PHOENIX — Houston Astros manager Dusty Baker, standing in the quiet of his office with chaos raging outside in the clubhouse Sunday afternoon, took another sip of the Korbel champagne in his hand, and carefully placed the lineup card inside plastic for a keepsake.
This potentially is the final season of his Hall of Fame managerial career, and if this indeed is it, it was a 2023 regular season that he’ll forever cherish.
Baker led the Astros to the AL West title once again, this time on the final day of the season, knocking off the Arizona Diamondbacks 8-1, for his eighth consecutive postseason berth with a third different team.
“I thank the Lord to go back to the postseason,” Baker said. “I was praying the whole time thinking about my Mom and Dad. I know my Dad is smiling up there [in heaven] right now. The whole world is smiling. Everyone was praying the whole time.”
It was the most challenging season of his career, with injuries to the core of his team. They lost All-Stars Jose Altuve and Yordan Alvarez for a 120 combined games, and Michael Brantley for virtually the entire season. Starter Luis Garcia missed the entire season and pitcher Jose Urquidy was out for most of it.
“It was easily the toughest season I’ve had,” Baker softly said. “Not even close.”
Still, they found a way to win 90 games, the 13th time in Baker’s career that he accomplished the feat.
“That was important to me,” Baker said. “I love nice round numbers. They look good on the back of your bubble-gum card”
This time, the 90th victory produced the game that vaulted the Astros to the AL West title and first-round bye instead of having to travel to Tampa Bay or Minnesota for a best-of-three wild-card series.
“This was huge, we needed it,” Baker said. “We needed to have this break and now we can set up our pitching. I really wanted this.”
When Baker went to dinner with friends in Scottsdale, Ariz., this week, he raised eyebrows when he declared that he was rooting for Seattle to knock off the Rangers. His friends looked at him in disbelief. Why not root for the Rangers to eliminate the Mariners, and clinch a wild-card berth to punch a ticket to the dance?
Baker had no interest in settling for second place.
“Man, everyone was talking about just getting into the postseason, and I said, ‘No,'” Baker said. “I didn’t want to just get in. I wanted that division title.
“I expected it and you got believe it. That’s what I learned from [Dodgers Hall of Fame manager] Tommy Lasorda, you got to believe it. Many didn’t believe, but you got to believe it yourself.”
On Sunday, the Mariners wound up winning 1-0, giving the Astros the division title over the Rangers in a tiebreaker.
“Man, I kept looking at that scoreboard,” Baker said. “It stayed at 1-0 forever. I didn’t think it was going to hold up with that Rangers’ offense. When the scoreboard showed the game was a final, it was a beautiful thing.’’
The Astros completed their rout two innings later, modestly shook hands on the field, and then launched into their raucous celebration with champagne, beer and cigar smoke filling the room.
“Look at those guys,’’ Baker said, “I couldn’t be more proud of them.’’
The Astros players uttered the same about Baker, having a manager that believed in them all along, the one who came along at their darkest time after the cheating scandal.
“This is awfully special for me, too,” Astros first-year GM Dana Brown said. “To have a Black GM, and a Black manager [the first in history], going to the postseason in our first year together, is something that’s really special.”
The Astros now will host the first two games of the AL Division Series on Saturday against the winner of the Minnesota Twins-Toronto Blue Jays series. They are the only division winner who actually had a losing record at home, 39-42, with the others at least 14 games above .500.
Hey, just another obstacle that Baker plans to crush along the way, hoping to become the first manager to win back-to-back World Series championships since Joe Torre of the Yankees.
“It’s been a really tough year for a lot of us,” said three-time Cy Young winner Justin Verlander, who was traded back to the Astros in August. “I wasn’t here earlier in the year when a lot of guys were injured. But talking to all the guys, it hasn’t been one of those seasons where anything seemed to go easy. So to be able to fight through that adversity and make the playoffs, it means a lot.
“To do it with these guys again, and with Dusty, means everything.”
Baker ducked out of the clubhouse, went to visit his wife and long-time friends in the corridor, and greeted them with long, emotional hugs, not wanting to let go.
“Bam, we’re back here again,” Baker said. “Damn, that was sweet. What are they going to say now?”
This article originally appeared on USA TODAY: Houston Astros, Dusty Baker rally to win AL West on season’s final day
Source: Yahoo Sports