Jim Mone/Associated Press
Every good story needs a villain. As the tale of the 2020 MLB postseason plays out, it’s an easy role to cast.
The Houston Astros avoided raucous boos on the road this year, but that’s only because cardboard fans don’t have vocal cords and the people in charge of the canned crowd noises exercised restraint.
The ‘Stros predictably played the heel in the wake of the sign-stealing scandal that rocked the sport. Few outside of the hardcore Houston faithful rooted for them, and many actively rooted against them.
Now, they’ll face the resilient Oakland Athletics in what promises to be a fireworks-filled division series showdown.
It was a bumpy season for the Astros. They lost ace Justin Verlander, closer Roberto Osuna and designated hitter Yordan Alvarez to injury. They were involved in a pair of benches-clearing incidents. And they finished the truncated season with a sub-.500 record at 29-31.
They slipped into the playoffs thanks to the relative weakness of the American League West and the expanded playoff format. A quick October exit seemed possible.
Instead, Houston dispatched the AL Central champion Minnesota Twins in two games in their best-of-three wild-card tussle and became the first club to clinch a trip to the division series.
The Oakland Athletics advanced Thursday with a 6-4 win over the Chicago White Sox to set up their fateful date with the Astros.
Oakland overcame its share of obstacles to get here. It lost star third baseman Matt Chapman to hip surgery and dropped the first game of its series with Chicago. On Thursday, the A’s came from behind to break a string of nine consecutive losses in winner-take-all playoff games.
Next up, an opponent for whom they have few positive feelings.
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Part of it stems from an Aug. 9 incident. Athletics outfielder Ramon Laureano was hit by a pitch, got into a verbal altercation with Astros hitting coach Alex Cintron on his way to first base and charged the Houston dugout before players from both teams spilled onto the field. Cintron was suspended for 20 games, Laureano for six (later cut to four).
Laureano claimed Cintron said something unkind about his mother.
“Obviously, I don’t take that lightly,” he told reporters. “I don’t think anyone would take that lightly.”
Speaking of not taking things lightly, another current Athletics playerright-hander Mike Fierswas a member of the Astros in 2017 when they used cameras and other methods to steal signs during their seven-game World Series win over the Los Angeles Dodgers.
Fiers joined the A’s in 2018. In Nov. 2019, he admitted to and lambasted the sign-stealing scheme in remarks to The Athletic’s Ken Rosenthal and Evan Drellich.
“That’s not playing the game the right way,” Fiers said. “They were advanced and willing to go above and beyond to win.”
Astros players, including shortstop Carlos Correa, hit back at Fiers’ comments. After Houston’s clinching 3-1 win over the Twins on Wednesday, Correa remained defiant.
“I know a lot of people are mad. I know a lot of people don’t want to see us here,” the shortstop told reporters. “But what are they gonna say now? We’re a solid team, we played great baseball, we won a series on the road in Minnesota. So what are they gonna say now?”
Surely, many fans and opposing players could answer that rhetorical question with all sorts of NSFW bon mots. But talk is exactly that: talk. The only thing that truly matters is what happens on the field.
Jim Mone/Associated Press
The A’s won the regular-season series against the Astros, 7-3, and outscored them 38-25. Their last meeting was a five-game set Sept. 7-10 that included a makeup doubleheader; the Athletics won four of five.
Those games were in Oakland. The division series will be played on a neutral site, though you can put “neutral” in quotes.
We’re talking about Dodger Stadium, the place where the Astros rushed onto the field three years ago to celebrate their now-tainted 2017 title.
When Houston visited Chavez Ravine for a series with the Dodgers this season, they were greeted by less-than-cheerful SoCal fans who have neither forgotten nor forgiven.
“I think it was probably a ‘gulp’ type of moment when you see people standing outside the entrance with all the signs as their bus drove by,” Astros radio analyst Steve Sparks told reporters. “I imagine they’ll experience that again.”
We imagine he’s right. Between ’17 and this year’s Joe Kelly incident, there is no love lost between Houston and Dodger Nation.
David J. Phillip/Associated Press
Everywhere you look, there are storylines. Fiers, who started Thursday, could pitch Game 2 of the division series on normal rest. But the drama should ratchet up right away, especially if a few early pitches whiz inside.
We’ll simply root for well-played, exciting baseball. But here’s betting this series delivers a bit more than that. Rivalries will resurface. Old scores might be settled. Tempers will almost assuredly flare.
The villains are still in the show. Like it or not, that’s almost always entertaining.
Jim Mone/Associated Press