By Brendan Kapfer
To level up as a player takes the dedication of a strong willed spirit, yet as a team within professional sport that takes all the more courage to do. While it’s hard in general, leveling up in the World Series is one that makes the banners of every news outlet.
Leveling up as a team within professional sports is hard by all means, but when it comes down to making an appearance in the World Series that itself is one to go down in all sports history. It’s almost impossible though to level up from three World Series appearances, five straight American League Championship Series (ALCS) appearances, and a World Series title. Beyond that, this team is coming off four deep playoff runs in a row that ended in a heartbreaking fashion.
To add more salt to the wound these matters become all the more difficult when two of those ALCS appearances came after a scandal that severely hindered the team and forced it to almost completely reset the entire organization from head-to-toe while also never missing a playoff.
A championship like this dealt with scandals after scandals left the team without its manager. A World Series-winning manager and its General Manager. If that sounds like a formidable task, that baseball team didn’t have picks in either of the first two rounds for the 2020 and 2021 drafts. We’ll come back to that in a little bit, but this team went through a heavy redemption arc this year in order to get into a rebuilding phase. Many thought this year was a borderline playoff team at best. This team lost key players, like MVP candidate players who were in the running in not just one or two years. The team that leveled up this year is the Houston Astros and they are a baseball dynasty.
In 2017, the Astros faced circumstances unlike any other team since the 2001 New York Mets and New York Yankees. They had to deal with a city that was quite literally submerged in water after a hurricane that totally devastated the community of Houston. A hurricane which was one of the worst that have ever hit the United States, leaving one-hundred-twenty-five million dollars in damages. While the damages were vast, the timing itself was another fall from grace. Landing in the middle of August and hitting Houston without mercy, the Astros were in first place in the American League and second in the entire Major Leagues. They would finish with the second-best record in the American League with a record of 101 wins and 61 losses.
The Astros would end up beating the fiery 93 win Boston Red Sox in the ALDS (the first round of the playoffs) in four games. The series was a slugfest for both teams with the Astros winning two games by six runs and clinching the series in game four to one run in Boston. In the next series, they would face a formidable Yankees team who just completed an improbable come-back. The Yankees recovered from a two-game deficit in a five-game series that is the ALDS against the Cleveland Indians (now Guardians) who had one of if not the best pitching staffs in Major League Baseball. The Cleveland team also had just been to the World Series in 2016 and lost in heartbreaking fashion to the Chicago Cubs.
To beat the Yankees was not a easy task by any measure considering how good their pitching staff was in 2017. They were top five in the league behind just the Dodgers, the Red Sox, the Diamondbacks, and the Indians. They were led by proven postseason ace, CC Sabathia with Mahiro Tanaka and Luis Severin as pitchers who would be considered aces on just about any other Major League Baseball team. Two of those pitchers were absolutely rocked at the end of the series by the Houston Astros, Luis Severino and CC Sabathia who both already had wins in this series. In game six, with the season on the line, Houston got Severino out of the game by the end of the fifth inning, putting three runs past the star pitcher and putting four more past the Yankees bullpen. In game seven, Sabathia gave up five hits and one run in just three and a third of an innings pitched to the Houston Astros, and from there the Astros finished the Yankees off by putting three runs past their bullpen. In the process of clinching a World Series spot, Houston’s Charlie Morton pitched for five innings, and Lance McCullers Jr. who normally starts for the Astros gave the Yankees to just one hit in four innings pitched, getting the Astros to the World Series.
In 55 years of the Houston Astros franchise being around, this was just their second World Series appearance. They would now face the Los Angeles Dodgers who boasted the best pitching staff in baseball including a bullpen that ranked third in the entire league. This 2017 World Series featured a classic case of an unstoppable force meeting an immovable object. The immovable object was the Dodger’s pitching staff, and the unstoppable force was the dynamic offense otherwise known as the Astros’ batting lineup. In that series, there was not a lead at any point by either team of more than one game. Houston was leading when the series headed back to Los Angeles for games six and seven and lost game six with their ace who this year was the best pitcher in baseball, three to one. The Astros won the last game against Dodgers’ ace Yu Darvish who has lots of experience pitching in big games.
The Astros won by four runs and the city of Houston rejoiced and celebrated as they should after two long months of pain and suffering. This is where most would think the story ends, but it is only the beginning.
Houston would keep most of the same World Series-winning roster intact while losing to the eventual World Series Champions in the year following their championship run. In 2018, the Astros had one hundred and three wins and fifty-nine losses, outdoing their impressive record of one hundred and one wins with sixty-one losses. They would face the Red Sox in the ALCS who had 108 wins while the Astros would lose to that Boston Red Sox team that they breezed past the year prior, winning just the first game and being outscored, twenty-nine runs to seventeen runs. This includes game one in which the Astros won by a score of seven runs to two. Houston came up flat and Boston showed up big in the ALCS in 2018. The Boston Red Sox would go on to beat the Dodgers to win the World Series.
Following their ALCS exit in 2019, the Astros would get back to the World Series. They did that by beating a Yankee team that won an impressive ninety-nine games led by a top-five offense in baseball that most teams couldn’t stop. That year though, the Astros won a total of one-hundred-seven games and looked like they were going to win their second World Series in franchise history. They had won their first two series tightly and now were going to face the Cinderella team that was the Washington Nationals.
The Nats had come from behind in just about every way that season and now were in the World Series. They had started off the season 18-32 and impressed everybody just by making the playoffs. The 2019 World Series was odd because leading into games six and seven, no home team had won a game. What made this series even odder was the news of a sign-stealing scandal in the Astros camp that started to emerge during the middle of the World Series. In games six and seven the pattern of the road team dominating stayed the same with Washington winning the last two games of the series by a combined score of thirteen runs from the Nat’s and a mere four runs from the Astros. The Nat’s would clinch the World Series in Houston and see Houston’s season end in heartbreaking fashion for the second year in a row.
Now about that sign-stealing scandal, the Astros lost all their picks in the 2020 and 2021 drafts, half their roster from their World Series team, their general manager, their manager and they were fined five million dollars, the absolute maximum a team can be fined. Many called for their title in 2017 to be stripped and them to be a postseason ban on this team but neither of those came ahead.
With a young team that had to rebuild following the aftermath of one of the worst scandals to rock American sports, they made it to the American League Championship Series in 2020. They would lose to a hot lineup in the Rays who had an ice-cold pitching staff that completely shut down the Astros offense.
In 2021, the Astros fought their way through the ALCS against the Boston Red Sox who were strong again but not as strong as they were in 2018. They had an offense that got to the Yankees star pitchers and shut down former Astros pitcher Gerrit Cole who left Houston to get away from the scandal. The Astros won six games over a team that won ninety-two games, three less than the Astros that year. The Astros then went and lost again to an NL East team in the Atlanta Braves. The Braves to be fair were red hot the entire postseason, after having the worst record out of any team to make the playoffs that year. They were led by their offense and once again the hitting of the opponent of the Houston Astros led to their downfall.
In 2022, many predicted the Astros would fall off because their star shortstop, Carlos Correa left them to go and play for the Minnesota Twins. They also lost their second star pitcher in as many years in Zach Greinke leaving to go play for the Kansas City Royals. In addition to all of this, the Astros would lose another solid pitcher during the season in Jake Odorizzi who was traded to the Atlanta Braves.
All signs pointed towards the Astros going into a rebuild now that they can finally draft some players in the first two rounds, and that they lost some serious star power. At no point in the season did it look like this is what they were going to do. Now, the Yankees were far and beyond ahead of them in the standings, but the Astros maintained second in the American League until they overtook the Yankees who had a minor collapse midway through the season and competed with the Dodgers for the best record in the Majors.
Everybody that watches baseball knows that it should have been the Astros or the Yankees playing the Dodgers for the World Series. Nobody had the Phillies coming out of the National League and very few had the Dodgers getting knocked out before the NLCS. The Astros were so dominant in the first seven games they played prior to the World Series that they didn’t lose a game. In fact, it was two games in that stretch that were ever really in doubt, and they were a comeback from down six runs to win in a walk off against the Mariners in the ALDS and in an eighteen-inning marathon in Seattle that was scoreless until the eighteenth. Even in those games, there was still a feeling that the Astros were going to pull those games out because of the strong team they are all around.
The Astros’ pitching staff was so good this postseason, that they had a no-hitter in the World Series. I’ll come back to that, but collectively that pitching staff had an era of just 2.29 which is unheard of in the postseason. They were playing teams with hot hitting like the Yankees and the team with the hottest hitting all postseason in the Philadelphia Phillies. Their hitting won’t get talked about enough since collectively the numbers weren’t too impressive but whenever they needed a big hit Yordan Alvarez would show up, hitting a walk-off homerun in that first game of the ALDS and a league leading fourteen runs batted in. They were led offensively by Jeremy Pena who had to replace all star shortstop Carlos Correa this year and did a pretty good job at that. His postseason batting average of .345 and four homeruns. He was doing everything on his end to close out games on defense too, making big plays whenever the Astros needed him to.
In game one of the World Series, Justin Verlander the last pitcher left of the Astros’ big three (Gerrit Cole, Zach Greinke and Verlander), gave up five runs to bring the Phillies back into the game after being down five runs to nothing in the fourth inning. The Phillies would go on to win game one, in Houston, getting a home-field advantage for their side. The Astros would take game two to even the series out, but they had a tough hill to climb going into the most hostile environment in all of baseball. The Phillies won game three by a score of seven to nothing, hitting five home runs off Lance McCullers Jr. who saved the day in 2017 against the Yankees. The Astros bounced back the next day by pitching a combined no hitter and putting three runs past Aaron Nola who was having one of the best years of an already great career. The Astros won that game five nothing and would win the next game three runs to two, getting Justin Verlander his first career win in a World Series. He pitched amazingly that game and brought the series back to Houston with a chance for the Astros to win it.
The game was tied until Phillies’ slugger Kyle Schwarber hit a home run in the top of the sixth inning of the game. The Astros came back in the bottom of the sixth inning the game, getting Pena and Martin Maldonado on base before slugger Yordan Alvarez got to bat. He and Pena are both products of the Astros farm system (minor leagues) and were drafted by the Houston organization. Alvarez reminded the World in that at bat why the Astros are so good and hit a three-run home run to give the Astros the lead. They would never look back from that point on, tacking on another run in the bottom of the sixth and giving up just one hit the rest of the game.
The Astros’ manager Dusty Baker won his first World Series title as a manager after only having won one as a player and thirty years after he got his first job as a manager, he won a World Series as one. He brought together a hurt and embattled team that needed this World Series to prove to the league that they aren’t just a team that won a championship by cheating. They earned their respect this year and showed truly how dominating of a baseball team they are, having won eleven games and dropping just two in the entire postseason. They were the best team in baseball this year despite the massive changes to the organization and have built a team that they can continue success off.
Somehow improving after three World Series appearances in five years and losing half of their roster from the first two World Series’ and recovered from a decimating scandal. If this doesn’t prove greatness, then I don’t know what does. This Astros organization is one that some still will look at with an asterisk because of the scandal, but the new Astros team is one that won a World Series that nobody can take away from. If they can level up from this, (meaning win a third World Series in less than ten years), they will have built a dynasty and will be talked about just like the Dodgers are now and the 2010s San Francisco Giants. Love them or even hate them, they have leveled up the playing field by a wide slide to the home plate.