Houston Astros cement dominant run with second World Series title

HOUSTON -- What will they say now?

If there was a theme -- a predominant question -- in the wake of the Houston Astros' title-clinching victory over the Philadelphia Phillies, that was it.

The Astros had secured their first World Series championship since the tainted one from 2017, punctuating a dominant six-year stretch that saw them finish no further than seven wins away from a ring at the end of each season. And so, what now? How will this title shape the Astros' legacy? What will it change, if anything, about the way baseball fans outside of Houston feel about them?

Those were the questions that littered a rowdy, champagne-soaked home clubhouse at Minute Maid Park as Saturday night turned into Sunday morning.

Ryan Pressly, who closed out the 4-1 win in Game 6, offered a compelling counter.

"We don't really give a s--- what they say," he said. "We won. We're the best. Ain't nothing they can say about it now."

Framber Valdez provided another stellar outing, pitching six innings of one-run ball, and Yordan Alvarez delivered the devastating blow, clearing the center-field batter's eye for a three-run homer in the sixth inning that avenged last year's World Series loss, sent the Astros to a championship and gave Dusty Baker the trophy he had long coveted.

Now 73, Baker spent three decades chasing a championship he won only once, as an outfielder for the Los Angeles Dodgers in 1981. He took 12 teams to the postseason and claimed 2,093 career regular-season victories before finally winning his first title as a manager, a milestone that will cement what is certain to become a Hall of Fame career.

When the final innings came and his dominant bullpen was in the game, Baker began counting the outs. He said he heard his late father talk to him, and he thought about his beloved former teammates who had also passed, names like Don Baylor and Hank Aaron and Roy Campanella.

"I tried not to dwell on it," Baker said of his prolonged quest for a championship, "but I tried to have faith and perseverance in knowing that with the right team and the right personnel and right everything that this is going to happen. Had this happened years ago, I might not even be here. So maybe it wasn't supposed to happen so that I could hopefully influence a few young men's lives and their families and a number of different people in the country through showing what perseverance and character can do for you in the long run."

Baker was brought in near the end of the first month of 2020, shortly after Major League Baseball's investigation confirmed that the Astros had utilized an elaborate trash-can-banging scheme to steal opposing catchers' signs to pitchers during their championship run of 2017. Their architect, Jeff Luhnow, and field manager, A.J. Hinch, were suspended and subsequently fired, and the Astros suddenly morphed into the proverbial villains of their sport, a sentiment shared almost as strongly by their peers as it was by rival fans.

"We got beat up over it, and rightfully so," Astros owner Jim Crane said. "We tried to work our way through it and kept our head down. I told the guys, 'This is gonna be with us for a while. The only way we can fix it is we gotta beat everybody.' That's what we focused on."

The Astros recovered from a slow start to the pandemic-shortened season to reach the American League Championship Series in 2020, then went all the way to the World Series in 2021, losing in six games to a shorthanded but resurgent Atlanta Braves team.

The ensuing offseason saw Carlos Correa leave via free agency, following the path of Gerrit Cole and George Springer in prior winters. Superstars departed, their dynamic core aged, but the Astros kept thriving. Jeremy Pena replaced Correa at shortstop, made a case for the AL Rookie of the Year Award and was later named MVP of both the ALCS and the World Series; Alvarez, acquired in what initially felt like a minor trade with the Dodgers, evolved into arguably the sport's best hitter; Valdez, Cristian Javier, Luis Garcia and Jose Urquidy -- all obtained through well-below-market deals on the international front -- developed into top-tier starting pitchers; and the likes of Hector Neris, Bryan Abreu, Ryne Stanek and Rafael Montero formed a dominant bullpen bridge to Pressly.

Around them, their stars shined. Alex Bregman and Jose Altuve performed among the best at their respective positions, and Justin Verlander pitched like a Cy Young favorite as a 39-year-old coming off Tommy John surgery.

The Astros were hardly challenged in the AL West in 2022. They finished the regular season with a 106-56 record, winning the division by 16 games. They then won their first seven postseason contests to quickly dispatch the upstart Seattle Mariners and the decorated New York Yankees in the first two rounds.

The Phillies, a team that won 19 fewer games, proved to be the Astros' most formidable foe. They tested their mettle, but the Astros responded. When the Phillies staged a five-run comeback to steal Game 1, the Astros rode a dominant Valdez to earn a split from Houston. When the Phillies cranked out five home runs in a Game 3 victory, the Astros recovered to win back-to-back road games in a hostile environment, riding a combined no-hitter in Game 4 and a collective effort -- highlighted by Chas McCormick's improbable ninth-inning catch -- in Game 5.

In Game 6, Alvarez delivered the crushing blow -- a 450-foot shot to straightaway center field that cleared the 40-foot-tall batter's eye, a circumstance few recalled ever witnessing in this ballpark.

"That's why I'm here -- so they could see it," Alvarez said in Spanish.

The home run -- off Jose Alvarado, the lefty reliever Phillies manager Rob Thomson brought in to face him -- was his third of this postseason, and all three came while the Astros were trailing and gave them the lead. No player had ever hit two of those in an entire postseason career.

Recent history made it even more improbable. Alvarez, 25, had gone homerless in his 10 previous postseason games and had accumulated only five hits in his past 42 at-bats. Heading into Game 6, Astros hitting coach Alex Cintron noticed Alvarez wasn't wide enough in his stance. They worked on it in the batting cage. After Alvarez flied out to end his first two plate appearances, Cintron implored him to get his foot down early.

"You're late," he told him.

When Alvarez came to bat again in the bottom of the sixth, with runners on the corners, one out and the Astros trailing by a run, he felt at peace. He didn't look at his tablet, as he normally would. Instead, he thought about his 4-year-old daughter and how it was her birthday on Sunday, and the family wanted to celebrate. He thought about what Altuve and Bregman told him before the game, that he was the one who would come through later that night. He began to believe them.

"I had some peace, some faith, that that was my moment," Alvarez said. "And it happened."

The Astros are only the fourth team in the expansion era, which dates back to 1961, to win 60% of their games and claim multiple World Series titles in a six-year span. The Baltimore Orioles did it from 1966 to '71, the Cincinnati Reds did it from 1972 to '77, and the Yankees did it twice, from 1976 to '81 and from 1996 to '01. The Astros' .622 winning percentage during their stretch is the highest among them. Their second title, in many ways, was validation.

"I think it was extremely important," Astros starting pitcher Lance McCullers Jr. said. "There was always going to be a dark cloud over our head. I'm sure a lot of people aren't happy we won, but at the end of the day, we continue to work, we continue to do things the right way."

McCullers, Bregman, Altuve, Verlander and Yuli Gurriel, who suffered a knee injury that forced the Astros to remove him from the World Series roster ahead of Game 6, are the only players who remain from the 2017 championship team. The entire team has been booed relentlessly on the road these past couple of years, but those five -- especially Bregman, Altuve and Gurriel, the position players who stood to benefit from the team's sign-stealing methods -- have been vilified like few others in the sport's history.

McCullers said they never talked about validating their run with another title.

"But when you're giving those hugs after you win another one, when I'm giving hugs to guys like Bregman and Altuve and Yuli and JV, you feel a little of just, like, we earned our place in history," McCullers said.

"Every time they hear the boos, they take it personal, and it motivates them," said Joe Espada, who has concluded his fifth year as the Astros' bench coach. "It motivates them. But they keep their eyes on the goal. They know exactly what they need to do. To be here and finish the job -- speechless, man."

The Astros now have some important decisions to make. Baker and James Click, hired as the general manager less than a week after Baker came on board, were both on contracts that have now expired. Baker could retire, and Click has not seen eye-to-eye with Crane on some baseball-related decisions, sources said, placing unexpected uncertainty around his future. Crane was noncommittal postgame, saying they'd all sit down "after the parade is over" next week.

Until then, the Astros will celebrate.

Around them, there will be silence.

"I wasn't here in 2017, but I can imagine it's definitely a weight off everybody's shoulders," Pressly said. "Nobody can say s--- now."