By KRISTIE RIEKEN AP Sports Writer
HOUSTON — Dusty Baker has been here before.
It’s hard not to think of the last time the Houston Astros’ manager was up 3-2 in the Fall Classic as he leads the team back to Texas on Saturday night for Game 6 of the World Series against the Philadelphia Phillies needing just one win for a championship.
In 2002, Baker’s San Francisco Giants and big bopper Barry Bonds entered Game 6 against the Angels up by the same margin. As the road team for the last two games of that series, the Giants squandered a five-run lead in a 6-5 loss in the sixth game before the Angels won the title with a 4-1 victory in Game 7.
Twenty years later in his third trip to the World Series, Baker is still looking for that elusive championship after a quarter-century as a major league manager. As a player, he went three times with the Dodgers, winning it all as a big-hitting left fielder in 1981.
“I don’t think about the situation I’m in,” Baker said of chasing the title. “Just taking a day of rest, because (if) you think about something all the time, it would drive you crazy.”
With A.J. Hinch as manager, the Astros also led the Series 3-2 in 2019 against the Washington Nationals and lost in seven games.
The 73-year-old Baker, whose contract expires at the end of the postseason, also insisted that he hasn’t spent any time worrying about his future either.
“I’ve just learned over a period of time that, hey, you just live your life, try to do the right things, seize the moment, and enjoy as much as you can,” he said. “Enjoy this ride … I always thought, hey, when I’m supposed to win, I’m going to win. And when I’m supposed to sign a contract, I’ll sign a contract. But in the meantime, I’m just going to go out there and enjoy what I have been doing for a long time.”
The Astros took a lead in the series by winning the last two games. Cristian Javier and three relievers combined for the second no-hitter in Series history in Game 4 before Justin Verlander finally got his first World Series win in Game 5 thanks to a clutch homer by rookie Jeremy Peña and a terrific ninth-inning catch by Chas McCormick.
Despite a two-game skid, Philadelphia manager Rob Thomson isn’t worried about his team. After all, this is the same squad, led by stars Bryce Harper and Kyle Schwarber, that overcame a 22-29 start to reach the postseason for the first time since 2011.
“We’ve played really good baseball,” Thomson said. “I don’t think there’s any reason to panic. We’ve just got to keep doing what we’re doing and concentrate on doing the little things. I always tell ’em, focus on the little things and big things will happen.”
Houston will start left-hander Framber Valdez against Zack Wheeler on Saturday night in a repeat of the Game 2 matchup the Astros won, 5-2.
Valdez allowed four hits and a run with nine strikeouts in 6-1/3 innings for the victory in that one. Wheeler struggled, giving up six hits and five runs – four earned – in five innings.
Wheeler is looking for a better performance Saturday to allow the Phillies to force a Game 7 on Sunday night where they could try for their third title and first since 2008.
“Just try to be a stopper and give our team one more chance after (Saturday),” Wheeler said. “So (Saturday’s) a must-win and I’ll take pride in that. Hopefully, I can go out there and give us the best chance.”
After facing the hostile crowds in Philadelphia for the last three games, Baker expects to enjoy home support that will be at full tilt as the Astros try to win their second World Series. Their only title came in 2017, a crown won at Dodger Stadium that was tarnished by a sign-stealing scandal that rocked baseball.
The last team to win a Series at home was the 2013 Boston Red Sox. The Astros watched as the Nationals celebrated a title on their field in 2019 and again last season as the Braves beat them in six games.
“It’s going to be a great, great crowd,” Baker said. “They’re for us. The town’s for us. Tickets are at a premium because all of a sudden now everybody wants tickets. We could probably hold a couple hundred thousand if we had room.”
SERIES VIEWING A PARTICIPATION SPORT
Houston’s Lance McCullers Jr. says he wasn’t tipping pitches during his Game 3 five-homer meltdown in the World Series. The internet disagreed.
We might never know exactly what Phillies slugger Bryce Harper told Alec Bohm when he called the third baseman back toward the dugout and whispered a few words in his ear, but internet sleuths were happy to fill the void, with ‘whodunit-style’ videos popping up immediately. They dissected everything from McCullers’ leg kick, to the direction his feet were pointing, to where he was holding his glove during his delivery.
(Example: McCullers’ leg is two millimeters higher than it was on the previous pitch. That’s gotta be a changeup!)
Welcome to sports viewing in 2022.
That’s not to say the new world of enjoying sports on the couch is necessarily bad, or even all that new. It’s just become even more of a participation event. Professional golf has gone through its own mini-crises over the past decade because TV viewers call in potential rules violations that PGA officials didn’t catch.
Legal online live betting – available in a large chunk of the U.S. – has created another incentive to decipher any in-game trends. Bettors can wager on anything from the speed of the next pitch, to the outcome of the next at-bat, to the number of pitches thrown in an inning.
The lulls and relatively slow pace of both golf and baseball make them ripe targets for online, real-time detective work. The McCullers fiasco wasn’t even the first controversial case in this year’s World Series. In Game 2, the internet noticed that Astros starter Valdez was making odd hand motions, rubbing his left thumb across his right hand, then rubbing the ball between pitches.
How did the Phillies find out the potential problem?
I’ll give you one guess.
“Yeah, we did … it’s all over Twitter,” Thomson said. “The umpires check these guys after almost every inning, and if there’s something going on, MLB will take care of it.”
Valdez made a good point: If he was cheating, he certainly wasn’t being very careful.
“I do it out in the open,” Valdez said via a translator. “But it’s all tendencies I do. I do it throughout the game. Maybe distract the hitter a little bit from what I’m doing. Like maybe look at me, rubbing different things, and nothing about the pitch that I’m going to throw. I’ve been doing it all season.”
It makes sense that the Astros would be a highly sought target for baseball’s internet police. The franchise’s video sign-stealing scandal from 2017 still lingers, even though only five players remain on the team from that roster.
In retrospect, it’s kind of hard to believe those same online sheriffs didn’t catch those 2017 Astros in real time. Banging on trash cans usually creates a lot of noise.
The evolution of sports viewing makes for some interesting thought exercises when it comes to baseball’s storied history. Can you imagine Twitter existing in 1985? Umpire Don Denkinger’s call at first base in Game 6, helping the Kansas City Royals beat the St. Louis Cardinals, might have broken the internet.
What about potential fan-angle phone videos of the Steve Bartman incident in 2003, when the Chicago Cubs fan famously got in the way of Moises Alou when he tried to make a catch near the wall in the National League Championship Series? Or in 1996, when young fan Jeffrey Maier appeared to interfere with a fly ball that was ruled a homer for New York Yankees star Derek Jeter?
Surely, Twitter would have taken those events in stride. (Insert eye roll emoji.)
As for McCullers, it was never definitively proven he was tipping his pitches when he gave up his five homers to the Phillies in Game 3. Even one of the sport’s most respected internet sleuths – JomboyMedia – couldn’t find a smoking gun.
“Guys are always looking for something, always looking to see if they’re tipping their pitches,” Baker said. “We didn’t see anything.”
But once the internet has decided something, it’s hard to change its mind.
“I got whooped. End of story,” McCullers said in the aftermath of Game 3. “This has nothing to do with tipping.”
AP Baseball Writer Ronald Blum and AP Sports Writer David Brandt contributed to this report.