a seventh-inning blast from Marcus Semien died at the outfield wall and slipped neatly into the glove of Kyle Tucker, it was clear: Once again, the A’s would make a grim early exit from the playoffs, and once again, the Astros are headed to the ALCS.
This marks Houston’s fourth consecutive trip to the ALCS, which ties the third-longest streak in baseball history. It also marks the team’s first time reaching that point with the collective baseball public—fans and current, past, and likely future opponents—decisively coalesced against them.
Just three years ago, the Astros were plucky upstarts, the darlings of baseball obsessives far and wide. Now, having clung to a place in this year’s expanded playoff format, the Astros are marching, seemingly inexorably, toward a deep October run, even as boos rain down from a nation’s worth of living rooms.
You can, of course, thank trash can–gate for the about-face. Last winter, the Astros were sanctioned for a sign-stealing regime that stretched through the 2017 season—the year that Houston won the World Series—and into 2018. Despite the last documented instance of cheating coming two years ago, though, the situation remains thorny. An MLB investigation found that no illicit sign-stealing occurred during the 2019 season, but rumors bubbled up in January that José Altuve had rigged a buzzer under his jersey as recently as last year’s ALCS matchup against the Yankees. Altuve denied the claims; teammate Correa offered the defense that the second baseman had simply been trying to hide an unfinished tattoo—one Altuve later bared to reporters as evidence.
But beyond Houston’s denials, increased scrutiny, and the official ruling of MLB, there was this: This regular season, the Astros were suddenly, unexpectedly lousy. In 2019, the Astros led all of baseball in OPS, batting average, on-base percentage, and a slew of other statistics. But in 2020, with a near-identical lineup, the team tumbled down the rankings; Houston dropped 25 points in wRC+ alone. If you were already inclined to raise your eyebrows at the Astros—who wasn’t?—then the sudden Monstar-ing of a team immediately after public revelations of cheating was more than enough to crown the Astros the villains of the 2020 season.
Except, er, they’ve snapped out of it. The Astros swept the Twins in the first round of the playoffs. In the ALDS, the Astros and A’s combined for 24 home runs, the most in a postseason series of five games or fewer, and fourth-most in any postseason series, per MLB’s Sarah Langs. The Astros outscored the A’s 33 to 22; on Thursday, Correa alone drove in five of his team’s 11 runs.
Now the Astros are headed for the ALCS, with just four victories standing between them and their third World Series visit in four years. Worst of all, for we the hatin’ public? If they keep playing like the Astros of old, they just might go all the way.