There was symbolism in the timing when Major League Baseball announced a new, expanded postseason format. The league made it official on opening day in July, while the very first game of the season was already in progress. The message: We know this won’t last very long, but wait till we get to the fall!
By opening up the playoffs to 16 teams, instead of the usual 10, M.L.B. created a new batch of playoff games to sell to networks, boosting revenue after a pandemic-shortened regular season of just 60 games.
But the league risked competitive integrity: What if a losing team sneaked in and made a run for the title?
Even that could have been appealing, perhaps, if the team were a scrappy underdog poised for a breakthrough, or one that had a marquee star like Mike Trout, Bryce Harper or Jacob deGrom. But what if the team turned out to be the Houston Astros, notorious for the cheating scandal that roiled the sport for months before the coronavirus shutdown?
That scenario has arrived: Behold the best-of-seven American League Championship Series, starting on Sunday night in San Diego, with the Astros meeting the Tampa Bay Rays for a trip to the World Series.
The baseball gods are blameless here: They tried to smite Houston with free-agent losses, pitching injuries and general offensive futility that led to a 29-31 record during the regular season. But the Astros crashed M.L.B.’s larger-than-usual party, and they don’t plan to leave now.
“When you play 162, you usually have one or two bad months, and then you recover with the three or four that are solid,” shortstop Carlos Correa said, after the Astros thumped the Oakland Athletics in their division series. “Right now, we’re in the third month of the season and we’re getting hot at the plate.”
In 2017, of course, the Astros were suspiciously hot, riding a powerful offense to their first World Series title. An investigation last off-season confirmed that the team had illegally stolen signs that year, leading to fines, forfeited draft picks and suspensions — though none for the players, who were granted immunity by Commissioner Rob Manfred in exchange for cooperation.
The vitriol that followed the revelation of the scheme, from both fans and rival players, served to undercut all the Astros had achieved since. They were similarly dominant in 2018 and nearly won another title last October before losing to Washington in Game 7 of the World Series. And while their offense sputtered this summer, the Astros bashed the A’s with a .322 team batting average and 33 runs in four games.
“They’re really good — we watched them plenty in the games leading up to ours,” Rays Manager Kevin Cash said on Friday, after a thrilling 2-1 victory to eliminate the Yankees in Game 5. “They’re rolling offensively; they’ve got some pitchers that we’re not as familiar with. We’re going to have our work cut out.”
For all their past misdeeds, the Astros are hardly a product of stolen signals. Even as their lineup struggled this season, it retained its signature characteristic: extreme contact hitting, a trait that distinguishes the Astros from the Rays.
Houston’s hitters had the fewest strikeouts in the majors this season, at 7.3 per game, while Tampa Bay’s had the most, at 10.1 per game. The Rays still had better on-base and slugging percentages, but now the Astros are slugging as they did in the past, with Correa leading the way. He is hitting .500 this postseason (10 for 20) with four home runs in six games, and five other everyday players — Jose Altuve, Michael Brantley, Alex Bregman, George Springer and Kyle Tucker — hit .368 or better against Oakland.
The Rays hit a meager .202 against the Yankees, but they out-homered them, 11 to 10. That margin proved to be the difference in the series when Mike Brosseau, an undrafted role player, smoked a 100 mile-an-hour fastball from Aroldis Chapman for the decisive homer in the eighth inning of Game 5.
Brosseau, a right-handed hitter, entered the game as a pinch-hitter in the sixth inning when the Yankees replaced Gerrit Cole with the left-handed Zach Britton. He is part of a deep and versatile lineup that supports a pitching staff with a 3.56 earned run average in the regular season and the most strikeouts of any team left in the playoffs.
“We’re a fun team, we play the game right, we pitch very well,” Brosseau said when asked what fans should expect from the Rays. “They’re going to see a lot of high velo on the radar gun, and they’re going to see a lot of good defense and timely hitting. We use our roster so well.”
Last fall, the Rays took the Astros to five games in a division series but lost twice to Cole and once to Justin Verlander, who is out because of Tommy John surgery. Their absence puts the Astros in a similar spot as the Rays: depending more on the depth of their pitching staff than one or two aces, especially with no days off in this series.
In five of the Astros’ six postseason games so far — all but Game 2 against Oakland, when Framber Valdez worked seven innings — Manager Dusty Baker has pulled his starter before the last out of the fifth. The rookies Enoli Paredes, Blake Taylor and Cristian Javier have combined for 12 shutout innings of relief, with Valdez adding another five in the first-round opener against Minnesota.
“Our bullpen did such a great job keeping us in games,” Correa said after beating Oakland. “I think they are the reason why we won the series.”
The Rays could say the same about their clash with the Yankees. They took two of the first three games, each with a starter — Blake Snell, Tyler Glasnow and Charlie Morton — going only five innings. The Rays then used three other pitchers in a Game 4 loss, saving their best arms for the finale, when four hard throwers — Glasnow, Nick Anderson, Pete Fairbanks and Diego Castillo — stifled the Yankees for six to eight outs apiece.
“Hey, are you surprised?” said Anderson, the Rays’ saves leader, who entered the game in the third inning. “That’s kind of like the Rays’ way — switch things up, do something a little different. Everybody’s on board with everything; everybody knows anything could happen.”
The low-budget Rays have never won the World Series and have been there just once, in 2008. Baker, 71, is seeking the first championship of a long and distinguished managerial career, and his presence may soften some fans’ feelings for the Astros.
But if most of the public — and perhaps even the league office — just wants the Astros to go away, the last two rounds have shown that it will not be easy. The Astros are holding tightly to their A.L. championship trophy, and need eight more victories for Manfred to present them with his.