HOUSTON -- IT'S CARLOS CORREA's time.
And the 2021 Astros are his team. The 27-year-old shortstop is on a mission to win another World Series as the leader of an often maligned Astros' organization while the clock ticks to his free agency.
So don't expect him to back down now that the Atlanta Braves struck first with a Game 1 win on Tuesday night. If you see Correa pointing at his wrist after a big hit in Game 2 -- as he did against the Red Sox in the last round, sparking an ALCS controversy -- you'll understand why.
"When the playoffs start, [my teammates] always tell me it's your time," Correa told ESPN during the ALCS. "I love this time of year. When I point at my wrist, it's not to disrespect anyone. I'm just saying it's 'my time' of year."
He can back it up: In six postseasons, Correa has belted 18 home runs and compiled an .868 OPS. But beyond the homers and the flashy celebrations, a newer version of Correa has emerged -- a team leader who will defend his team publicly and call them out privately.
"He can sit there, in front of a group, and ask individuals, 'Are you ready to go with me?' because they know his answer is yes," explained Kendall Graveman, who joined the Astros in a midseason trade from the Mariners. "That's the vibe he gives off."
With his Astros in the World Series for the third time in five years, Correa is more than ready for one more chance to show off his leadership and on-the-field skills. And after seven years with the team, in what could be his final days wearing orange and blue, his stature in the clubhouse is clear.
"He is super intelligent," longtime teammate Alex Bregman said. "He works extremely hard. His only goal is to win. He has a plan, executes his plan and helps other guys do the same. He is a leader."
STANDING NEAR THE Fenway Park visitor's dugout while his team prepared for a pivotal ALCS Game 5 meeting with the Red Sox, Correa's voice began to crack and his eyes started welling up while explaining what being in this role for the Astros means to him.
"It's actually hard for me to talk about this," he said. "It's about how much I care about every single individual in that clubhouse. I love every single one of them. I treat them like family members and there is nothing I wouldn't do for my family."
It's been a long road to get here. Correa started on the Astros as a 20-year-old rookie in 2015, one of the young upstarts on a team coming out of a long rebuild. In only his second year on the team, Correa's legacy with the Astros changed forever: with the sign-stealing scandal that shook baseball when it was uncovered two years later.
The fallout cost former manager AJ Hinch and former GM Jeff Luhnow their jobs. The players were never punished, but Correa and the other three Astros hitters remaining on the 2021 roster have felt the wrath of the court of public opinion. Correa says that the treatment that he and his teammates have received has forced him to grow up quickly.
"With everything that we went through, I felt like I had to step up, make sure we're more together than ever," Correa said. "Everything that's happened on the road has just brought us closer."
While some Astros players have shied away from addressing criticism related to the scandal directly, Correa has leaned in to defend his teammates at every opportunity. When White Sox pitcher Ryan Tepera insinuated the Astros were still cheating at home earlier this postseason, the shortstop responded by reciting the team's MLB-leading .780 road OPS this season.
"I speak by facts," Correa said. "Some people speak on emotion; I want to talk on facts and numbers. If you're going to talk bad about our team, make sure you have the story right."
The Astros are regularly the subject of hostile chants across the league, but Correa sees their latest run as an opportunity to change the narrative. It's as close as any Astro will publicly admit to being motivated to silence the critics by winning without a hint of scandal.
"That was the bad part of our story," Correa said. "Now we have to be better and fix our story and finish with a happy ending."
SINCE 2017, CORREA has remained one of the best shortstops in the league. And as he has matured as a player and as a leader in the Astros clubhouse, his impact has only grown.
For manager Dusty Baker, who has managed other veteran clubhouse presences such as Derrek Lee and Max Scherzer, it's not lost on him what it means to have a great player setting the example for his teammates.
"I learned that from Hank Aaron, that you want your best player to be your best leader," Baker said. "Most of the time, it's not. It does make it so much easier on the manager because he takes a half-dozen or 10 guys with him.
"If your best player is not a good leader, they can take you down the wrong road. Carlos is in the great category."
This year, that's been true on and off the field. Correa has set a career high in home runs and WAR and is an All-Star for the first time since 2017. And as he's guided this team through their first season back on the road in front of fans still frothing about the 2020 revelations, he's been equally important in the clubhouse.
Graveman recalled several nights on the road where players would gather in catcher Martin Maldonado's room to talk about that night's game, Correa often leading the conversation.
"He'll break down the game and talk to guys one-on-one," Graveman said. "Just saying things like 'We need you to win,' is a big deal. When a leader says that, that's special because you really believe it. I've seen it on multiple occasions."
THERE WAS ONE moment in the ALDS in Chicago that Correa and his teammates say illustrates his leadership evolution in Houston.
In Game 4, as center fielder Jake Meyers lay on the warning track after crashing into the Guaranteed Rate Field wall in an attempt to take a home run away from Gavin Sheets, Correa sprinted into the outfield.
Just that -- running from the infield to check on an injured teammate -- is not something Correa would have done a few years ago, he said.
But his actions after he got there were just as important. Meyers had jammed his left shoulder -- his throwing arm -- during the sequence, but he wanted to stay in the game. As Baker jogged from the dugout -- he would later claim it was a "long run" -- it was Correa who took charge of the situation.
"I asked him how he was doing," Correa recalled. "He said he was 50%. I told him 50% wasn't good enough for me."
Meyers came out of the game.
"In the moment when it happened, Carlos really showed a veteran, captain-esque move there, letting me understand there it's not about me, it's about the team," Meyers said. "But I also know he cares about me."
Correa and his teammates both acknowledge that his on-field leadership has been a work in progress in his seven years in the league.
"I've seen him grow up," Astros bench coach Joe Espada said. "He's authentic. There's empathy. There's compassion. That's what a leader is all about. But he does it with respect."
AS WALK YEARS go, Correa's is about as good as it gets. According to Baseball Reference, his WAR (7.2) led all position players. His .850 OPS is right in line with the best shortstops in the game, and this was his best defensive season yet. His game sells itself -- and Correa, a free agent for the first time in 2021, is ready to take advantage.
"Whatever team wants to win I want to be part of it," Correa said. "I want to be part of an organization that wants to go in the right direction and rebuild in the right way and win championships."
While the Yankees and Mariners remain among the teams associated with signing Correa, an unsolicited mention of the word "rebuild" should have fans in Detroit and Chicago, among other cities, salivating. The Tigers employ former Astros manager A.J Hinch while the Cubs are currently void of stars, and Correa recently recalled how much a pre-draft workout at Wrigley Field meant to him.
Correa has become more fluent in the sabermetric world and has made it clear that he will be using that information to analyze his potential suitors in the same way that interested teams will be evaluating him.
"I see a lot of teams out there that have a lot of talent but don't have information," Correa said. "That's what I'm going to bring. The analytics tell you so much but at the same time you need guys that have done it to help you to learn the right ways. I'll bring that to another team.
"I get on the websites and start looking at numbers and comparing. I enjoy that in my free time," he continued with a smile. "Some people like Tik Tok, I look at numbers."
The Astros attempted to sign Correa to an extension last offseason, offering him a six-year, $120 million contract, but fell far short. And it will likely take a lot more to sign him now. Just one year after Houston just let George Springer walk, the team could see the same happen with another All-Star in 2021.
"We're going to work with Correa after this is over," Astros owner Jim Crane said during Houston's postseason run.
For now, Correa said, he has other things on his mind.
"When the offseason comes, I will think about all that other stuff, but right now, the main focus is helping this team win a championship," he said. "That's all I think about."
He ended a long conversation about his organization, his adopted city and especially his teammates -- to whom he may be saying goodbye in short order -- with a message.
"My love will never run out for all of them," Correa said.