The Houston Astros, with a 29-31 record under former Nationals manager Dusty Baker, could be the first team in baseball history to make the World Series with a losing record thanks to a pandemic-shortened 60-game season.
But this is more important to the Astros: The team is trying to erase the cheating image they have after banging on garbage cans to steal signs and beat the Los Angeles Dodgers to win the 2017 World Series.
The Astros’ general manager, Jeff Luhnow, and manager, A.J. Hinch, were suspended and eventually fired by the team. The players were not punished in return for their testimony to Major League Baseball, unlike the 1919 World Series, when the Chicago White Sox had eight players suspended for life after getting involved with gamblers and fixing the results.
On Monday, the Astros, who beat the Minnesota Twins in the wild card round, return to Dodger Stadium to play the Oakland Athletics in a best-of-five American League Division Series. The Astros will be taking aim at another title, one that got away a year ago to the Washington Nationals, who won the 2019 World Series with four wins in Houston.
Baker brushed off reporters’ questions about tension between the Astros and Athletics, but no doubt the Astros will be thinking about what was said by former Astros and current Athletics pitcher Mike Fiers, the whistleblower that got Major League Baseball’s investigation going into the sign-stealing shenanigans.
Fiers, the Game 3 starter for Oakland against the Chicago White Sox in the wild card round, could get a series start or work out of the bullpen. Fiers pitched for the Astros in the 2017 World Series, but never pitched against them during the Athletics’ 10 games against them in the regular season.
The coronavirus pandemic and the uncertainty of the season’s start pushed the Astros’ cheating out of the headlines. And with empty stadiums, the Astros have escaped the wrath of thousands of fans booing in road ballparks.
The Astros aren’t the same team. Their rotation is weaker and they didn’t hit well. Their best pitchers are gone, Gerrit Cole signing as a free agent with the Yankees and Justin Verlander having Tommy John surgery. Zack Greinke, the current ace, is 37 and didn’t last long in his wild card start in Minnesota.
In the two games against the Twins, the Astros’ Framber Valdez, Jose Urquidy and Cristian Javier combined for 12 1/3 innings in the two games.
And the Astros’ powerful offense has taken a step back. Yordan Alvarez was out for the season with an injury. Jose Altuve hit .219, Josh Reddick .245, Carlos Correa .264, Alex Bregman .242 and George Springer .245.
The Astros and Athletics tied for seventh in the AL for runs scored with 274 each.
Oakland first baseman Matt Olson has 14 home runs, but the team will miss injured third baseman Matt Chapman’s defense and bat. Chapman had 10 home runs before his season ended. Oakland signed Jake Lamb to take Chapman’s place and Lamb hit .267 with three home runs in his 13 games in green and gold.
Oakland beat the Astros seven of 10 games in the regular season. Oakland has a strong bullpen, led by Jake Diekman’s 33 strikeouts in 21 1/3 regular-season innings. There’s also Yusmeiro Petit, J.B. Wendelken and closer Liam Hendricks.
Chris Bassett, who had a 2.29 ERA during the season and pitched seven strong innings against the White Sox in the wild card round, leads the rotation. In a series with no days off, the A’s rotation options include Frankie Montas, Sean Manaea, Jesús Lazardo (a former Nationals prospect traded for Sean Doolittle) and Fiers.
Fiers is a big part of the reason the Astros are fighting for their reputation.
“We’ve had a tough year since the start of spring training, but now it’s all about playing great baseball,’’ Correa said via Zoom.
The A’s plan to make a statement.
“There’s a little bit if us wanting to make sure they what they’ve done and we can prove it to them that they weren’t the top team in the American League West,’’ Hendricks said. “But we also don’t want to be petty and let our emotions get the best of us.’‘
Prediction: Oakland wins in four games.