Maybe this is how it's supposed to end, in a foreign ballpark in front of cardboard fans, with their roster nowhere near whole. Strange, but perhaps, for a team smeared by one of baseball's biggest cheating scandals, fitting. The Houston Astros -- two games below .500 during the 60-game regular season, 5-1 thereafter -- have advanced to their fourth consecutive American League Championship Series, a milestone reached by only four other franchises. And it's hard not to wonder whether this might be it.
This inconceivable baseball season, staged in the middle of a pandemic, might represent the Astros' last ride.
"We talk about it all the time -- away from the ballfield, obviously," Josh Reddick said. "We're trying to ride this wave and enjoy it as much as possible."
Reddick, winding down his fourth season with the Astros, makes up part of an entire starting outfield that will venture into the free-agent market this offseason, alongside Michael Brantley and George Springer, the homegrown superstar who will join J.T. Realmuto among the most coveted free agents. Next year, the Astros could pay their ace, Justin Verlander, and their closer, Roberto Osuna, more than $40 million merely to rehab from Tommy John surgery, after which they would join a free-agent crop that is scheduled to also include Carlos Correa, Zack Greinke, Lance McCullers Jr. and Martin Maldonado, among others.
The Astros languished through a summer as the most reviled team in their sport. Their accomplished hitters underperformed, their pitching staff was ravaged by injury, and it wasn't until the third-to-last day of the regular season that they clinched a spot in this expanded postseason. They then snuck past the Minnesota Twins in back-to-back wild-card games and came to life against an Oakland Athletics team that dominated them throughout the regular season, batting .322/.388/.594 in the AL Division Series to set up a rematch with the upstart Tampa Bay Rays.
Throughout the year, as the noise around them intensified, first-year Astros manager Dusty Baker noticed that his players "closed the circle and got into each other." They pulled together, largely because they had only each other. When this season ends, whether it's in the ALCS in San Diego or the World Series in Arlington, that group will begin to separate, little by little, until these notorious Astros are mostly unrecognizable.
It's why they seem so determined to keep this going.
"I'm looking at every day as a new day, honestly," Springer, who boasts a .998 OPS in 13 postseason games since the start of last year's World Series, said of his uncertain future. "You understand what each day presents and you go from there."
The challenge has only escalated. Next up is a Rays team deep in ways the Astros can no longer fathom. Greinke, the Astros' most accomplished pitcher by a wide margin, hasn't pitched into the sixth inning since Sept. 8 and has been nursing uncommon soreness in his arm. Their most consistent starter, Framber Valdez, had a 5.86 ERA last year. One of their biggest postseason weapons, Cristian Javier, was among the 10 Astros pitchers to debut for the team during the regular season.
To beat the Rays, the Astros might once again have to hit like the Astros of old -- a group that might be running out of time.
"I think we all do realize that this is gonna be our last hurrah," Reddick said, speaking specifically of the three outfielders who might sign elsewhere this winter. "We need to make it a good one and go out on a high note."