Tuesday, November 30 2021

Until they took the field Thursday afternoon for Game 1 of their American League Division Series, the Houston Astros had not competed in the playoffs without George Springer since Game 4 of the 2005 World Series.

Coincidentally, their opponent that October and this one – the Chicago White Sox, who have not won a playoff series since catcher A.J. Pierzynski leaped into Bobby Jenks’ arms on the Minute Maid Park grass after the final out was recorded.

As the teams kicked off the ALDS in that same stadium Thursday, it’s clear only one of those trivial items will prove relevant in 2021.

The Astros, as dominant as they are reviled over the past five seasons, continued their robotic dominance of October’s early rounds with a 6-1 victory, heroes old and new making the absence of Springer – one of the greatest performers in postseason history – feel trifling.

The White Sox? They look like a 93-win appetizer for the Astros, for the moment overmatched and in line to continue a run of divisional futility now entering its fifth year.

The South Siders won their first division title since 2008, when they were dispatched from the playoffs by the Tampa Bay Rays. Yet since Cleveland fell one win shy of a World Series title in 2016, the AL Central has been a playoff afterthought.

Astros shortstop Carlos Correa and second baseman Jose Altuve celebrate after defeating the White Sox.Astros shortstop Carlos Correa and second baseman Jose Altuve celebrate after defeating the White Sox.

Astros shortstop Carlos Correa and second baseman Jose Altuve celebrate after defeating the White Sox.

The Central champ has been bounced in the first round every year since, the indignity intensified in 2020, when a pandemic-inspired expanded postseason resulted in three teams getting eliminated. The Astros, meanwhile, treat the Division Series like Grapefruit League play, posting a 14-7 record since 2015, advancing from 2017-2020.

And they made it look way too easy Thursday, a game that counted as just one win yet chilled any notion this series may be competitive.

ALDS GAME 1: McCullers, Astros cruise to win over White Sox

PLAYOFF PICKS: Who will win the 2021 World Series?

Starter Lance McCullers Jr. was rarely pressed by the White Sox’s lineup – four hits, no walks, just 104 pitches to take down 6 2/3 innings.

Houston built a 5-0 lead not with its trademark power – Springer ranks T-4th all-time in playoff home runs (19) – but rather with excellent situational hitting and a little derring-do. Veteran Jose Altuve’s nifty slide home while running on contact gave Houston a 2-0 third-inning lead. They had just two extra-base hits all day.

But they worked deep counts and eventually suffocated White Sox starter Lance Lynn, who was felled not by a big inning but by a series of little ones, laid on a foundation of the little things.

“It’s kind of like stacking pennies. Little things add up to big things,” says manager Dusty Baker, helming a playoff run for his fifth franchise.

It was Baker tasked with eradicating the toxicity that lingered from the sign-stealing scandal that cast doubt on Houston’s 2017 World Series title. In the haze of a fan-less, largely neutral-site 2020 playoffs, it was easy to forget how easily Houston rolled over the Twins and the A’s and startlingly crawled out of a 3-0 hole against the Rays to force an ALCS Game 7. All that came without slugger Yordan Alvarez, who homered in Game 1 after sitting out almost all of 2020 with knee injuries.

Alvarez was one of many contributors who have emerged after 2017. The Astros are still heartily booed in every opposing ballpark, but the boos are a punitive measure coming four years after the fact. Most of the protagonists – like Springer, who signed a six-year, $150 million deal with Toronto – and many targets of boo-birds weren’t even around when the scheme was hatched.

Even if fans won’t turn the page, the Astros have little choice. So, starting in center field Thursday was Jake Meyers, a 17th-round pick the same year the Astros were banging on trash cans and walloping home runs. He didn’t debut until Aug. 1, but had two hits and drove in Game 1’s first run.

“I don’t know if you could ever replace a George Springer,” says outfielder Michael Brantley, who had a pair of hits and RBI. “He was a tremendous player here for a long time. Those guys have been doing a great job all year long. I’m fortunate enough to watch them every single day.”

It is an intriguing and potent mixture, this combo of savvy and salty veterans and apparently fearless new contributors. They easily passed their first test of October, a month Houston largely lords over, regardless of circumstances, personnel or, yes, the presence or dearth of chicanery.

“These guys they know the pathway to the World Series and the pathway to victory,” says Baker. “We have some outstanding, great leaders on this team in many departments.”

This article originally appeared on USA TODAY: Astros old and new do the little things, beat White Sox in ALDS Game 1

Source: Yahoo Sports

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