HOUSTON — Home-field advantage can stem from a lot of things beyond crowd support. Players love routines, and the luxury of sleeping in a familiar bed or eating something that doesn’t come on a room service tray could provide the slightest edge. Hitters develop a comfort level with outfield backdrops and indoor batting cages, and pitchers grow accustomed to the feel of a mound or even a familiar vantage point to watch from the dugout or the bullpen.
But in the Houston Astros‘ postseason fairy-tale world, it’s hard to overstate the impact of the loud, raucous, passionate and relentlessly upbeat crowds that have packed Minute Maid Park since early September. The energy reached a whole new level in the team’s first game back after Hurricane Harvey, and it has carried over into October, when the Astros feel invincible from the moment they stow their valuables and begin dressing in the spacious home clubhouse.
With a 5-3 victory over the Los Angeles Dodgers in Game 3 of the World Series on Friday night, the Astros raised their postseason record to 7-0 at their retractable-roofed haven on 501 Crawford Street in Houston. They joined the 2008 champion Philadelphia Phillies as only the second team in history to begin a postseason with seven straight home victories.
And that’s not all. Seven teams in MLB history — the 1981 Dodgers, 2001 Diamondbacks, 2002 Angels, 2007 Red Sox, 2008 Phillies, 2009 Yankees and 2015 Royals — won at least seven home games in a single postseason. They all raised a trophy at the end.
“It’s always good to play in front of your fans, especially in this city,” Astros second baseman Jose Altuve said. “They’ve been here since we lost 100 games three years in a row, and they kept coming to the ballpark and supporting us. I think this is the time for us to pay them back.
“This is one of the loudest places I’ve ever played, especially right now in the playoffs and the World Series. We feel the love between the fans and the players. There’s like a connection. They’re not just here to watch a game. They’re here to watch the guys who can make the dream come true for everybody.”
After going 48-33 at home during the regular season, the Astros have stepped it up on their home turf in October. They’ve hit .285 and averaged 5.1 runs at Minute Maid this month, compared to .219 with 3.0 runs per game on the road. And the pitching has been exceptional at home. The Houston staff has an aggregate postseason ERA of 1.43 at Minute Maid, with 72 strikeouts and only 18 walks in 63 innings.
Pick an improbable storyline, and the Astros mined it during the playoffs. Altuve christened his October experience with three home runs in a game against Boston — with two coming off Chris Sale — and the Astros pummeled the Red Sox with 16 runs in the first two games of the division series.
Minute Maid was the Astros’ salvation in the American League Championship Series, when the entire team went into a hitting funk at Yankee Stadium. The Astros won a game when Marwin Gonzalez threw out a runner at home plate, then bolted for a local hospital for the birth of his son. They won when Justin Verlander went all John Smoltz/Curt Schilling with a 124-pitch complete game, and clinched the ALCS when Lance McCullers Jr. came on for a four-inning save — and closed out the Yankees with 24 straight curveballs.
The Astros faced a big test Friday in Yu Darvish, who had thrown 8 2/3 innings of perfect game ball in his Minute Maid Park debut on April 2, 2013 before surrendering a hit to Gonzalez. While the sample sizes are obviously small, several Astros entered Game 3 with cringe-worthy stat lines against Darvish. The list of offenders included Altuve (7-for-32, .219), Josh Reddick (4-for-25, .160), Carlos Correa (3-for-15, .200), Gonzalez (2-for-14, .143) and Brian McCann (1-for-11, .091).
“I’m not going to lie to you, I was a little concerned before the game,” Altuve said. “Everybody was a little concerned about facing him. Everybody knows how good he is.”
All it took was one big inning to change the dynamic. Yuli Gurriel homered into the Crawford boxes to put Houston up 1-0 in the second, and the Astros went double, walk, single, single, lineout, sacrifice fly and a double to score four times and drive Darvish from the game after just 1 2/3 innings. It was a virtual exit-velocity extravaganza.
“Two things stood out to me,” manager A.J. Hinch said. “[Darvish] had a hard time landing his slider, so we didn’t chase. He couldn’t really get it for a strike. It was backing up on him. It was all over the place. So when you can essentially disregard a pitch, that will go advantage to the hitter.
“And I think once we had some hitter counts, we put some pretty good swings on some pitches. We hit his fastball, which was really good.”
That’s nothing new for the Astros, who led the majors with a .301/.373/.525 slash line against fastballs during the regular season. Any pitcher who approaches their lineup solely reliant on the heater will probably be fortunate to last two times through the order.
The Dodgers tried to claw back, but they could produce only four hits against the tag team of McCullers and Brad Peacock. Hinch has been a model of creative bullpen management this month, and he rode Peacock for a 53-pitch, 3 2/3-inning save rather than call upon his regular closer, Ken Giles, who was shaky in Game 2 in Los Angeles.
After Peacock retired Yasmani Grandal on a fly ball to end it, some of the Houston players were challenged to come off the emotional high from the evening. The momentum kept building from the moment that Texans defensive end J.J. Watt threw out the ceremonial first pitch while on crutches.
“The ovation I got when I was in the bullpen — I got chills,” McCullers said. “I’ll probably never forget that. Our crowd, they bring it. I’ve played in a decent number of stadiums now, at least for postseason ball, and when Minute Maid gets rocking, there’s no place louder.”
It’s hard to ignore the what-if scenarios that await this weekend. If the Astros can craft enough magic behind Charlie Morton and Dallas Keuchel to continue their roll at home, they have a chance to raise a trophy and celebrate Houston’s first championship. That’s quite a thing to ponder, considering it took the Astros 20,287 days since their inception as the Houston Colt 45s in April 1962 to win the franchise’s first World Series game.
“You know what? It’s really hard to not think about that, because we’re talking about being World Series champions,” Altuve said. “But we want to stay humble and go a game at a time. That’s what made us so good during the regular season. We have guys here like Carlos Beltran and Brian McCann who help us to stay humble, stay quiet, don’t panic and keep playing baseball.”
The approach has worked well to this point, so why change now? The Astros will stay quiet and keep playing ball, while the fans make enough noise to go around for everyone.