HOUSTON: The Houston Astros celebrate after defeating the Boston Red Sox 5-0 in Game Six of the American League Championship Series to advance to the World Series at Minute Maid Park on Friday in Houston, Texas. – AFP

WASHINGTON: With a cheating scandal tainting their 2017 baseball crown, the Houston Astros seek a measure of redemption when they face the Atlanta Braves in the 117th World Series starting today. The host Astros will send Dominican left-handed pitcher Framber Valdez to the mound for the opening game in the best-of-seven Major League Baseball final against US right-hander Charlie Morton for Atlanta.

Morton pitched for the Astros in 2017 and won a seventh-game winner-take-all World Series showdown over the Los Angeles Dodgers, throwing the last four innings to deliver Houston’s first MLB title. But a sign-stealing scheme revealed in 2019 showed the Astros used cameras to learn what pitches were coming to their hitters in home games, banging on trash cans to signal batters what sort of throw to expect.

The scandal brought a $5 million fine, forfeited draft picks, one-season bans and quick firings for Astros manager AJ Hinch and general manager Jeff Luhnow and the firings of two former Astros, Boston manager Alex Cora and New York Mets manager Carlos Beltran. The Astros kept their crown even as their cheating aroused the ire of fans across the league. COVID-19 saw few spectators attend 2020 games but this year they faced the music, a chorus of boos and jeers and insults when on the road. “Honestly, we learned how to live with it,” Astros shortstop Carlos Correa said. “It wasn’t our motivation this year. Our motivation is to show the world we’re the best team in the world.”

The Astros, who lost in seven games to Washington in the 2019 World Series, are back in the title matchup for the third time in five seasons against an Atlanta squad that hasn’t won the crown since 1995 and hasn’t been in the World Series since losing in 1999 to the New York Yankees. Puerto Rico’s Correa, Venezuelan slugger Jose Altuve, American Alex Bregman and Cuban-born American League batting champion Yuli Gurriel will try to win a second World Series title with the Astros.

Houston hired long-time major league manager Dusty Baker in 2020 to try and put the scandal behind them. Now 72, Baker is among the game’s most beloved figures and still seeking his first crown in a managerial career than began with San Francisco in 1993. “These guys felt we were going to get to this point. It was a matter of belief,” Baker said of his players’ faith in a World Series title quest. “They wanted it for us. They wanted it for me. We’ve still got some work to do. We’ve got four more to go to complete that.”

Baker is the first manager to guide five different teams to division crowns and only the ninth to direct teams from both the American and National leagues into the World Series, having been manager for San Francisco’s 2002 appearance, where the Giants lost to Anaheim in seven games. Baker’s 19-year gap between World Series managerial appearances is the second-longest in MLB history, Bucky Harris setting the record by winning titles with Washington in 1924 and the Yankees in 1947.

A Snitker will win title
Morton faced the Astros with Tampa Bay in the 2019 and 2020 playoffs and, after signing with Atlanta for $15 million this year, will pitch in his third World Series in five years for his third different club, having made it last year with the Rays. The Braves feature veteran first baseman Freddie Freeman and leadoff hitter Eddie Rosario, who batted .560 (14-for-25) in being named the National League Championship Series Most Valuable Player as Atlanta dethroned the Dodgers in six games. “It took a minute to (realize) this is really happening.

What a special feeling,” Braves manager Brian Snitker said. “It’s pretty cool.”
Snitker will be going for the crown against his son Troy, a batting coach for the Astros. Houston’s Yordan Alvarez was the ALCS MVP, hitting .522 with a home run, a triple, three doubles and six runs batted in. – AFP