MINNEAPOLIS — In this October of chaos, of 100-win teams swept and a winless American League East and lower-seed dominance, there is but one constant. The Houston Astros are doing what the Houston Astros do, which is to say they are owning the most important month on the baseball calendar.
In this time when there is bellyaching about the game’s playoff format, in which the best teams sit for a week while the laggards fight for their season in the wild-card round, there is the outlier. The Astros illustrated that a bye does not necessarily equal bye-bye.
In this moment of profound questions across the sport, about strategy and analytics and the challenges of building a team to succeed in the playoffs like it does over a 162-game season, there is the team that for seven straight years has found itself in the American League Championship Series. The Astros were once upon a time the most analytically inclined organization in baseball. Even as in recent years they’ve receded from that, they still just win.
Baseball is on one. Up is down and right is left and sliders are sweepers and nobody can quite put together what’s going on. The 84-win Arizona Diamondbacks are in the National League Championship Series after dismantling the Los Angeles Dodgers, who finished 16 games ahead of them in the NL West. The 104-win Atlanta Braves are on the precipice of getting beat after their shortstop loud-talked Bryce Harper in the clubhouse, a reporter printed the ill-advised chirping and Harper had the vengeance game to end all vengeance games that staked his Philadelphia Phillies, who finished 14 games behind Atlanta in the NL East, a chance to finish off their series on Thursday.
All of that came a day after the 101-win Baltimore Orioles saw their season end at the hands of the buzz saw that is the Texas Rangers. After gagging away the AL West crown in the final week of the season, Texas proceeded to sweep the Tampa Bay Rays in the wild-card round then bushwhack the Orioles to set up one whale of an ALCS.
Never have the Rangers and Astros played in the postseason, and for all of the upsets thus far — if Philadelphia closes out Atlanta, the lower seed will have prevailed in five of eight series — to be gifted this sort of ALCS speaks to the drama that exists when chalk goes to dust.
It’s the Battle of Texas, the Silver Boot Series gone prime time.
It’s a pair of fearsome offenses that will make 27 outs painful for opposing pitchers.
A little more than two months ago, the two wizened aces were New York Mets teammates. The Mets’ deadline reckoning sent Verlander back to Houston and Scherzer off to Texas. And while a shoulder strain has shut down Scherzer for the past month, he could return and bring even more verve to a series teeming with it.
That’s the thing about this October. It doesn’t have the New York Mets. Or the New York Yankees. Or the Boston Red Sox. Or the Chicago Cubs. Or the San Diego Padres. Or the San Francisco Giants. Or the Los Angeles Angels. Even the juggernauts who did make it are falling on their faces. Should Philadelphia beat Atlanta, the win totals of the final four teams will be 90, 90, 90 and 84.
That’s baseball. For all those who care to complain about how winning a division doesn’t mean anything anymore, understand this: Every single team — every single team — would rather have a week off after the season to rest and reset its rotation than play a best-of-three series against another quality team with its season on the line.
Teams aren’t losing because they had a week off.
They’re losing because the MLB postseason is a tournament with three-, five- and seven-game series, in which getting hot at the right time matters far more than what a team has done over a six-month grind.
It’s what makes the Astros’ run all the more impressive. For seven years — one short of Atlanta’s record eight straight championship series appearances — the Astros have managed to win at least one playoff series. And as dissatisfying as that might be for those who harbor resentment against the organization for its cheating in 2017, anyone who refuses to acknowledge the Astros’ exceptional staying power is just willfully ignorant.
Only two players, Jose Altuve and Alex Bregman, remain from the 2017 team. The Astros have added the magnificent Yordan Álvarez, who might be the scariest hitter in the world, and Kyle Tucker, a perennial standout. They’ve brought in Michael Brantley, the epitome of a professional, and supplemented him with Jose Abreu, and both, now 36 years old, homered in their series-clinching triumph on Wednesday at Target Field, where the Astros took both games from the Minnesota Twins. Houston has developed Framber Valdez and Cristian Javier and Jeremy Peña and Chas McCormick and Jose Urquidy, who hadn’t pitched in 12 days and locked down the Twins to secure the Game 4 victory.
The conversations in sports always change, and today it’s going to be about Mookie Betts and Freddie Freeman going 1-for-21; and the Diamondbacks, with the fewest home runs in the regular season of any remaining playoff team, becoming the first ever to hit four in one postseason inning; and whether Spencer Strider can weather Citizens Bank Park and send the Braves home for a Game 5.
The Astros will hover above it all, readying for Sunday, when they will host Game 1 of the ALCS for the fourth time in five years. It will be the latest step toward the ultimate do-what-they-do goal: becoming baseball’s first back-to-back World Series champions since the Yankees won three in a row from 1998 to 2000.
It might be the most normal thing to happen yet.