PHILADELPHIA — The Astros — their reputation still scarred by scandal, their roster a perennial threat to win it all anyway — are one win away from a World Series championship.
Justin Verlander’s five innings of one-run ball and Jeremy Pena’s two RBIs, including a go-ahead home run in the fourth, boosted Houston to a 3-2 win over the Phillies in Game 5 on Thursday night. After Friday’s off day, the Astros will take a 3-2 series lead into Game 6 in Houston on Saturday.
“Zero complacency,” Verlander said. “We’ve been in this situation before. You can see how quickly momentum can change in this game.”
Pena said: “We’re just trying to stay grounded. We’re going to just lock back in and play our game. Show up ready to go, ready to compete and try to close it out.”
Closing it out would mean a greater degree of legitimacy for their dominance the past half-decade, several Astros players said last week. They have been the most publicly hated franchise in baseball in recent years, ever since they admitted to and subsequently were punished for an illegal sign-stealing scheme in 2017, tarnishing the only title in the franchise’s history.
The notoriety has followed them even as most of the team has turned over. Fans in Philadelphia this week saved the heaviest boos and chants of “cheater” for the remaining faces of that 2017 team, including Jose Altuve, Alex Bregman and Yuli Gurriel.
Worsening the perception: the Astros’ annual postseason shortcomings. They lost in the ALCS in 2018, in the World Series in 2019, in the ALCS in 2020 and in the World Series in 2021.
A championship would make a lot of that go away. It won’t totally stop the jeers or erase past baseball sins, but it would give the club and especially its fans what Lance McCullers Jr. called “the ultimate Uno reverse card.”
“We don’t really care what [opposing] fans think,” said closer Ryan Pressly, who collected his first World Series save. “Everywhere we go, we get booed.”
He harrumphed in disgust, real or feigned. “It’s Houston versus all y’all,” he said.
Pressly got the final five outs, including barely wiggling out of a first-and-third, one-out jam he inherited from Rafael Montero in the eighth. Kyle Schwarber ended the inning by hammering a grounder directly at first baseman Trey Mancini, who was playing the field for the first time since the regular-season finale Oct. 5.
In the bottom of the ninth, centerfielder Chas McCormick made a running, leaping catch at the fence in right-centerfield for the penultimate out, robbing J.T. Realmuto of an extra-base hit.
“McCormick’s always bragged about his basketball skills, and so I guess I got to believe him,” Astros manager Dusty Baker said.
Pena said: “I knew it could be trouble. But shout-out to McCormick, big-time play. Yeah, game-saving play.”
Verlander earned his first World Series win in nine career starts. Not particularly sharp, he held the Phillies to four hits, striking out six. His four walks marked his most in a game since June 29, 2019, which was 55 starts ago.
The Phillies’ lone run against him came quickly, on Schwarber’s home run to lead off the bottom of the first. Then the stranding of runners began: one in the first, three in the second, two in the third, one in the fifth. No. 4 hitter Bryce Harper reached three times (walk, walk, double) but No. 5 hitter Nick Castellanos followed with an out each time.
Noah Syndergaard, in his first World Series game since he was a rookie with the Mets in 2015, allowed two runs in three innings-plus — and that was actually a successful outcome, considering how the game began.
Altuve hit Syndergaard’s second pitch off the right-centerfield wall for a double and advanced to third on centerfielder Brandon Marsh’s error. Pena snuck the fourth pitch up the middle through a drawn-in infield for an RBI single.
Already teetering, Syndergaard settled in, retiring eight in a row. Pena homered to lead off the fourth — on a curveball that didn’t curve enough, over the heart of the plate, nearly identical in location, velocity and pitch type to an offering earlier in the at-bat — and end his outing.
To finish their improbable playoff run from third place in the NL East to the brink of a title, the Phillies will have to win consecutive games in Houston on Saturday and Sunday. Otherwise, the Astros will feel validated.
“It’s not over,” Schwarber said. “We’ve overcome a lot of things throughout the course of the year to be in the position that we’re at. When we get there, you’re going to see a really resilient club.”