The Astros claim the championship after the scandal and justify the dynasty by knocking off the Phillies in Game 6

The Astros claim the championship after the scandal and justify the dynasty by knocking off the Phillies in Game 6

It’s the era Houston Astros. Five years after growing from a controlled burn to a winner, and three years after the team’s sign-stealing scandal rocked the sport, baseball’s ubiquitous contenders have staked their claim to a championship that can be scorned but not denied. With six more innings of great work from Framber Valdez and one thunderous swing of Yordan AlvarezThe Astros made the cut Philadelphia Phillies in Game 6, 4-1, to win the 2022 World Series.

In the beginning, a duel between Valdez and the Phillies starter Zack Wheeler, Game 6 turned in the sixth inning, when the starters tired and the bats caught up. Phillies slugger Kyle Schwarber opened the scoring — and lifted Philly’s hopes — with a solo homer against Valdez. But in the bottom of the frame, the Astros responded with an avalanche.

Shortstop Martín Maldonado loaded the plate and took first base on a groundout. Shortstop Jeremy Rock crushed a single to get Wheeler out of the game, and then Alvarez walked Jose Alvarado’s fastball, hitting a three-run homer on a path that didn’t involve much in the way of getting off.

In six straight seasons, the Astros reached at least the ALCS, reaching the World Series four times. But since that win in 2017, they’ve fallen twice to NL East foes. Last year it was Atlanta Braves. And in 2019 – just before revelations about their sign-stealing scheme became public – they were the Goliaths he slayed Washington Nationals. The core of the main characters has remained consistent — Jose Altuve, Alex Bregman, Yuli Gurriel and Justin Verlander — but many faces have changed.

The second wave of Astros crashed on the Phillies. Valdez, a mesmerizing left-hander who emerged from Houston’s star-making player development operation in 2018, has started two World Series victories for the Astros, including Game 6. Carlos Correa this season, paced the lineup and won the World Series MVP title. Alvarez, a world beater who was acquired as a middle infielder, delivered a knockout blow that the Phillies rightly feared but could not stop.

At the top, manager Dusty Baker and GM James Click took the reins when AJ Hinch and Jeff Luhnow were fired following MLB’s sign-stealing investigation and continued to mine victories amid the turmoil.

Baker, in the 25th season of a highly successful managerial career, finally won his first World Series after two previous close games and countless more playoff appearances. His task since 2019, to hold together and outwardly represent a clubhouse viewed with wariness or outright hostility, has been difficult. But as is Baker’s way, you’d never know. With the Astros trailing in a tense Game 6, his superstitious solution was to go to the other side of the dugout in search of a breakthrough. Alvarez scored moments later.

A postseason that began as a celebration of underdogs ended with a definitive statement from a major powerhouse.

The Astros have won 100 games or more in four of the last five full seasons — their 541 regular season wins are second only to Los Angeles Dodgers since the beginning of 2017. But where they really stood out was October. During that same span, they won 53 of their 86 playoff games – roughly 100 wins. They haven’t lost a postseason game in 2022 until the first game of the World Series.

In a sport that usually fights against predictability, the Astros have been remarkably consistent in drawing the brightest lights to Minute Maid Park.

Questions about sign theft — and whistleblowing — go nowhere. But neither are the Astros.

Astros shortstop Yordan Alvarez celebrates his three-run home run that proved decisive in Houston's World Series Game 6 victory over the title-winning Phillies.  (AP Photo/Sue Ogrocki)

Astros shortstop Yordan Alvarez celebrates his three-run home run that proved decisive in Houston’s World Series Game 6 victory over the title-winning Phillies. (AP Photo/Sue Ogrocki)

The Phillies’ unlikely run comes just short

Dropping in six games, the Phillies ran out of steam after a magical month. The club that fired manager Joe Girardi in early June limped into October, then exploded in the playoffs like swaggering agents of chaos.

They derailed two division winners to win an underdog derby with San Diego Padres. Facing an Astros team that hadn’t lost a game in the postseason, they dealt two early gut punches.

But after the Game 3 fireworks, their power supply sputtered. Little support joined Schwarber and Bryce Harper in the lineup. The corral that held together and held its own finally cracked. The changes got harder, and they just didn’t have the answers anymore.

With Rob Thomson now installed on the top step and Dave Dombrowski running the front office, the Phillies will be committed to a comeback. Harper isn’t going anywhere, and other staples like Schwarber are signed for at least three more seasons. A few months ago, a playoff berth was still a hurdle to clear.

Now they’ll reload and dive back into the stacked NL East with higher expectations and proof of concept.

What’s next for the Astros?

For the Astros, there’s a sense that their dark, defiant chapter has come to an end. Winning a championship in the wake of the scandal won’t silence the boos or erase the stain of the team’s ethical lapse in 2017, far from it. But it will make the baseball world stand back as an Astros team that looks more and more like a dynasty comes into full view. Rising after a rebuild and then rising against the furor their misdeeds caused, the Astros have completed two arcs with two formulas that only partially overlap.

A team that originally rose to prominence with a core of top power forwards like Bregman is now just as famous for its staff of homegrown free agents.

The infrastructure is still among the game’s elite, but Houston may be about to change again. If they want to turn their story into a trilogy, a third cast of characters may be needed in leading roles.

Both Baker and Click are not signed through the 2023 season. After the game, the 73-year-old Baker reveled in his hard-earned triumph, but indicated he won’t be riding off into the sunset.

“I said if I win one, I want two,” Baker exclaimed in an interview with the FOX Sports crew after the game.

Team owner Jim Crane said his future will be addressed this week. Reports indicate that Click, the GM hired by Tampa Bay Rays if the ball keeps rolling after the scandal, he could be on his way out. Several prominent front office figures have already left in recent weeks — assistant GM for regime bridging Pete Putila left for San Francisco Giantsand international scouting impresario Oz Ocampo received a promotion with Miami Marlins.

Also undecided about next season? Justin Verlander. The AL Cy Young favorite, returning from Tommy John surgery at age 39, will hit the free agent market days after securing his second ring (and first personal World Series win).

Behind that? The team on the field could look very similar, if the Astros front office wants it to. Bregman, Altuve and Alvarez remain tied to the team for multiple seasons on contract extensions. Peña and Kyle Tucker, the underrated all-around star who caught the Finals, are still years away from free agency. And Valdez could lead a strong five-man rotation even if Verlander goes down.

Whoever takes the field in Houston in 2023 will have targets on their backs. But then again, that’s been true for years, and it hasn’t slowed them down yet.

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