The Astros beat the Athletics 11-6 on Thursday in Game 4 of the American League Division Series, punching their ticket to a fourth consecutive AL Championship Series.
And it brings Dusty Baker a step closer to a championship he has been eyeing for more than two decades as a manager.
Baker has 1,862 career victories, 15th on the all-time list. He has been named Manager of the Year three times and won seven division titles. But the 70-year-old is searching for his first World Series title, the lone accomplishment missing on what could be a Cooperstown resume.
The Astros, the new villains in baseball after they were found guilty of sign-stealing by banging a garbage can en route to winning the 2017 World Series, are fighting to change their cheating reputation.
In an abbreviated 60-game schedule, the Astros have struggled. They won nine games on the road this season and could be the first team to make the World Series with a losing record (29-31). This month, they have won the wild card series in Minnesota and then beat the A’s in Dodger Stadium, a place where Baker played in three World Series for the Dodgers.
The Astros, who fired manager A.J. Hinch and general manager Jeff Luhnow because of the scandal, hired Baker, 71, two weeks before spring training started. The idea was that with his legend, strength and his ability to communicate with players, the Astros could begin to reshape their reputation.
Astros shortstop Carlos Correa said the team does not worry about what others think: “We are motivated and we want to bring another championship to the city of Houston. We know what it feels like and we want to have that feeling again.”
But the season was not easy. A month after spring training started, just as Baker was feeling at home with a new team, the coronavirus pandemic postponed the season until late July 23.
The Astros lost two starting pitchers, Gerrit Cole to the Yankees via free agency, and Justin Verlander to an elbow injury. An injury also sidelined one of their best hitters, Yordan Alvarez, and bullpen injuries, especially closer Roberto Osuna, hurt. Also, the core of the lineup did not perform up to expectations. The Astros ranked 20th in the majors with a .240 average and 14th in runs with 279.
“It has been a long, tough road, but we are halfway there,” Baker told reporters via Zoom. “I am thankful and happy, but I still got happiness left to give.”
Already this season, Baker has made history.
The Astros are a record fifth team he has managed in the postseason, joining the Giants, Reds, Cubs and Nationals. His only pennant came with the 2002 Giants, a team that lost to the Angels in the World Series.
“I have some things I want to accomplish and a championship is one of them,” Baker told reporters during the postseason. “I did not think I would get another chance. Even when I was winning, I was losing at the end. I know that in my heart and mind I have always been a winner. You have to continue to think positive, continue to persevere and build character along the way. Well, I have enough character to give some away.”
Baker is in his 23rd season as a manager, but he has had tough losses when his teams get to October.
He managed the Nationals to two consecutive seasons of 95 and 97 wins in 2016 and 2017. The Nationals lost to the Cubs and Dodgers in the NLDS. They lost 6-5 and 4-3 to the Dodgers in the final two games of the best-of-five series. The Nats lost Game 5 9-8 to the Cubs at Nationals Park.
The Nationals replaced Baker with Davey Martinez and won the World Series against Houston in 2019.
In 2003, Baker and the Cubs had a 3-1 lead in the NLCS and wound up missing the World Series, losing to the Marlins. In 2012, his Reds blew a 2-0 lead to the Giants in a best-of-five NLDS, and the next season, the Giants lost a winner-take-all wild card game to the Pirates.
In the 2002 World Series, the Giants had a 3-2 lead after Game 5, but the Angels won the final two games 6-5 and 4-1 to win the Fall Classic.
If the Astros win the World Series this season, Baker will become the second African American manager to win a title, joining Cito Gaston, who led the Toronto Blue Jays to consecutive titles in 1992 and 1993. Gaston has a strong case for the Hall of Fame, too.
Baker, who was on deck for the Braves the night Henry Aaron hit Babe Ruth’s record with his 715th career home run in April 1974, has solid credentials as a player to support his Cooperstown candidacy. He had 242 home runs and 1,013 RBIs and played in eight postseason series, including three World Series for the Dodgers.
The Dodgers lost to the Yankees in 1977 and 1978, but the Dodgers beat New York in the strike season of 1981.
If the Astros win the World Series - or maybe just get in - that could be enough for Baker to make Cooperstown.
He likely will be eligible for Hall of Fame consideration as part of the Today’s Game Era Committee, a 10-person ballot made up players, managers, umpires and executives that considers the impact of candidates that have been in baseball since 1988.
According to the Hall of Fame, the committee that can vote Baker into Cooperstown is scheduled to meet next in December 2022. If elected on 70 percent of the ballots, Baker would be part of the Class of 2023.
Hall of Fame rules say that managers and umpires with 10-plus years in baseball and retired for at least five years are eligible. Candidates that are 65 or older are eligible six months following retirement.
There are 22 managers inducted into the Hall of Fame. The last three to go in were Bobby Cox, Tony La Russa and Joe Torre in 2014.
Baker has an option for 2021 if he wants to manage the Astros for another season. He says if he can get one championship this season, he can get two.
And he would like to stick around long enough in 2021 to reach 2,000 career wins. If so, he would be the 11th manager to reach that mark.
“I’ve always believed it’s already written,” Baker said. “We just have to play it out and play to believe.”