Don't call it a comeback. And definitely don't call them underdogs.
The Houston Astros are more like heels. Which, in this non-professional wrestling context, is a team that's hellbent on winning the World Series whether anyone likes it or not.
The Astros got one step closer to the Fall Classic by decisively beating the Oakland Athletics 11-6 in Game 4 of the American League Division Series at Dodger Stadium on Thursday. In doing so, they clinched a spot in the American League Championship Series.
Michael Brantley and Carlos Correa, who combined for three home runs and eight RBI, caused the bulk of the damage. Notably, two of those homers and five of those RBI were part of a momentum-shifting fourth inning:
The ALCS is a familiar destination for the Astros, who've made it at least that far in each of the last four seasons.
But for the just-crawled-out-from-under-a-rock crowd, it suffices to say that Houston took quite a different path to the ALCS this time around.
It's too long of a story to recap in detail, but the CliffsNotes version is simple enough. It began in November 2019, at least publicly, when Houston-turned-Oakland hurler Mike Fiers blew the whistle on the sign-stealing scheme that helped propel the Astros to a World Series title in 2017. Major League Baseball investigated and punished them accordingly in January.
But because the Astros got to keep their title while their players got off scot-free, both the public and players around MLB were ticked. Especially vocal were stars of the New York Yankees and Los Angeles Dodgers, who fell to the Astros in the 2017 playoffs.
"I was sick to my stomach," Yankees slugger Aaron Judge said in February. "... To find out it wasn't earned, they cheated, that didn't sit well with me."
The Astros tried apologizing upon reporting for spring training, but it was no good. Even after the coronavirus pandemic put baseball on hold for four months and forced a 60-game season, the Astros' treachery was still a leading headline when operations resumed in late July.
Even though Astros players seemed intent on staying under the radar, the season that followed more or less fulfilled a widespread desire for schadenfreude. Houston lost reigning AL Cy Young Award winner Justin Verlander (elbow) early in the season, and their once-great offense turned into something more worthy of a trash can. The result was a 29-31 record.
Had it not been for this year's expanded playoff field, the Astros would have been left out of the postseason. Regardless, they figured to be easy pickings for the Minnesota Twins, who went 36-24, in their Wild Card Series.
Instead, the Astros swept them. To do so required some good fortune—just four of the seven runs the Astros scored in the two games were earned—but that didn't stop Correa from facilitating a heel turn with a message for the haters:
To Correa's credit, he promptly walked the walk against the A's. He went 7-for-14 with three home runs and a whopping 11 RBI in the four games.
Yet his breakout was also but one part of a larger statement. The Astros scored 33 runs in just 35 innings for the series, a performance that would impress even the offenses that led the majors in batting average, on-base percentage and slugging percentage from '17 to '19.
The constants in those offenses were Correa, Jose Altuve, Alex Bregman and George Springer. Their collective regression throughout 2020 was a big reason Houston's offense wasn't the same. But they're back, as Altuve also homered in Game 4 and the quartet combined for eight of the club's record-setting 12 home runs in the series.
Pitchingwise, the Astros had a harder time against Oakland than they did in holding the Twins to just two runs in the prior series. Framber Valdez continued to look like a budding ace with seven innings of two-run ball in Game 2, but Zack Greinke, Jose Urquidy and Lance McCullers Jr. each allowed four earned runs in fewer than five innings in their respective assignments.
And that's not such a stretch, given that Houston's bats haven't been overwhelming lightweights to this point. In the regular season, Minnesota and Oakland hurlers ranked third and fourth in the American League in ERA, respectively
While it was only vaguely there in the Wild Card Series, the Astros also played with a palpable chip on their shoulder in the Division Series. Maybe Correa put it there. Or, maybe the A's did. Ace closer Liam Hendriks, for instance, told Martin Gallegos of MLB.com before the series that he and his mates were "going to prove we're the best team in the AL West."
Judging from what catcher Martin Maldonado had to say tweet after Game 4, the Astros heard that:
From here, the Astros could also shut up the Yankees in the ALCS and then the Dodgers in the World Series. Perhaps they wouldn't win back or make many new fans, but there would be no better way for them to prove what they so obviously, desperately want to prove this October:
That regardless of what happened in 2017, they're the real deal.