World Series: Astros claim post-scandal championship and make dynasty case by toppling Phillies in Game 6

It’s the era of the Houston Astros. Five years after they grew a winner out of a controlled burn, and three years after that team’s sign-stealing scandal roiled the sport, baseball’s omnipresent contenders staked their claim to a championship that can be despised, but not denied. With six more innings of dazzling work from Framber Valdez and one thunderous swing from Yordan Alvarez, the Astros cut down the Philadelphia Phillies in Game 6, 4-1, to win the 2022 World Series.

Initially a duel between Valdez and Phillies starter Zack Wheeler, Game 6 turned in the sixth inning, when the starters tired and the bats caught up. Phillies slugger Kyle Schwarber opened the scoring — and lifted Philadelphia’s hopes — with a solo homer off Valdez. But in the bottom of the frame, the Astros responded with an avalanche.

Light-hitting Martín Maldonado crowded the plate to win first base on a hit by pitch. Shortstop Jeremy Peña cracked a single to chase Wheeler from the game, and then Alvarez unloaded on a Jose Alvarado fastball, blasting a go-ahead three-run homer with a trajectory that didn’t involve much in the way of coming down.

For six straight seasons, the Astros have reached at least the ALCS, four times reaching the World Series. But since that 2017 victory, they had twice fallen to NL East foes. Last year it was the Atlanta Braves. And in 2019 — just before revelations of their sign-stealing scheme became public — they were the Goliaths slain by the Washington Nationals. A core of main characters has remained consistent — Jose Altuve, Alex Bregman, Yuli Gurriel and Justin Verlander — but a great many of the faces have changed.

The second wave of Astros crashed down on the Phillies. Valdez, a beguiling lefty who burst out of Houston’s star-making player development operation in 2018, started two of the Astros wins in the World Series, including the clinching Game 6. Peña, a rookie who stepped right in for departed team leader Carlos Correa this season, paced the lineup and won World Series MVP honors. Alvarez, the world-beating slugger acquired for a middle reliever, delivered a knockout blow the Phillies rightfully feared but couldn’t prevent.

At the top, manager Dusty Baker and GM James Click took the reins when A.J. Hinch and Jeff Luhnow were ousted in the wake of MLB’s investigation into the sign stealing and kept mining wins amid the tumult.

Baker, in the 25th season of a wildly successful managerial career, finally won his first World Series after two previous close calls and countless more playoff appearances. His task since 2019, holding together and outwardly representing a clubhouse viewed with wariness or outright hostility, has been a difficult one. But as is Baker’s way, you’d never know it. With the Astros trailing in the tense Game 6 duel, his superstitious solution was to trek to the other side of the dugout in search of a breakthrough. Alvarez homered moments later.

A postseason that began as a celebration of underdogs concluded with a definitive statement by a towering powerhouse.

The Astros have won 100 games or more in four of the past five full seasons — their 541 regular season wins second only to the Los Angeles Dodgers since the start of 2017. But where they have truly distinguished themselves is in October. Over that same span, they have won 53 of their 86 playoff games — roughly a 100-win pace. They didn’t lose a 2022 postseason game until World Series Game 1.

In a sport that habitually bucks predictability, the Astros have been remarkably consistent in drawing the brightest lights to Minute Maid Park.

The sign-stealing questions — and the boos — aren’t going anywhere. But the Astros aren’t either.

Astros slugger Yordan Alvarez celebrates his three-run home run, a go-ahead blast that proved decisive in Houston's title-clinching World Series Game 6 win over the Phillies. (AP Photo/Sue Ogrocki)
Astros slugger Yordan Alvarez celebrates his three-run home run, a go-ahead blast that proved decisive in Houston's title-clinching World Series Game 6 win over the Phillies. (AP Photo/Sue Ogrocki) (ASSOCIATED PRESS)

Phillies’ unlikely run comes up just short

Bowing out in six games, the Phillies ran out of steam after a magical month. The club that fired manager Joe Girardi in early June limped into October, then exploded onto the playoff stage as swaggering agents of chaos.

They derailed two division winners and won an underdog derby with the San Diego Padres. Facing down an Astros team that hadn’t lost a game in the postseason, they delivered two early punches to the gut.

But after a Game 3 fireworks show, their power supply sputtered. Little support joined Schwarber and Bryce Harper in the lineup. A bullpen that had coalesced and held its own finally cracked. The innings got harder, and they just didn’t quite have the answers any longer.

With Rob Thomson now installed on the top step and Dave Dombrowski steering the front office, the Phillies will be committed to returning. Harper isn’t going anywhere, and other lineup staples like Schwarber are signed for at least three more seasons. A few months ago, making the playoffs was still a bar to clear.

Now they will reload and dip back into a stacked NL East with both higher expectations and proof of concept.

What’s next for the Astros?

For the Astros, there’s a sense that their dark, defiant chapter has come to a close. Winning a post-scandal championship won’t quiet the boos or erase the stain of the 2017 team’s ethical lapse, far from it. But it will force the baseball world to step back as an Astros team that looks more and more like a dynasty comes into fuller view. Rising up from the rebuild, and then rising against the furor their misdeeds kicked up, the Astros have completed two arcs with two formulas that only partially overlap.

A team that originally rose to prominence with a core of highly drafted hitters like Bregman is now equally known for its pitching staff of homegrown international free agents.

The infrastructure remains among the game’s elite, but change may be coming again in Houston. If they are to turn their story into a trilogy, it might require a third cast of characters in leadership roles.

Both Baker and Click are unsigned for the 2023 season. After the game, the 73-year-old Baker reveled in his hard-earned triumph, but hinted that he isn’t riding off into the sunset.

“I said if I win one, I want to win two,” Baker exclaimed in an interview with the FOX Sports postgame crew.

Team owner Jim Crane said he would address their futures this week. Reports have indicated that Click, the GM hired from the Tampa Bay Rays to keep the ball rolling after the scandal, could be on the way out. Several prominent front office figures have already departed in recent weeks — regime-bridging assistant GM Pete Putila left for the San Francisco Giants, and international scouting impresario Oz Ocampo got a promotion with the Miami Marlins.

Also uncommitted for next season? Justin Verlander. The AL Cy Young favorite, after returning from Tommy John surgery at age 39, will hit the free agent market days after securing his second ring (and first personal World Series win).

Beyond that? The team on the field could look mighty similar, if the Astros front office wants it to. Bregman, Altuve and Alvarez remain tied to the team for multiple seasons on contract extensions. Peña and Kyle Tucker, the underrated all-around star who caught the final out, are still years from free agency. And Valdez could front a strong five-man rotation even if Verlander bolts.

Whoever takes the field in Houston come 2023 will wear targets on their backs. But then again, that’s been true for years, and it hasn’t slowed them down yet.