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MLB playoffs 2021 – Love them or hate them, the Houston Astros are really this good

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HOUSTON — Here’s the thing: The Houston Astros really are just that damn good. They were that damn good in 2017 when they were cheating, and they are still that damn good in 2021 when, it’s reasonable to assume, they are not. And no matter who they face in the World Series, which they’re heading to for the third time in five years after dispatching the Boston Red Sox in impressive fashion Friday night, they play a brand of baseball worth savoring.

If you are from Boston or New York or Los Angeles or, perhaps better put, are a baseball fan with a pulse anywhere outside of the Houston metropolitan area, the previous paragraph might cause teeth-gnashing, eyebrow-furrowing, nausea, irritability or any number of other reactions typically listed on a TV commercial for a new pharmaceutical. The Astros are Major League Baseball’s villain, and nothing beleaguers fans — baseball, football, wrestling, any sort of entertainment really — quite like the heel finding success.

It’s just that since the Astros became baseball outlaws, they’ve also become something else: the second team ever to reach five straight American League Championship Series and the first to go to three World Series in a five-year span since the Yankees in 2002. Two full decades of baseball and no team has mustered what the Astros locked in with a 5-0 floor-wiping of the Red Sox in Game 6 of the ALCS at Minute Maid Park.

The first appearance in the trilogy led to a championship that’s now disgraced because of the sign-stealing, trash-can-banging scheme that accompanied it, and the second ended with a Game 7 loss weeks before the revelation of that scheme. But these Astros are far enough removed from the versions in those series to appreciate this team for what it is: a fearsome assemblage of hitters, an excellent group of fielders and a team that has cobbled together enough pitching to find itself four wins from another ring.

Even those who despise the Astros can’t help but respect them. They play the kind of baseball that doesn’t exist anymore. They led MLB in batting average. Struck out the fewest times. Fouled pitches off more than anyone. Swung and missed at the lowest rate in the league.

In many ways, they are a s superior offensive team now even than they were in 2017. Yordan Alvarez, the 24-year-old slugger and ALCS MVP, went 4 for 4 in the clincher with a pair of doubles and a triple and batted .524 in the series. Kyle Tucker, the 24-year-old right fielder, walloped a three-run home run that took an uncomfortable two-run lead and turned it into a five-run cushion. Both spent more of 2017 in the low minor leagues.

Their pitching staff doesn’t have as many stars as it did then — Justin Verlander, a free agent in 2022, missed the entire year; Dallas Keuchel and Charlie Morton have moved on. Instead, they have Luis Garcia, who pitched brilliantly in Game 6, is 23 and spent 2017 playing in the Dominican Summer League. Framber Valdez, 27, shut the Red Sox down in Game 5. He still hadn’t made his big league debut that season. Both helped limit Boston to five hits total over the final two games. Alvarez himself had seven.

All of the things the Astros did so well when they were cheating — they still do those things now. Which, of course, might lead even a not-particularly-cynical person to think they still are. And that, as much as anything, is the consequence of what the 2017 Astros did. It didn’t just sully that championship; it also cast skepticism on their pursuit of any further ones. So why is it reasonable to assume they’re not running afoul of rules anymore? Beyond the utter hubris it would take to cheat again, the combination of MLB’s crackdown on in-game electronic communication and the shame that chases the Astros everywhere they go is compelling.

Beyond that, winning clean does change the Astros’ narrative. It makes what they did in 2017 even sadder — yes, in the same way Barry Bonds and Alex Rodriguez’s use of performance-enhancing drugs is sad. It wasn’t necessary. They didn’t need the boost.

After how poorly the Astros handled the revelation of their cheating, how long it took them to apologize, how they bungled more or less everything about the aftermath, the possibility that any sort of recognition for what they’re doing today wouldn’t be seen through the lens of what they did in the past is lost for most. That has hardened the players, made them even more insular than they were. It sometime seems odd when people derive motivation from their own misdeeds, but that’s exactly what the Astros have done.

“We’ve made mistakes in the past, but you can’t go back,” said injured starter Lance McCullers, one of the few members of the ’17 team still in Houston, alongside first baseman Yuli Gurriel, second baseman Jose Altuve, third baseman Alex Bregman and shortstop Carlos Correa. “All we can do is continue to move forward, play good baseball, stay within our clubhouse and our fan base and our amazing city, and just do our thing.”

That thing is win.

“We were talking about it the other day,” Correa said. “It was me, Altuve, Yuli, Bregman. We’ve asked the same question. We said, ‘Why? Why do we keep showing up and getting it done?’ And we came to the conclusion that it’s because we hold each other accountable. And what I mean by that is we expect everybody to be better than previous year, and we expect everybody to show up in great shape. … We make sure that they prepare every single day to help us win because we know that the four of us can’t get it done by ourselves.”

They couldn’t. They needed Alvarez and Tucker and Michael Brantley, whose professional at-bats remain a hallmark, and Martin Maldonado, the catcher whose half of a strike-’em-out-throw-’em-out double play to end the seventh inning was magnificent. They needed Valdez and Garcia and Phil Maton and Kendall Graveman, two trade-deadline acquisitions who in Game 6 served as the bridge to Ryan Pressly, who secured the final out.

When A.J. Hinch, their manager, was fired in early 2020 following MLB’s report on the scheme, they needed stability, too, and Dusty Baker took over and provided a semblance of that. Baker is 72. He hadn’t been to the World Series since 2002, when he was managing the San Francisco Giants. That’s four teams ago. Around the game, Baker is beloved, and even those who refusing to appreciate what the Astros do on principle have a hard time not rooting for Baker.

“Game 6 has been my nemesis in most playoffs and that’s what I was thinking,” Baker said. “I mean, you got to get past your nemesis. I was afraid of electricity when I was a kid, so now I’m an owner of an energy company. You try to get past things in your life.”

You try to get past things in your life. There may be no better way to describe the 2021 Houston Astros. They know that nobody will feel sorry for them when they get jobbed on ball-strike calls, like reliever Ryne Stanek did twice in the same eighth-inning at-bat. They know that when Correa does things like look at his wrist and tap it, saying the postseason is “my time,” that it will be met with derision, even though if Fernando Tatis Jr. did it fans would love him for it. They know that outside of the 713, 281 and 832 area codes, they’re still the bad guys.

And that’s fine. Fans will feel how they’re going to feel, because fandom is at its heart an emotional and irrational thing. But amid the booing and sneering and everything else that’s about to hit the Astros, whether in Atlanta or Los Angeles, there is a kernel of truth that everyone needs to recognize, as much as it may pain them to do so.

The Astros are that damn good. So if — or when — they win another World Series, it shouldn’t surprise anyone.

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Death of Tampa Bay Rays bullpen catcher Jean Ramirez ruled a suicide

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ST. PETERSBURG, Fla. — The death of Tampa Bay Rays bullpen catcher Jean Ramirez near his home in Fort Worth, Texas, has been ruled a suicide.

The Tarrant County medical examiner’s office released the finding on Thursday, three days after the 28-year-old’s body was found.

The Ramirez family released a statement through the Rays, thanking the team for its support.

“The loss of our son has been the most excruciating experience we have lived. Unfortunately, we sometimes don’t see the signs. Struggling in silence is not ok,” the family said in the statement.

“It is our commitment to honor our son’s life by helping other families,” the family added. “No parent should have to endure the loss of their child.”

The Rays announced the death in a Twitter post last Tuesday but did not release details. The Tampa Bay Times reported the body was found Monday in a field near the family home.

Ramirez, a native of Puerto Rico who attended high school in Fort Worth, was a 28th-round draft pick out of Illinois State in 2016. He played three years in Tampa Bay’s minor league system before beginning a three-season stint as a bullpen catcher with the major league team in 2019.

“We are very grateful to the Tampa Bay Rays organization, whom we consider our family, for their love and support,” the family said. “Our son felt loved by all of you.”

Manager Kevin Cash paid tribute to Ramirez in a statement released by the Rays on Tuesday.

“He brought so much passion and energy each day to our clubhouse and bullpen, and his love for the Rays and baseball was evident to all who interacted with him,” Cash said.

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Brad Ausmus joins Oakland A’s as bench coach for first-time manager Mark Kotsay

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Brad Ausmus, the former manager of the Detroit Tigers and the Los Angeles Angels, has been hired as bench coach for the Oakland Athletics, providing some much-needed experience to the coaching staff of rookie manager Mark Kotsay.

The A’s finalized Kotsay’s coaching staff on Friday, also announcing the promotion of Tommy Everidge to major league hitting coach and the hiring of Chris Cron as an assistant hitting coach.

Ausmus, 52, managed the Tigers from 2014 to 2017, winning the American League Central at the beginning of that four-year stretch and finishing with a 314-332 regular-season record. The longtime major league catcher then went 72-90 in his only season as the Angels’ manager in 2019, a year tarnished by the sudden death of young pitcher Tyler Skaggs.

Everidge, 38, has spent the last eight years as a hitting coach in the A’s farm system and was originally drafted by the team in 2004. Cron, the father of Colorado Rockies first baseman C.J. Cron, spent the last eight years in the Arizona Diamondbacks’ minor league system, most recently as the organization’s field coordinator and has compiled two decades’ worth of managing experience in the minor leagues.

The hirings prompted Darren Bush to move from hitting coach to third-base coach and Eric Martins to move from assistant hitting coach to first-base coach. Mike Aldrete will transition from first-base coach to quality control coach. Kotsay, 46, spent the last six years on the A’s coaching staff and was hired over the offseason to replace Bob Melvin as the team’s manager. The A’s allowed Melvin to opt out of the final year of his contract to join the San Diego Padres.

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Buster Olney’s Top 10s for 2022

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A lot of the credit for the Atlanta Braves’ postseason surge was rightly attributed to the midseason deals made by general manager Alex Anthopoulos, because without Eddie Rosario, Jorge Soler, Adam Duvall and Joc Pederson, Atlanta would not have hosted a championship parade.

But what may have been lost in that narrative was just how much organizational bedrock continued to develop underneath those additions. Austin Riley, just 24 years old, became one of the National League’s best players. Max Fried, who turns 28 next week, posted a 1.74 ERA in his last 14 regular-season starts. Ian Anderson, just 23, now has a full season of experience. The talented Kyle Wright, 26, may have reached a crossroads in his development during the postseason, with moments on which he can build confidence. Dansby Swanson had 62 extra-base hits last season and has developed into one of the sport’s most consistent defenders. Ozzie Albies is a multitalented star. And Ronald Acuña Jr. was the front-runner for NL MVP at the time he suffered a season-ending knee injury.

As the National League Championship Series began in October, the Braves were considered something of a long shot against the Los Angeles Dodgers — and similarly, they were betting underdogs against the Houston Astros in the World Series. So underestimate them now at your own peril.

The Braves’ ownership still needs to open its fattened coffers and pay Freddie Freeman. If that happens, Atlanta may actually have a better team in 2022 than that group honored in the championship parade, and have a legit shot at becoming the first team since the 1998-2000 Yankees to win back-to-back titles.

Early in 2022, with a lot of players unsigned and many more trades to come after the next labor agreement is forged, here are MLB’s top 10 teams:

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