The Astros were able to celebrate winning the American League pennant at home in Houston, with much of the crowd at Minute Maid Park staying for the trophy presentation. 
Credit...Annie Mulligan for The New York Times

An ‘Unreal Feeling’ as Astros Reach Third World Series in Five Years

Stained by scandal, Houston’s core stuck together, outlasting the Boston Red Sox and returning to baseball’s biggest stage in pursuit of another ring.

· NY Times

HOUSTON — Depending on your point of view, the Houston Astros are fascinating, maddening or confusing. Maybe, though, they are all of that at once. The world, after all, is many shades of gray.

Some baseball fans may never forgive the franchise for cheating during its 2017 World Series-winning season. Those transgressions were exposed in November 2019 and subsequently investigated by Major League Baseball, which said the Astros’ illicit sign-stealing scheme continued for at least part of 2018. The league handed down penalties before the 2020 season.

Still, the Astros are enjoying one of the best runs in baseball history, all the while continuing to unnerve fans and opponents. The general manager is different now. So is the manager. As is the cast of characters surrounding the core group of players. Yet the Astros keep winning, which suggests they might never have needed that trash can.

After toppling the Boston Red Sox, 5-0, in Game 6 of the American League Championship Series on Friday, the Astros — once again — are in the World Series. Including their now-tainted 2017 season, the Astros have reached the final round three times in the past five years. With one more win last year, this would be their fourth appearance in that span.

“This is an unreal feeling being back in the World Series after everything we’ve been through,” said Astros shortstop Carlos Correa standing on a field littered with confetti at Minute Maid Park. “It’s special. We stuck together.”

“It’s nice to see everyone happy,” said Astros owner Jim Crane, standing nearby. “I mean, shoot, we haven’t had many happy times around here in a while.”

The obstacles, though, were self inflicted. Two years after the Astros capped their rise from a perennial loser to an annual force with a World Series title over the Los Angeles Dodgers in 2017, they were accused by one of their former pitchers of breaking the rules. An M.L.B. probe confirmed that the Astros had violated the rules by using live video feeds to decode opposing catchers’ signs, relaying to their teammates at the plate what pitch was coming next by banging a trash can near the home dugout.

M.L.B. Commissioner Rob Manfred punished the organization with a $5 million fine and loss of draft picks. The general manager at the time, Jeff Luhnow, and manager, A.J. Hinch, were suspended by the league and fired by the team, and the league stepped up its efforts to guard against illegal sign stealing, a practice that many believed had spiraled out of control. But the Astros kept the title.

In addition to that result, which many found unsatisfying, Manfred did not suspend any Astros players — they were granted immunity in exchange for honest testimony — which angered opposing players and fans. So when those fans returned to ballparks after a 2020 season staged largely without crowds because of the coronavirus pandemic, they took out their fury on the Astros. The cloud of suspicion over the franchise, though, may never go away.

“It’s brought up every day so you have to see it,” Crane said of the scandal. “I think it’s behind us. We proved that tonight and we’re proud of the guys. And they’re great players, and great players win championships.”

Several of the players who powered the Astros to the 2021 A.L. pennant were not around in 2017, such as designated hitter Yordan Alvarez, outfielder Kyle Tucker, and pitchers Luis Garcia and Framber Valdez. After leaving his start in Game 2 with knee soreness, Garcia returned in Game 6 and allowed just one hit over five and two-thirds scoreless innings. Alvarez, the A.L.C.S. Most Valuable Player, had more hits in the final two games (7) than the Red Sox did as a team (5).

“Ever since the news came out, the bad news that we’ve had to deal with about what happened in 2017, we’ve all wanted to prove what kind of class of players that we are and team that we are,” Alvarez said. “I wasn’t here with the team in 2017, but I’ve gotten booed just as equal as anybody else. So we all have the same mentality that we really want to win a World Series to demonstrate that we are just a great team.”

Although their pitching staff lacked the star power of past playoff runs, the Astros excelled this season in many facets of the game — on the mound, at the plate and in the field. They won their fourth A.L. West division title in five years.

Their biggest strength was a relentless offense that led the majors in scoring and was the toughest to strike out. And the talented core of their roster — first baseman Yuli Gurriel, second baseman Jose Altuve, third baseman Alex Bregman and Correa — was the common thread among all three World Series teams, including in 2019 when they fell one win short of a title to the Washington Nationals.

“They’re all special every single time,” Bregman said of each trip. “It’s been amazing to be on this team and with these guys.”

In the first round of this postseason, the Astros blew past the A.L. Central champion Chicago White Sox, dropping just one game and outscoring their opponent by 31-18.

In the A.L.C.S., where the Astros were making their fifth straight trip, the Red Sox put up more of a fight. The Astros trailed in the series, two games to one, before rattling off three straight victories. They scored nine runs in Game 4 and again in Game 5 in Boston.

Back in Houston for Game 6, Garcia stifled the Red Sox with a fastball that was registering a few miles per hour faster than usual. Alvarez went 4 for 4, helping the Astros take an early lead. In the eighth inning, Tucker’s three-run home run further widened the gulf between the Astros and their opponents.

“The American League is well-represented in the World Series,” said Red Sox Manager Alex Cora, who lost his job in Boston, was suspended for his role in the Astros cheating scandal when he was their bench coach in 2017, and was rehired by the Red Sox before this season. He added, “They have a great program, they’re doing an outstanding job and they deserve to be in the World Series.”

After the victory, Crane spoke to reporters on the field and credited the team’s current general manager, James Click, along with Luhnow and Hinch for the combined work of building the team into a perennial force. He expressed his admiration for the team’s current manager, Dusty Baker, in guiding the players. He said that people in the baseball industry understood how hard it was to make three World Series appearances in five years.

But asked if the stain of 2017 would continue forever, Crane pointed to recent comments from Oakland Athletics pitcher Chris Bassitt that the Astros weren’t the only team stealing signs through illicit means.

“We got it pinned on us, we owned it, we took the penalty, we worked our way through it and we’re past that now,” Crane said.

Looking up at the flags in left field commemorating the franchise’s past pennants, and its 2017 championship, Crane said the Astros hoped to add to them. Beginning Tuesday, against either the Atlanta Braves or the Los Angeles Dodgers, the most complicated team in baseball will try for another championship.