There’s been a lot of talk recently about just how fickle — some might even say random — the MLB postseason can be. The top seed in the AL, the Baltimore Orioles, was summarily swept out of October; the NL’s top seed, the Atlanta Braves, got nuked by the Phillies in Game 3 on Wednesday night and is now one more loss away from elimination; the NL’s second seed, meanwhile, fell flat on its face against a team it beat out for the division by 16 games during the regular season. Clearly, something was broken.
And yet, for all the bellyaching, all the calls for format fixes and whatever else, it turns out there is one constant come playoff time: the Houston Astros.
If any year has tested Houston’s air of inevitability, it’s been 2023. Jose Altuve, Yordan Alvarez and Michael Brantley missed large chunks of the season due to injury. Then, they were 2.5 games back in the AL West as recently as the final week of the regular season. Then, they got waxed on their home field by the Twins in Game 2 of the ALDS, heading to Minnesota with no guarantee that the series would come back to Houston.
Despite all that, here they are: AL West champs again, and now headed to their seventh straight ALCS after holding on for a 3-2 victory at Target Field in Game 4 on Wednesday night.
The Twins came back home to a raucous crowd and all the momentum in the world. But from the moment Game 3 got underway, it felt like the Astros would just find a way to take care of business. They did so emphatically on Tuesday, busting out the bats in a 9-1 romp. Wednesday was much tighter, as a desperate Minnesota team threw everything — and just about every pitcher — they had at Houston. But when the dust settled, it was the Astros again, escaping with a 3-2 win thanks to just enough offense and a pitching staff that’s rounding into form at just the right time.
The home team started hot: Starter Joe Ryan pitched a clean first inning, and then budding superstar Royce Lewis put the Twins on top with a solo homer — his fourth of the postseason.
Like they had all season, though — and really, like they have throughout this dynastic run of the last few years — Houston found a way to respond. And of course it came via the long ball: first Michael Brantley, who tied things up with a solo shot in the second.
Here's the fifth postseason homer of Michael Brantley's career pic.twitter.com/LJh89SUnyE— Brian McTaggart (@brianmctaggart) October 11, 2023
Then it was Jose Abreu, dormant for so much of this season but delivering three homers in two days when the chips were down.
That would prove to be all starter Jose Urquidy and this bullpen would need. The Astros rotation seemed like such a question mark down the stretch, with Urquidy out of the rotation, Cristian Javier up and down more than a roller coaster and Hunter Brown and J.P. France fading. But Javier was excellent in Game 3, and Urquidy followed suit in Game 4, allowing just two runs on three hits and a walk over 5.2 innings of work — getting chased by an Edouard Julien homer in the bottom of the sixth.
That shot cut the lead in half and got the Target Field crowd back into the game. Houston’s high-leverage relievers, however, were absolute nails: Hector Neris, Bryan Abreu and Ryan Pressly combined for 3.1 no-hit innings, with just one walk allowed and eight Ks. The only real Minnesota threat came in the sixth, when Lewis appeared to have stolen second base to put the tying run in scoring position ... only for Max Kepler to get rung up for the final out on a pitch that sure seemed off the plate inside.
This was called an inning-ending strike three on Max Kepler and took away a Royce Lewis stolen base, too. pic.twitter.com/44EGDyxw10— Aaron Gleeman (@AaronGleeman) October 12, 2023
Abreu and Pressly were untouchable from there:
WE'RE HEADED TO OUR SEVENTH STRAIGHT ALCS. pic.twitter.com/MkU4sH4srE— Houston Astros (@astros) October 12, 2023
It really felt like this might finally be the year we saw a changing of the guard in the AL, with the Rangers and Mariners ascending out west and the Orioles capturing the No. 1 seed with 101 wins. But while the postseason might be a fickle random number generator for every other team in the league, Dusty Baker and Co. seem to have mastered its peculiar alchemy; this team’s stars shine brightest in October, and they just carry themselves with a sense that you’re going to be the one to blink eventually. Questions about Houston’s pitching and overall depth will carry over into an ALCS showdown with the in-state rival Rangers, a team that’s looked awfully tough in its own right over two series wins. But at this point, the Astros have earned the benefit of the doubt until proven otherwise: