HOUSTON – Capping a decade like no other in baseball history, the Houston Astros are returning to the World Series, aiming to win the club’s second championship, one that would shine a little bit brighter than the original.

The Astros went from being shameless losers and industry innovators to dominating champions and cheating chumps to the next level in their extraordinary arc Friday night. They got a second dominating performance in the same games from an unknown starter to beat the Boston Red Sox, 5-5, to capture the American League Championship Series.

They advance to face either the Atlanta Braves – back here at Minute Maid Park – or the Los Angeles Dodgers in the World Series in Game 1 of the World Series, Tuesday evening.

“Hey, it’s me! Dusty Baker, the Astros manager who led San Francisco Giants into the Fall Classic 19-years ago, said: This was done for H-town. The greatest men in the entire world are my friends. “Thank you guys!”

A date with the Dodgers would only intensify the grim feelings associated with the club’s electronic sign-stealing scandal, which boosted the 2017 champions all season and through a bitterly-contested seven-game slugfest with the Dodgers.

Since Houston’s organizational indiscretions – from top baseball executive Jeff Luhnow and manager A.J. Hinch, both fired in January 2020, down to the players – were revealed in November 2019, the club’s lone championship has been rightfully sullied. They have been ridiculed from coast to coast, and during this season when fans returned to the ballparks they were booed relentlessly from the Bronx up to Chavez Ravine.

Astros shortstop Carlos Correa celebrates after Red Sox outfielder Alex Verdugo is thrown out at second base to end the seventh inning.

Another title won’t soothe all the deep-seated bitterness outside Houston. However, it could legitimize all the greatness in baseball of Astros past and present.

It was Game 6 that the players of the new school led them to victory.

ALCS MVP Yordan Alvarez, acquired from those Dodgers in a fateful trade, drove in the game’s first run with a double and later tripled and scored the other run, capping a startling final two games in which he mashed six hits, five for extra bases.

Kyle Tucker (right fielder) picked up offensive responsibility from Astro George Springer. He iced this game with an opposing-field home run, his fourth in the postseason.

And rookie starter Luis Garcia, chased ignominiously from Game 2 by a then-unstoppable Red Sox offense, carried a no-hitter for 5 2/3 innings as he and four relievers completed a thorough vexing of Boston’s bats.

When Ryan Pressly recorded the final out, the crowd of 42,718 at Minute Maid – one place the Astros can be sure they’re loved almost unconditionally – erupted in celebration of the pennant and anticipation of what comes next.

A fair amount of relief was felt for the club’s success in an ALCS that saw wild momentum swings.

Garcia was unable to score and allowed five runs in the second game at Minute Maid Park on Oct. 16, before he left with a knee injury. Garcia said he had been working out in the bullpen the day after.

He looked completely different in Game 6.

Running his fastball up to 97 mph, Garcia allowed just two baserunners through five innings – Kyle Schwarber striking out but reaching on a wild pitch to open the game, and Alex Verdugo drawing a second-inning walk. Garcia had only a 1-0 lead, and Phil Maton, Astros’ starter, was warming as he recorded his first two outs for the sixth. However, the huge stakes far outweighed the possible milestone.

Good thing: Kiké Hernández nearly tied the game with a booming triple into the nook in left-center field. That gave Baker an easy call – he lifted Garcia, who received a thunderous standing ovation as he departed, and Maton induced a pop out to shortstop on one pitch.

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It was a command performance, Garcia’s fastball regularly hitting 95-96 mph, 3 mph over his regular season average, and his pitch mix only deepened an ignominious Red Sox funk. Garcia relied heavily on his fastball in the first, but struck out Christian Arroyo (and Hunter Renfroe) almost exclusively on cutters by the fifth. He opened the sixth punching out pinch-hitter Danny Santana on a changeup before Schwarber’s deep fly to left preceded Hernández’s triple.

Hernández staged an MVP-worthy performance throughout the postseason – 20 hits in 49 at-bats (.408) and five home runs, three in this ALCS. Yet a Boston offense that scored 21 runs in Games 2 and 3 to briefly seize command of the series went AWOL: From the second inning of Game 4 until Hernandez’s triple, the Red Sox recorded seven hits in 73 at-bats (.096 average) and were outscored 20-1.

It didn’t hurt that the Astros played nearly flawless baseball when they had to the most.

Game 6 started with Schwarber reaching on the strikeout-wild pitch, and Hernández followed with a smash up the middle. But second baseman Jose Altuve – positioned like a shortstop in the shift – made a sparkling diving grab and one-hopped a perfect throw to first for the out.

The Red Sox nearly caught Baker slipping in the seventh, when Graveman – who pitched two innings in Game 4 – wobbled by issuing a leadoff walk and single to Alex Verdugo. With nobody warming in the bullpen and runners at the corners, it would be Graveman’s game to lose.

Alex Cora, Red Sox manager, countered by Travis Shaw lefty batter who performed a complete count count. Verdugo ran on the pitch. But Graveman struck out Shaw, catcher Martin Maldonado and shortstop Carlos Correa, who unloaded a bonkers throw. The ball traveled long enough to reach Verdugo, allowing him to score the 2-6-3 double play.

It was time to party in Houston once more. Yuli Gurriel and Alex Bregman, Correa, Altuve and Altuve are sign-stealing heroes. Fans and pundits will continue to criticize them in the days ahead. There will be thunderous boos from L.A., and possibly some catcalls from Atlanta.

But if there are still boos, it may be harder to hear the critics if the Astros continue winning. A cast of new and old characters will find plenty to be proud of with the four additional wins.

Source: USAToday.com

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