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The Houston Astros never go away

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PHILADELPHIA — The summer the Houston Astros were scheming and scamming their way to the World Series title, Cristian Javier was a 20-year-old converted outfielder trying to pitch his way from the New York-Penn League to the Midwest League to the Carolina League — three levels of Class A, with no guarantees of a future. That year, he pitched for both the Tri-City ValleyCats and the Quad City River Bandits, seven cities, each of which must feel a long way from Houston. To this day, he is untouched by baseball scandal. As of Wednesday night, he is entrenched in baseball history.

At 25, Javier may not be Don Larsen — still the only man to start and finish a no-hitter in the World Series. But he is part of the Astros’ deliberate and desperate attempt at a new beginning, a reboot that could well result in another championship. Javier is technically Houston’s No. 3 starting pitcher, but he could well become a star — as the six no-hit innings with which he strangled the Philadelphia Phillies showed in full force, the foundation not only of just the second no-hitter in the 118 World Series to date but of Wednesday’s 5-0 Game 4 victory that evened this series at two games apiece.

“It’s crazy,” said Astros mainstay third baseman Alex Bregman, a fixture of a figure on what has become a fixture of an October (and November) team. “We grew up watching the World Series. We know baseball’s been going on for a long, long time. So to be a part of, just be a teammate on a team that did that and what Javy and the guys did is really special.”

Astros combine to no-hit the Phillies and knot the World Series

Wednesday doesn’t turn Javier into Larsen, the New York Yankee whose 1956 perfect game remains the only one-man World Series no-no. But over 97 pitches in which the Phillies — fresh off a brash and bullish Game 3 victory in which they crushed five home runs — barely came close to a hit, he reminded everyone that the Astros just don’t go away. Javier struck out nine and walked two. The only thing lower than his postseason ERA (0.71) is the postseason batting average of his opponents (.051).

That he needed three outs apiece from Bryan Abreu, Rafael Montero and Ryan Pressly is a statement about the realities of the modern game, not his own limitations. That he did it for the Astros will impact how it’s perceived.

“We had positive energy in the clubhouse,” Javier said afterward through an interpreter. “We told ourselves that we would come in today to win.”

This was elite stuff from a supremely talented team that refused to cave to the pixie dust vibe the Phillies have had going for a month. Boo Bregman all you want. Label second baseman José Altuve a cheater for life. Long after 2017, with different leadership in fresh circumstances, the Astros keep cranking out players who propel them deep into the postseason, a constant threat for another title because of their abilities and their attitude.

“I know no-hitters are cool,” Altuve said. “But I think what we were trying to do was win.”

Which is all they do — 106 times in the regular season, now nine times (against two losses) in the postseason. For the sport, this could all seem inconvenient. The Astros’ lone championship — won during a season in which they invented, orchestrated and perfected an elaborate and illegal sign-stealing operation — came four division titles and three American League pennants ago. Yet when Altuve and Bregman and others step to the plate in opposing ballparks, the scandal can feel fresh. The boos are real and full-throated. They can feel outdated. They are also earned.

This is part of the Astros’ full-time residency in the playoffs. Most teams are lucky to rent space here occasionally. The Astros own property and could at any point put on an addition. Maybe that’s not great for baseball, because their appearances on all these TV screens on all these late nights are a means for a dark chapter in the sport’s history to bubble up again.

When the catcalls and chants rain down on Bregman or Altuve, it’s not because Philadelphia has some special, specific venom toward either of them. It’s because the sport does. And at some level, the sport can’t forget.

Except what if the Astros are also capable of creating the kind of magical moments that should happily define this time of year? Javier’s performance — in which the Phillies’ best shot at a hit was a sharply hit Kyle Schwarber groundball, just foul — should elicit only awe. There should be no room for “Yeah, but …” That Dusty Baker’s bullpen finished it off has to give the series juice, because when the Astros looked wobbly after that 7-0 shellacking in Game 3, they showed up and showed out.

“Man, it’s a strange series,” Baker said. “I mean, they hit five home runs yesterday and then no hits today. I mean, this is a daily game, and it’s filled with daily emotions.”

True. But there are constants, too. Whatever happened in the past and happens the rest of this series, the Astros must be acknowledged as unshakable. Since 2017, only the Dodgers have more regular season victories. Wednesday night was Houston’s 51st postseason victory in that stretch — 11 more than Los Angeles. Over six postseasons, the Astros have played .602 baseball against the best opponents the sport has to offer — better than a 97-win pace. They have reached the American League Championship Series every time.

So without getting ahead of ourselves, it might be worth wondering how a second title in this six-year stretch would impact the perception of these Astros decades from now. They won the first one using videotape and trash cans — and, who knows, maybe even buzzers attached to their bodies.

What if they won again — (presumably and probably) clean? It would be Barry Bonds hitting 73 homers in a single season — without human growth hormone. It would be the 1919 Chicago White Sox returning to the World Series the next year — and trying to win it, rather than throwing it.

Javier is in a perfect spot to help this group transition. He is part of their present and their future — not their past. He is blessed with a fastball that is not strictly overpowering, but has been labeled “invisible.”

“It’s going up,” said catcher Christian Vazquez, “like a turbo fastball. … It’s electric. You can call it anytime. No matter who’s in the batter’s box, you can call it.”

So for Houston, he is a talented, transitional character with no baggage, even as many of the mainstays who orchestrated the scam are elsewhere. Carlos Beltran, the supremely talented hitter and mastermind, is retired. Alex Cora, the bench coach who assisted, won a title as the manager of the Boston Red Sox, was relieved of those duties when his role was revealed and is now is back in that chair. Shortstop Carlos Correa left as a free agent and is about to be a free agent again. Outfielder George Springer is in Toronto.

What remains are more than bits and pieces. Altuve, the engine of a second baseman, and Bregman, the no-heartbeat third baseman, were core pieces then and are core pieces now. Yordan Alvarez has developed into something he wasn’t in 2017, which is Houston’s best hitter. Kyle Tucker was an extra part then, an all-star now. Justin Verlander was a dramatic addition late in 2017 who could well be awarded his second Cy Young as an Astro early in this offseason.

So they’re the same — but different. Wednesday night belonged to a 25-year-old right-hander from the Dominican Republic and the relievers who backed him up, because they delivered a historic World Series performance. That they did so in the orange of the Astros doesn’t taint it. But it’s unarguable that an old controversy colors every new accomplishment for this team that never goes away.

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Enzo Smith