The Houston Astros have more pressing issues than their 2017 misdeeds.
While their cheating scandal will again be part of the narrative when they face the Los Angeles Dodgers this weekend, the reality of 2020 is the Astros are under .500 and — despite being a virtual lock for the postseason because of this season’s new format and competing in a poor division — jockeying for the best possible playoff seed.
They’ll also be facing a Dodgers team that holds the best record in baseball and is the favorite to win the World Series.
“The Dodgers have an unbelievable team. They pitch really well. They play defense. They hit. They have played a lot better baseball than we have this year. And that’s what we’re focused on,” Astros third baseman Alex Bregman told ESPN. “We got beat twice by them last time we played them. For us, it’s about trying to find a way to be a good baseball team because they’re hard to beat.”
Tempers flared in Houston in late July when the teams met for the first time since an MLB investigation revealed the Astros had cheated by using a camera-based sign-stealing system during their 2017 championship run. That run culminated in a World Series victory for the Astros in seven games over the Dodgers.
During a two-game sweep by L.A., hard-throwing reliever Joe Kelly tossed a pitch in the area of Bregman’s head and taunted shortstop Carlos Correa after striking him out, prompting both benches to clear. Kelly later received an eight-game suspension for his actions, reduced to five games on appeal.
Kelly’s pouty expression, directed at Correa, has since been immortalized in a mural in the Silver Lake area of Los Angeles, a few miles from Dodger Stadium.
“You can’t look back at what happened. At this point in the season, every game is crucial. When you’re playing against a great team like the Dodgers, you have to be ready to go. You have to be at your best and ready to play, and not think about anything else,” Bregman said. “These games are bigger games for us than they are for the Dodgers just because of where we are in the season. We need to win. We’re playing .500 baseball right now and need to start playing better as a unit. You have to do that in order to beat a team like the Dodgers. The intensity is definitely going to be there for us because these are must-win ballgames.
“The Dodgers are the best team in baseball. Our focus has to be on trying to win a baseball game. We need to put together good team at-bats, and we need to hit with runners in scoring position. And they have a great pitching staff so that’s tough to do. And we have to play solid defense. And you have to pitch well. They have an unbelievable lineup, All-Stars all the way through that lineup. That’s what we’re focused on.”
Though the Astros apologized this spring and said they believed they had the team to win in 2017, without sign-stealing, the scandal didn’t just disappear. Calls for Houston to vacate the title and players to be punished echoed loudly throughout the game. But once the sports world shut down because of the coronavirus pandemic, big-picture attention shifted from disparaging the Astros for banging trash cans to coming up with ways to put together an abbreviated championship season.
The Astros caught another break when the season restart required competing without fans as part of MLB’s expansive health and safety protocols. Before the pandemic, outraged fans had anticipated Houston’s visits to their home ballparks to voice their displeasure at players they considered cheaters.
Still, the fact that the players themselves were not punished by MLB commissioner Rob Manfred, who granted them immunity during the league’s investigation, did not sit well with many of their opponents.
“Sometimes you simply will not be able to change people’s perspective. They are going to think what they are going to think. And that’s fine. It’s their prerogative,” Correa said. “For many, it did not matter that we asked for forgiveness. We were accused of not being honest in our apology and all that. We said we were sorry. We were honest in our apology. And now it’s about playing baseball. We have to focus on our job, which is trying to make the playoffs and win a World Series again. That is our only focus. It cannot be on anything else.”
Said Bregman: “Like so many teams, our team has gone through a ton of adversity with injuries this year. And our team has done a great job of being resilient and really coming together. Each day that goes by we’re trying, we’re trying every single day, to move on and worry about playing baseball. So that’s what matters. If you focus on anything else besides winning games, you’re not doing your job.”
In looking back at the first Dodgers series this season, Bregman’s attention is on correcting his mistakes. And, maybe more than occasionally, taking in a Mookie Betts at-bat.
“There was a ball hit to my left that I tried too much,” Bregman said of a throwing error that contributed to four fifth-inning runs in Los Angeles’ 5-2 win July 28. “I threw the ball home but should have just gone to second base and tried to turn a double play that way. But since I threw the ball home, we didn’t. It was an error. The inning went on and you can’t give extra outs to a team that is that talented and that good.
“And Mookie has been unbelievable. Definitely one of my favorite players to watch,” Bregman said. “I personally try and learn a lot from just watching his swings. I think he does so many good things mechanically that I try and incorporate. And what he does a great job of is hitting a ball in the air to the pull side of the field. And when you pull a ball in the air correctly, with backspin inside the baseball, I love it. And that’s cool, man.”
As for Kelly, the Dodgers activated him off the injured list, where he had been because of right shoulder inflammation, but the reliever will serve his five-game suspension and will not be available for the series.
“[Joe Kelly] is one of the best pitchers in the majors. The Dodgers have so many of those. And all we want to do is compete and show who is best that day,” Correa said. “We are athletes. And sometimes we say things we don’t mean in the heat of the moment. But what the Astros and the Dodgers want is to compete and show who the best is. This is an important series, and if that is what it takes for people to tune in, then that’s great.
“Every team wants to play on Sunday Night Baseball because everybody is watching,” he said. “All the players are traveling and they want to see the game on the plane. Whenever there is Sunday Night Baseball, so many teams are flying to another city. It’s the one game we all get to watch. And because baseball is not the most-watched sport, rivalries like Dodgers-Astros, and the history that we have now, are going to make people tune in and watch. And that’s important. It’s important to our game that it becomes must-see TV.”