Astros are best MLB team in this era — like it or not

Astros are best MLB team in this era — like it or not

HOUSTON — OK, let’s deal with the Astros’ legacy. Because they force you to deal with it.

Because they didn’t shrink after punishment and embarrassment following their illegal sign stealing in 2017. They didn’t go away. Nope, they kept absorbing the boos, the criticism and the wonder about their achievements. Mostly they just kept returning to the postseason, the reformed criminal that proved able to succeed by playing it straight up.

Even if you want to eliminate the 2017 season, and act as if the Astros’ first championship didn’t happen, that’s fine. They are still the team of this era. Still the standard. Nobody in recent years has been as consistently excellent as the Astros.

They have lost Carlos Correa, George Springer, Gerrit Cole and their architect, Jeff Luhnow. But no matter what they’ve lost, they just keep winning. And now they have won it all.

It will not stop all the barbs, but I return to the words offered by starter Lance McCullers, one of five players remaining from the 2017 squad, who said before this 118th World Series:

“We put ourselves in that position and it doesn’t matter if it [sign stealing] was more widespread than maybe it seems to have come to be, but we put ourselves in that position and we have to wear it on the chin. People are going to have the right to feel how they want to feel and all we can do is try to win ballgames and continuously win and eventually I think people will just throw their hands up and be like, ‘They’re kind of probably good.’ ”

Jose Altuve gets a big hug as the Astros celebrate after their 4-1 World Series-clinching win over the Phillies.
Jose Altuve gets a big hug as the Astros celebrate after their 4-1 World Series-clinching win over the Phillies.
AP

They’re kind of probably great.

Six straight ALCS appearances. Four pennants in that time. And now a second title that comes with no echoes of trash cans. Just an Astros team that is excellent at everything — notably stick-to-itiveness. Toughness. Relentlessness. Not to mention hitting, fielding, developing players and pitching. Lots and lots of pitching.

Justin Verlander, another 2017 holdover, is probably going to win his third AL Cy Young. But in the playoffs, the Astros’ co-aces were young Cristian Javier and Framber Valdez. Think about that.

On Saturday night, a Valdez was special for the second time in this series, holding the Phillies to one run in six innings. Yordan Alvarez — like Javier and Valdez, a star who arrived after 2017 — hit a three-run homer that traveled 450 feet and into history as the key blow in a 4-1 Game 6 victory that eliminated the dogged, but ultimately overmatched, Phillies.

“We’ve had a really dominant stretch,” McCullers said a week ago. “And so I think a World Series title would help kind of solidify us as a team that could go up against other great teams of other generations.”

Dusty Baker celebrates with Martin Maldonado after winning his first World Series as a manager.
Dusty Baker celebrates with Martin Maldonado after winning his first World Series as a manager.
Getty Images

Mission accomplished. For that. And for helping manager Dusty Baker finally get his ring. Baker replaced A.J. Hinch, the manager in 2017, and brought calmness and likeability to a group that needed both. Baker’s reward was to remove the stain from an otherwise brilliant managing ledger. He had been the manager with the most regular-season wins (2,093) without a championship. He had, before Saturday night, a 9-16 record in potential clinching games in the postseason. This time, his Astros clinched, and Baker’s odyssey to becoming a World Series-winning manager was over.

He listened to a crowd of nearly 43,000 persistently return to, “We want Houston,” a mocking chant of Yankees fans who asked for it. The Yankees have never forgotten or forgiven the Astros for eliminating them in 2017. But as is the Astros’ DNA now, they just keep proving their worth, eliminating the Yankees in the 2019 ALCS and sweeping them this year for the AL pennant.

For about half the game Saturday, the Phillies appeared as if they might force a Game 7. Zack Wheeler, with an extra day’s rest, regained his best fastball and shut out the Astros for five innings. Kyle Schwarber hit just the second lefty-on-lefty homer versus Valdez this season, a leadoff shot in the sixth that made it 1-0.

Justin Verlander celebrates with his wife Kate Upton after the Astros' World Series-clinching win.
Justin Verlander celebrates with his wife Kate Upton after the Astros’ World Series-clinching win.
Getty Images

But aside from Game 3, when they led throughout to take a 2-1 series lead, the Phillies were unable to stay ahead of the Astros. Of the other 45 innings played in this series — Houston led in all but one. And it was not the sixth inning Saturday.

No. 9 hitter Martin Maldonado was hit by a pitch and rookie star Jeremy Peña singled with one out. Phillies manager Rob Thomson decided to go for his own lefty-lefty stalwart, reliever Jose Alvarado, to face Alvarez. Alvarado had allowed just one homer to a lefty this year. And Alvarez, since hitting a go-ahead homer for a second straight day in Game 2 of the ALDS versus the Mariners, had gone 5-for-42 without a homer. But this time, he crushed a 99-mph fastball a sent it above the hedges in center field. It was 3-1, soon to be 4-1 before the inning ended.

And with the dominance of the Astros’ bullpen (none of the relievers part of the 2017 club), the series was over. Astros relievers yielded five runs in 54 ¹/₃ innings this postseason — during which their starters were terrific, their fielding exquisite and their hitting not as overpowering as in the past, but consistent enough.

If you hate the Astros for what they did in 2017, they will never receive your pardon. Got it. But the trash-can banging stopped — the winning never did. The production of good players, notably arms, hasn’t stopped. The winning of big games continued. There is another championship now, one that screams about who they are — like it or not.

The team of this era.