Astros third baseman Alex Bregman and first baseman Yuli Gurriel...

Astros third baseman Alex Bregman and first baseman Yuli Gurriel celebrate their win in Game 5 of the World Series against Atlanta on Monday in Atlanta. Credit: AP/John Bazemore

HOUSTON — Always keep this in mind when discussing the Astros, warts and all from the sign-stealing scandal:

They’re a superb baseball team.

Think of it another way:

How much enmity would they truly engender from fan bases across the sport and more than a few rival teams if, after the scandal came to light in November 2019, they didn’t continue to win?

Instead, in 2020 they advanced to the seventh game of the American League Championship Series, which they lost to the Rays. This season, after winning 95 games to capture the AL West crown, the Astros reached the World Series for the third time in five years.

They arrived in Houston on Monday after spending the night in Atlanta, where they kept alive the possibility of winning their second World Series title in those five seasons with a 9-5 victory in Game 5 at Truist Park.

Though Atlanta remains in the driver’s seat with a 3-2 series lead, the NL champs will have to beat the Astros one more time at Minute Maid Park, where Houston — as no Yankees fan needs reminding — has been tough to beat in the postseason over the years.

The ghosts of the 2017-18 scandal still hover over all things Astros, a team generally loathed outside of Houston.

Jose Altuve, Alex Bregman and Carlos Correa, three of the six holdovers from 2017 on the current roster, were serenaded with "Cheat-er! Cheat-er! Cheat-er!" chants throughout the three games in Atlanta.

And that was Sesame Street-like compared with what they heard on pretty much every road stop this regular season, with Yankee Stadium, Dodger Stadium and RingCentral Coliseum in Oakland leading the way in vitriol — which was more or less earned, it must be said.

But even the most hard-bitten Astros-hating fans — which, again, is pretty much every fan outside of this city — have to admit the team has a lot of talent.

Actually, they don’t have to give credit and probably never will, and that is fine. History will be the final judge of this era of Astros baseball. And the cold reality is that 50 years from now, what happened in 2017-18 likely will be seen as a footnote.

The steroid era, at which MLB and the Players Association looked the other way when the money rolled in while offensive records were rewritten, will be remembered far more prominently in the future. It did far more to tarnish the reputation of the sport.

The Astros’ 2017 title, naturally, will always carry an asterisk.

Although he denied it, it’s worth remembering and generally accepted that Bobby Thomson knew what was coming from Ralph Branca in Game 3 of the 1951 playoff between the Dodgers and Giants, the result of a sign-stealing scheme (though it wasn’t illegal at the time) that involved a telescope mounted in centerfield and buzzer wire.

But it’s a throwaway line, if it’s mentioned at all, when Thomson’s "Shot Heard ’Round the World’’ at the Polo Grounds that sent the Giants to the World Series is discussed.

None of which, the Astros made clear before this series started, is their concern.

"One win away from the World Series is bittersweet [last year], and we just want to really show the world that we’re the best team out there," Correa, a free-agent-to-be, said on the eve of Game 1 of the possibility that this series might serve as a redemption of sorts. "I don’t think the outside noise motivates us at all."

(Don’t think for a second that 99% of Yankees fans wouldn’t instantly adopt Correa as one of their own in the unlikely event that Hal Steinbrenner green-lights the kind of mega-contract it will take to sign him.)

After going 3-for-5 with two RBIs in Sunday’s victory, Correa
explained the Astros’ mindset in a must-win situation.

"I say keep fighting," he said. "I’m a huge MMA fan, and I’ve seen lots of guys almost knocked out, and they battle back to win the fight. We were down 3-1. Now we’re still down 3-2. I truly believe if there’s one team that can accomplish that in this league, it’s us."

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