When last in Truist Park, the Astros were foils of an improbable team on a giddy journey. The 2021 Braves, winners of only 88 games, succeeded in a way that filled even the principals with wonder. As Freddie Freeman said, disbelief in his voice, “A whole new outfield.”
We were so caught up in the Braves’ story – Rosario! Soler! Pederson the pearl man! – that we paid little heed to their World Series opponent. The dastardly Dodgers having been dismissed in the NLCS, Houston became to the Braves what Finland was to the do-you-believe-in-miracles 1980 U.S. hockey team. Even after shocking the Soviets and the world, our lads still had to beat the Finns to claim the gold medal.
What we might have missed: The Astros, not the Dodgers, are the gold standard. L.A. has one World Series title to show for 10 consecutive playoff runs. The Astros have qualified for postseason seven times in eight seasons, reaching the World Series four times, winning twice – against the Dodgers in 2017 and last year over the Phillies, who waylaid the Braves en route.
The Braves won 101 games last year. The Astros won 106. After falling to the Braves in October/November 2021, Houston bid farewell to Carlos Correa, cornerstone of a legendary rebuild. They lent larger roles to Jeremy Pena and Chas McCormick and rolled merrily along.
The latest band of Astros is working without Justin Verlander, the Cy Young winner who became a hated Met, and Jose Altuve, who broke his thumb in the World Baseball Classic. McCormick just landed on the 10-day injured list with back tightness. The Astros are 9-10, but it’s early. As ever, they’ve pitched well.
We remember Framber Valdez for yielding a home run to Jorge Soler to lead off the World Series. We recall Cristian Javier as the victim of the consecutive homers by Dansby Swanson and Soler that changed Game 4 and the Series itself. Luis Garcia lives in Atlanta lore as the thrower of the Game 6 cutter that Soler – he had a big Series, you’ll recall – drove over the train track.
(Garcia struck out Soler in the first inning with a cutter. In the third inning, with two on and two out, the count ran to 3-2. Garcia threw a slider. Soler fouled it off. Then a fastball. Fouled off. What to throw now? Back to the cutter, which Soler awaited. It traveled 446 feet. It gave the Braves the runs that made them champs. I’ll remember that at-bat forever.)
Garcia isn’t scheduled to start this weekend. Valdez and Javier are. Both are big-time. Valdez finished fifth in American League Cy Young voting last year; he beat the Phillies twice in the World Series, the clinching Game 6 included. Javier’s regular-season ERA was 2.54 last year; in Game 4 of the Series, he exited after six hitless innings. He became the third Series starter ever to yield no hits, joining Don Larsen from 1956 and Ian Anderson from Game 3 against Houston in 2021.
The Astros haven’t been stealth winners. Their tank job under Jeff Luhnow became a model for many teams, the Braves among them. From 2011 through 2013, Houston went 162-324 and finished an aggregate 127 games out of first. It worked, though. Correa was the first player drafted in 2012; Alex Bregman went No. 2 behind Dansby Swanson in 2015. The team got good. It’s still good.
In the process, the Astros became villains. Their sign-stealing trashcan-banging scheme tarnished the 2017 championship. Luhnow was fired. He’s now running Leganes, a soccer team in Spain. For those who remained from 2017, last year’s title came as a relief: Nobody could say they didn’t earn this one.
Which isn’t to say the Astros are always a smooth-running crew. Over the winter, owner Jim Crane offered manager Dusty Baker and GM Jim Click one-year renewals. Baker said OK. Click griped and got fired. (Crane isn’t the world’s greatest boss.) The Astros hired Dana Brown – who as Braves scouting director drafted Michael Harris, Vaughn Grissom and Spencer Strider – as GM.
We hate to be so obvious as to bill this weekend’s series as a World Series preview, but there’s a pretty fair chance one of these teams will be involved. There’s a decent chance both will. Both have been winning for a while now. There’s no reason they won’t keep winning. Braves-Astros is baseball at its highest level.
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