From laughingstock to lift off.
George Springer and the Houston Astros rocketed to the top of the baseball galaxy Wednesday night, winning the first World Series championship in franchise history by romping past the Los Angeles Dodgers 5-1 in Game 7.
Playing for a city still recovering from Hurricane Harvey, and wearing an H Strong logo on their jerseys, the Astros brought home the prize that had eluded them since they started out in 1962 as the Colt .45s.
“I always believed that we could make it,” All-Star slugger Jose Altuve said. “We did this for them.”
For a Series that was shaping up as an October classic, Game 7 quickly became a November clunker as Houston scored five runs in the first two innings off Yu Darvish. Hardly the excitement fans felt during the Cubs’ 10-inning thriller in Cleveland last fall.
Well, except for everyone wearing bright orange. Back in Houston, a huge crowd filled Minute Maid Park to cheer as fans watched on the big video board, and the train whistle wailed when it was over.
“We’re coming home a champion, Houston,” Springer said after accepting the World Series MVP trophy named this year for Willie Mays.
Star shortstop Carlos Correa turned the party into a proposal. After doing a TV interview, he got down on one knee and asked girlfriend Daniella Rodriguez, a former Miss Texas USA, to marry him.
“Yes?” he said, putting a ring on her finger as she cried.
Altuve, one of four holdovers from a club that lost an embarrassing 111 times in 2013 after switching from the NL to the AL, and this collection of young stars silenced Dodger Stadium from the get-go, taking a 5-0 lead in the second inning.
Altuve was in perfect position for the final out, a grounder by Corey Seager to the 5-foot-6 second baseman.
“I caught the last out for the Houston Astros to become a world champion. It was a groundball to me, I threw to first, and I think it was the happiest moment of my life in baseball,” Altuve said.
The Astros streamed from the dugout and bullpen to go wild, tossing their gloves in the air. A thousand or so fans crowded behind the first base dugout, chanting “Hou-ston! Hou-ston!”
Later, some little Astros kids ran around the outfield grass dressed in Halloween outfits. Their dads, meanwhile, were putting on championship hats and shirts.
At last, they had completed the ascent some predicted after a rebuilding club purged payroll and stripped down to bare bones a few years back.
Famously, now, there was the Sports Illustrated cover in 2014 — after Houston had lost more than 100 games for three straight seasons — that proclaimed: “Your 2017 World Series Champs” and featured a picture of Springer in a bright Astros jersey.
On the other side, ace Clayton Kershaw and several Dodgers leaned against the dugout railing, watching the Astros celebrate. Los Angeles led the majors with 104 wins and a $240 million payroll, and rallied to win Game 6, yet it didn’t pay off for part-owner Magic Johnson and his team.
“Obviously, this one hurts,” manager Dave Roberts said. “And like I told the guys, when you put everything, every ounce of your being into something and you come up short, it hurts. And it’s supposed to hurt.”
Normally a starter, Charlie Morton finished up with four stellar innings of relief for the win.
“We held down a really tough lineup,” Morton said. “For my teammates, for the city of Houston, it’s just unbelievable.”
Springer led off the evening with a double against Darvish, and soon it was 2-0.
Springer hit his fifth homer — tying the Series mark set by Reggie Jackson (1977) and matched by Chase Utley (2009) — when he connected for a record fourth game in a row, making it a five-run lead.
That was plenty for Houston manager A.J. Hinch. He pulled starter Lance McCullers Jr. soon after the curveballer crazily plunked his fourth batter of the game , and began a parade of four relievers that held the lead.
Throughout the post-season, Hinch and the unconventional Astros overcame a shaky bullpen by using starters in relief.
“I knew yesterday I didn’t have much,” said McCullers, the Game 3 winner. “I knew I didn’t have much to give other than to gut it out as long as I could.”
In a dramatic Series marked by blown leads and late rallies, when Houston twice outlasted the Dodgers in extra innings, McCullers did enough.
Forever known for their space-age Astrodome, outlandish rainbow jerseys and a handful of heartbreaking playoff losses for stars like Nolan Ryan, Jeff Bagwell and Craig Biggio, these Astros will be remembered as champions, finally, in their 56th season.
The club that wears a star on its hat also filled out the Texas trophy case. Teams from the Lone Star State had won most every major crown — the Super Bowl, NBA and NHL titles, championships in college football, and men’s and women’s hoops — except the World Series.
Built on the skills of homegrown All-Stars Dallas Keuchel and more, helped by veteran off-season acquisitions such as Brian McCann and 40-year-old Carlos Beltran, who won his first ring, and boosted by the slick trade for ace Justin Verlander, general manager Jeff Luhnow oversaw the team’s resurgence.
Houston won 101 times this year to take the AL West, then won Games 6 and 7 at home in the AL Championship Series against the New York Yankees. The Astros joined the 1985 Royals as the only clubs to win a pair of Game 7s in the same year.
When it was over, Bagwell and Biggio posed for pictures together with the World Series trophy.
For the Dodgers, the quest to win a Series for the first time since 1988 fell short.
Kershaw provided four shutout innings of relief for Los Angeles , but it was too late. What the Dodgers really needed was a better starter than Darvish, someone more like the lefty who tossed out a ceremonial first ball: the great Sandy Koufax.
Acquired from Texas on July 31 for these big games, Darvish lasted 1 2/3 innings in both his World Series starts — the two shortest of his career.
“This pain is going to stay in me for a while,” the four-time All-Star said through a translator.
After Springer lined a leadoff double , Alex Bregman hit a bouncer that first baseman Cody Bellinger threw past Darvish for an error, allowing a run to score . Bregman aggressively stole third and scored on Altuve’s grounder , and it was 2-0 after eight pitches.
A double by Marwin Gonzalez helped set up perhaps McCullers’ biggest contribution, a slow grounder for his first pro RBI. Springer followed with a no-doubt, two-run drive into the left-centre field bleachers.
That was the Series-most 25th homer in a Major League Baseball season that set a record for home runs. It was easily enough for the Astros to offset pinch-hitter Andre Ethier’s RBI single in the Los Angeles sixth.
Only once have the Dodgers clinched a crown at home, that coming in 1963 when Koufax outpitched Yankees star Whitey Ford to finish a sweep. They’ve never won Game 7 of the Fall Classic at their own park, dating more than a century ago to their days on the streets of Brooklyn as the Trolley Dodgers.
As pockets of Houston fans got louder and louder in the later innings, the crowd at Dodger Stadium was left to repeat the sad, but hopeful cry that used to echo in Brooklyn: Wait till next year.
Just 106 days until pitchers and catchers report to spring training.
More AP baseball: https://apnews.com/tag/MLBbaseball
Ben Walker, The Associated Press