The 2023 Houston Astros, like the 2017-2022 versions before them, refused to die.
Fortunately, for the rest of us, the flaws in this season's roster finally managed to overwhelm the lingering mystique from nearly a decade of dynastic work right at the buzzer. For the second time in a fully extended seven-game series since 2019, the home team went winless, falling in the deciding game on their familiar turf. Both times, the victim in Game 7 was Houston. Ted Cruz, presumably, witnessed all eight home losses.
The faithful among us might've wanted to believe in the Rangers after Texas squeaked by and averted elimination in Game 6. But the realists saw the Game 7 pitching matchup and cringed: Max Scherzer, fresh off a hubristic brag that allowed him to be inserted prematurely into Game 3 and flip the series' momentum, against Cristian Javier, who rarely allows postseason hits, let alone runs.
Neither the faithful nor the realists saw this coming, an unholy home bludgeoning that drove a stake through the vampire's heart, eradicating the evil ooze that has dripped over baseball's best calendar month for the past seven years unabated.
Dusty Baker rode with Martin Maldonado 'til the end, and might ride off into the sunset after watching his years-long juggernaut fall 11-4 in a winner-take-all game at Enron Field (former name but I'm never changing it). Based on the way Astros Twitter treated Dusty and their roster, the "grace period" where its frowned upon to throw dirt on your team following a championship season (and, uh, six years of sustained greatness) has been reduced from "five years" to "a few months, maximum." The loss secured a completely inexplicable 40-47 home record with a -35 run differential this season. Joe Davis and John Smoltz referred to that as "distance" from the team's sign-stealing scandal. Hmm. Feels more like a "drastic change occurred in 2023" to me.
Either way, this 90-win Astros team wasn't anything special and was an outlier of the era, but much like the 2000 Yankees, that didn't ultimately matter much in October. The same players who've long commandeered this roster had the same moments they've been having for years. The same ace made the same K struts as always, even though I could've sworn he'd signed with the Mets this offseason. The same pans to the same dugout hooting and hollering elicited a level of rage within me that made me want to call my representative in congress. And, of course, the same entitled roster that never saw significant punishment for their game-shaking scandal somehow managed to play the victim one more time before going out sad.
Astros whine to MLB about Bryan Abreu, lose ALCS Game 7 to Rangers
Abreu, of course, saw his suspension bumped to the opening series of 2024, which will be against ... the Yankees. MLB's independent arbiter agreed the suspension was warranted, but thought it was unfair to affect Game 7 of the postseason by upholding it. Of course. Why should the Astros be inconvenienced by their own actions?
Ultimately, it's very funny that a team responsible for the largest sign-stealing scandal in modern history escaped that unscathed, then went out in the 2023 ALCS sobbing because MLB dared to float punishment for drilling someone with a baseball (then back away from it). But I won't remember this ALCS for the bucket of Houston tears produced. I won't remember this series for Adolís García's unparalleled beef settling. I'll remember this series for the Jose Altuve game-winning home run in Game 5, mostly because nobody else will.
The most uniquely painful moment of this era of Yankees fandom wasn't the end of the 2017 ALCS, with Charlie Morton and Lance McCullers' cutesy curveball trick. At the end of that particular rope, there was still boundless hope in New York. Nobody knew, yet, what the Astros had been up to. Nobody knew their title was ill-gotten. Nobody knew we had six full years of whataboutism ahead of us, where swarms of newly-minted fans insisted that you, the losing team, was the real problem. Did you know that Carlos Beltrán actually invented sign-stealing with the 2015 Yankees? It's true, if you're a complete moron!
No. The most uniquely painful moment was in 2019. Game 6 of the ALCS hung in the balance if you dared to hope, but it was mostly done. The Yankees had performed their usual postseason offensive disappearing act, eternally putting runners on in Houston without scoring them. DJ LeMahieu, who'd emerged as an offensive force on a bargain contract after the rest of the league deemed him a powerless Coors Field wonder (turns out that was Trevor Story, actually), strode to the plate as the tying run in the ninth. Detestable closer Roberto Osuna, obtained for a song when no one else would dare as he battled domestic violence charges, stood 60 feet, six inches away. Hours later, an Astros front office executive would spit and scream at a bunch of women that he was "so f***ing glad" he was able to obtain the offender. This is who baseball has been cursed with for the better part of a decade. Until last night.
LeMahieu dug in and sent a baseball floating towards the right field stands. Like so many drives the past few nights sent Kyle Tucker's way, it was nearly absorbed by George Springer's glove. Like so many drives the past few nights, it eluded him, leaving the right fielder bent over in a depression curl. He'd done it. He'd slayed the dragon. He'd given the Yankees life. The bar I was at turned to pandemonium. Brothers hugged brothers. Friends hugged mystery men. Voices screamed. This would define the era.
Until it didn't. I'm still convinced that, if we don't bring in an equally detestable pitcher in the ninth, karma wins us that game.
Now, Jose Altuve's gloriously dramatic Game 5 home run, the feather in his sterling postseason cap, the comeback blast of all comeback blasts, goes into the same bucket. That life-defining shot on the road is now as meaningless as the leadoff homer he hit in the ninth inning of Game 7 to cut Texas' lead to seven. Utterly forgotten. You might see it in a Cooperstown montage someday. You probably won't. After all, history erases World Series losers pretty swiftly. ALCS losers? You might as well be the 2023 Yankees.
Houston never got the punishment they deserved. They were, instead, sentenced to trial in the court of public opinion, then proceeded to claim that even that was unfair. Mild jeering was too much to bear. They demanded the playing field be leveled and the fans be quiet. And on Monday night, at home in Game 7, they finally were.