ATLANTA — They turned the baseball industry on its ear, tanked and re-booted and won. A lot.
They captured a championship in 2017 and a second American League pennant in 2019, only weeks later to have some sins of their success exposed – earning the scorns of baseball fans coast to coast.
Now, a decade after going from patsies to powerhouse to pariahs, the Houston Astros may be facing the next natural step in their progression.
Sunday evening, the Astros will be playing to extend their season in Game 5 of the World Series against the Atlanta Braves. A gut-punch 3-2 defeat Saturday night pushed them to a 3-1 edge in this World Series, a matchup in which Houston’s vaunted hitters have not been able to pounce on a Braves pitching staff compromised by injury.
Unless burly left-hander Framber Valdez can suddenly stem the tide in Game 5 and send this series back to Houston, a chilling reality will soon settle in.
Game 5 could be Carlos Correa’s final as an Astro. The first overall pick in the 2012 draft, Correa has been a magnificent shortstop – Rookie of the Year, two-time All-Star, 133 homers and 34 WAR in six-plus seasons – and their swaggering spokesman in times good and scandalous.
“I’ve enjoyed every single second of it with this group of guys,” Correa said Saturday. “It’s really hard to get to a World Series. Three years out of five, it’s pretty special. It will be even more special if we can win it.”
Game 5 could be Dusty Baker’s final as their manager. The 72-year-old future Hall of Famer was brought aboard in February 2020 to clean up the toxicity that hovered after a landmark sign-stealing scandal cast a pall over Houston’s 2017 World Series title and cost GM Jeff Luhnow and manager A.J. Hinch their jobs.
Baker guided them within one game of the World Series in 2020 and another AL West title this year, but is without a contract for 2021. Venerated pitching coach Brent Strom, 73 and one of the pillars of Houston’s success, has said he is pondering retirement.
Game 5 could also mark the departure of heroes current and forgotten. Zack Greinke, an Astro since July 2019, will be a free agent after his six-year, $206.5 million contract expires. He pitched admirably in his Game 4 start, completing four scoreless innings and beguiling the Braves with a curveball that touched 69 mph, the better to add pop to a fastball topping out at a mere 91.
Gone, too, could be two-time Cy Young winner Justin Verlander, MVP of the 2017 ALCS and the arm that got them over the championship hump that season. Verlander could not recover from 2020 Tommy John surgery in time to help the 2021 playoff drive and now he, too, faces free agency. While his 2021 ceiling is largely unknown, the Astros tendering him the $18.4 million qualifying offer might compel both parties to extend the relationship one more year.
Yimi Garcia and Kendall Graveman – they, too, are market-bound, ensuring the fringes of the roster will have a different look.
The winter will represent the first significant test for GM James Click, hired to replace Luhnow in 2020 but also able to largely ride the cavalry the disgraced executive assembled.
No decision – and one that starts at the ownership level with Jim Crane – will be bigger than the Correa conundrum.
The team already let cornerstone center fielder George Springer depart via free agency, though that decision was easier given the emergence of Kyle Tucker to take on more of Springer’s offensive load, and Chas McCormick and Jake Meyers to hold down center field.
Correa is different – just 27, he’s very much in his prime. Houston has no obvious replacement in house and Correa could command close to double the $150 million Springer received from Toronto. Contract talks between player and club revealed a massive gulf, and how the Astros handle the position this winter may indicate the club’s vision.
Retain Correa, and Houston remains all-in. Let him go – and fail to replace him with a quartet of other elite shortstops on the market – and it’s hard to imagine at least a mild retreat unfolding.
Happened quickly, huh? Yeah, even a decade in this game can move quickly.
Sunday night, the Astros will have one more shot to keep it going.
“You lean on your past,” says Baker. “You really don’t have any choice but that. You know, how small is your faith if you just crumble under every circumstance?
“You’ve got to have faith that you can do it, and it will get done.”
Otherwise, the future may arrive far sooner than they ever imagined.
This article originally appeared on USA TODAY: World Series: Astros out to save their season in Game 5. What of 2022?