PHILADELPHIA – They have been scorned, berated and reviled, but no matter what you called the Houston Astros in the past, they aren’t listening.
The Astros, just one victory away from the World Series championship after beating the Philadelphia Phillies, 3-2, in a thriller Thursday night at Citizens Bank Park, are on the verge of cementing their place in baseball history.
They’re leading the Phillies 3 games to 2, and you can’t help but wonder if the baseball gods are now shining upon them, forgiving all of those transgressions from 2017.
Trey Mancini, who hasn’t played the field since Oct. 5, comes into the game as a replacement for injured first baseman Yuli Gurriel, and makes perhaps the greatest defensive play of his career, spearing a bullet off the bat line-drive of Kyle Schwarber in the eighth inning, saving the game-tying run.
“I had nothing going through my head,’’ Mancini said, “I just tackled it basically. I was just glad I could help. This is the worst I’ve ever hit, but to make a play like that, makes me forget all of those struggles.’’
Center fielder Chas McCormick, who’s from West Chester, Pa., just 30 minutes west of the stadium, and grew up a diehard Phillies’ fan, stunned his family and friends by leaping against the center-field wall and robbed J.T. Realmuto of a ninth-inning hit.
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“My God,” McCormick said laughing, “I don’t even want to look at my family.’’
Astros closer Ryan Pressly, who only once this season has recorded a five-out save, comes into the game with a one-run lead, two runners on, and no rest having closed out Game 4. He winds up saving the game.
Jeremy Peña, who is starting for the Astros this season only because Carlos Correa bolted as a free agent, becomes the first rookie shortstop to homer in a World Series game, makes two dazzling defensive plays, and throws out Nick Castellanos for the final out.
“What he’s done this year was similar to when I saw a young Andruw Jones as a young player with the Braves against the Yankees [in the 1996 World Series],’’ Astros manager Dusty Baker said. “Every once in a while, these guys come along, not that often, but it just goes to show you ….’’
Then there’s Justin Verlander, who will win his third Cy Young award, but had never won a World Series game with an ugly 6.07 ERA – the worst among any World Series pitcher with at least 30 innings.
What happens? He gives up a homer to Schwarber on the second pitch of the game, and Baker is calling down to the bullpen to start warming up in the second inning.
“Initially you’re like, that sucks,’’ Verlander says. “It just sucks because of the moment and obviously all the questions and weight. But you have to rely on the hundreds of starts and the thousands of pitches I’ve thrown before and just kind of say, Ok, I’ve given up leadoff home runs before, let me bear down.’’
The next thing you know, he’s being shoved into a laundry cart, with his teammates spraying beer on him while pushing him into the shower.
“It was one of the best feelings in my career,’’ Verlander said. “This is a part of the reason why I say it’s so symbolic that so many people were a part of this win. They rallied around me and they were almost just as happy that I got the win as I was. Just an incredible feeling.’’
Said Astros third baseman Alex Bregman on seeing a future Hall of Fame in a laundry cart and laughing while sprayed with every liquid imaginable: “I bet that hasn’t happened since he was a rookie. It was the coolest thing ever.’’
And there’s Baker, 73, who has led a record five teams to postseason berths, won the ninth-most games in baseball history, but has never won a World Series title.
Now, he’s 27 outs away from achieving the only thing missing in his Hall of Fame resume.
“Dusty Baker is a legend in this game,’’ Peña said. “He’s been great to me since the first day we met. He brings the best out of his players. He gives you all the confidence in the world and you can’t expect more from a manager.’’
Here they are, heading back to Houston this weekend needing to win just one game to be champions, and then spending the winter trying to figure out how they did it.
This was a powerful team during the regular season, winning 106 games, more than any American League team, but they have been severely flawed this postseason, having to rely on these mystical, magical moments.
This is a team whose best player, Jose Altuve, is hitting .185 without a home run or RBI this entire postseason.
Yordan Alvarez, their All-Star power hitter, is batting .140 with no homers and three RBI since the second game of the AL Division Series.
Their designated hitters are batting a woeful .130 with no homers compared to Bryce Harper, who’s hitting .373 with six homers as the Phillies’ DH.
They may have led the league in offense, but they have scored runs in just seven of 53 innings this World Series, hitting .240 with three home runs.
“It’s crazy, isn’t it,’’ Baker said in his office. “It seems like so many things are going wrong, but we’re still finding ways to win games.’’
Really, perhaps their fate is epitomized by McCormick’s brilliant catch. When Realmuto hit the ball, Pressly cursed, believing it was a home run. So did McCormick. The ball kept going, McCormick went back as far as he could, braced his left arm on the scoreboard fence, leaped, and snared it was he dropped to the ground.
He laid there and listened to the beautiful sound of silence.
“If it was the last out,’’ McCormick said, “I would have laid there all night.’’
It reminded McCormick of the great catch Phillies Aaron Rowand made in 2006, running into the center-field wall, breaking his nose, and catching the ball.
McCormick sacrificed his body just the same, but there was no broken bones, only hearts in Philadelphia.
“Chas jumping into the wall for me,’’ Pressly said. “I think I owe him a beer, or dinner, or something. That’s the beauty of our defense. If you make a mistake, they can bail you out.’’
Now, here they are, on the brink of their second World Series title since 2017, with four American League pennants and six ALCS appearances on the resume.
“This would mean the world to me,’’ Bregman said. “To win a second one puts you in a special place. It’s everything.’’
So, with one more World Series title, what will all of the haters say now?
“I mean, we don’t really care what fans think,’’ Pressly said. “Everywhere we go, we get booed. It’s Houston vs. all ya’ll.’’
Who’d have thunk it?
The Houston Astros: The next dynasty.
Follow Nightengale on Twitter: @Bnightengale
This article originally appeared on USA TODAY: Astros one win away from second World Series title since 2017