HOUSTON – Alex Bregman curled up on a clubhouse couch like a kid on a snow day Tuesday afternoon, phone in one hand, eyes on Guardians-Yankees on the television in front of him. Bregman was exhibiting what one might call Astros privilege, eyeballing the team’s forthcoming opponent but with a great deal of comfort.
After all, for the sixth consecutive year, the American League pennant runs through Minute Maid Park.
Having taken care of the Seattle Mariners in a three-game AL Division Series sweep, rain and scheduling vagaries left the Astros in a largely unprecedented situation: Prepping for Wednesday’s Game 1 American League Championship Series without knowing their opponent.
And so, barely more than 24 hours before the ALCS commenced, they tossed the ALDS finale on the big screen at a vacant Minute Maid Park, flicked it on clubhouse televisions, many players with plans, as Bregman had, to watch the finish at home.
Yet the Astros languidly working out and luxuriating while their potential opponents played into the night in the Bronx, the winner hopping a plane to Houston seemed appropriate.
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Players like George Springer and Carlos Correa leave for free agent riches. A sign-stealing scandal topples the general manager and manager, and casts the franchise in an apparently eternal role as the bad guys. Yet the winning continues apace, holdovers like Bregman and Altuve molding and integrating the next generation into expecting unbridled success.
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Eventually, the Yankees defeated the Guardians 5-1, to much relief in the Bronx. The Yankees are back in the ALCS for the first time since 2019, when a Jose Altuve walk-off home run sent the Astros to the World Series, their second ALCS conquest of New York in three seasons.
The sour taste of the Astros’ sign-stealing scandal – revealed weeks after the 2019 World Series – will make this a blood feud of sorts, at least for those in New York, egged on by GM Brian Cashman’s claim in March that the only thing stopping the Yankees from winning the 2017 World Series was “something so illegal and horrific” as the Astros’ sign-stealing.
It’s a fair way to frame the series and should help the TV ratings. But while much will be made of the Yankees’ ALCS return, it’s easy to forget one key factor about the Astros.
They never left.
“It’s amazing, as a staff, as a front office, as a owner, to make the commitment to win,” says catcher Martin Maldonado, who has played for the past five Astros ALCS participants. “To bring guys like (Justin Verlander) back. They do a very good job of figuring out what they have to do to get back to winning
“Other than that, they believe in the farm system. They believe if you have a chance to bring somebody up, we have the winning culture here.”
It is a tired buzzword in sports, that culture. And as it regards the Astros, one that usually intones banging trash cans, illicit camera monitors, stolen signs, the firings of Jeff Luhnow and A.J. Hinch and the unrepentance of owner Jim Crane.
Fair. But we are four years removed from the last known stolen signs, three years away from their revelations. While the vast majority of the current roster was acquired under Luhnow, they’ve played for manager Dusty Baker for three seasons, and a player development staff that has seen numerous poachings and turnover still churns out gems like shortstop Jeremy Peña.
“It says a lot,” says Altuve of the club’s ALCS streak. “We’ve been consistent the last six years, having good seasons and winning a lot of games and that’s what we play for.
“I think it’s the good relationships and chemistry we have. Obviously, the front office has done a tremendous job bringing in players when we’ve lost players. We lost a great player last year. We brought in another one doing a really good job this season. And Jeremy played really, good this last season.”
While slugger Yordan Alvarez has assumed the mantle of resident superstar, it was Peña who grinded through crucial at-bats and record base hits in front of Alvarez’s game-winning home runs in Games 1 and 2. And it was Peña whose bomb at Seattle’s T-Mobile Park ended the scoreless, 18-inning clash of wills against the Mariners, enabling the Astros to sweep and avoid a nettlesome Game 4.
Enabled Bregman to curl up on that couch, in essence.
“I know that we were extremely tired on Sunday and we were probably even more tired on Monday, and fortunately, for us we didn’t have to play,” says Baker.
And to the early victors go the spoils. Verlander will start Game 1 on Wednesday, probably followed by Framber Valdez. Lance McCullers Jr., Cristian Javier and Luis Garcia – who pitched the final five scoreless innings in Saturday’s 18-inning epic – should make the transition from a best-of-five to a best-of-seven tenable.
The Yankees? They will scrape together Luis Severino and Domingo German and whatever else they can find for the two games here, unable to use ace and former Astro Gerrit Cole until Game 3.
It will be just the third game in 13 days for the Astros, who avoided the pitfalls of extra rest or poor performance that saw the National League’s top seeds in Atlanta and Los Angeles get bounced quickly.
After winning 106 games in the regular season, Seattle momentarily caught them flat-footed in the Division Series, but the Astros steadied. Eliminated the Mariners. Flew home. Worked out.
Oh, who are we playing?
The Yankees, as it turns out. The other half of the matchup was far too predictable.
“It says that guys come here to work hard and play winning baseball, not take a single pitch for granted,” says Bregman. “I’m proud of the way this team’s worked all year long and hopefully we can keep it rolling. Because ultimately our goal wasn’t to make it back to the ALCS; our goal was to make it further than that.
“We’ve got a lot of work to do and we’ll definitely be playing against a good ballclub coming up.”