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Monday, June 27, 2022

For the Astros, a Stinging Loss and an Uncertain Future

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HOUSTON — Dusty Baker talked eloquently the other night about how this particular group of Houston Astros was gritty and battle-tested. After a win in Atlanta pulled the team to within three games to two in this World Series, he and star shortstop Carlos Correa both spoke of this team’s knack for dramatic comebacks.

The harsh reality is, Houston also has plenty of unwanted experience the other way. The Astros now have played in three World Series in the past five years, but in getting trounced, 7-0, in Game 6 here Tuesday night, the Astros have lost two of those three. Making it sting even more, Washington clinched the 2019 title at Houston’s Minute Maid Park, and Atlanta danced on their field this week.

“It’s tough, big time,” Baker said after watching Atlanta pitching hold his Astros to a .224 batting average and .298 on-base percentage during the series and seeing Atlanta out-homer Houston 11-2. “They played great. We couldn’t keep them in the ballpark. We walked somebody, then that led to the crooked-number innings. The pitching shut us down.”

Baker congratulated his counterpart, Brian Snitker, the team and the city of Atlanta. He talked about how “you’ve got to keep on trucking, and that gives you even more incentive next year.” Early winters are never easy, but this one comes with particular complications in Houston.

The Astros this year were booed relentlessly and could not outrun the . that always will hover over their one World Series title, in 2017. Some contended they needed to win another title so that their core group of Correa, Jose Altuve, Alex Bregman and Yuli Gurriel would earn back some semblance of legitimacy. Correa doesn’t see it that way, eschewing the “outside noise” and instead offered another defense of his team as Tuesday night turned into Wednesday morning.

Manager Dusty Baker was a rallying point for players and fans but he came up just short of winning his first World  Series as a manager. Credit…Elsa/Getty Images

“Second place is not good enough for us,” Correa said. “I know it’s not good enough for you guys. But it speaks volumes of how good our organization, our talent in the clubhouse is. Five A.L.C.S.’s in a row, three World Series in five years. I mean, I don’t know what else you want to ask from a great ball club.”

Immediate questions surround the future of both Correa and Baker. Neither the star shortstop nor the manager are signed for next year. When he stepped to the plate in the ninth inning against Atlanta’s closer. Will Smith, Correa admitted that he was focused on what he knew could be his farewell.

“It was the only thing going through my mind, to be honest,” said Correa, who took two strikes, then a ball, then lined out to right fielder Adam Duvall. “A lot of feelings, mixed emotions. I spent seven years with this club. Yeah, it was going through my mind for sure.”

Correa now is one formal filing away from free agency. He thanked owner Jim Crane and the front office for respecting his wishes not to negotiate during the season, but realistically, the odds of him returning are slim. The largest contract the Astros have executed since Crane purchased the team in 2011 was the five-year, $151 million extension signed by Altuve in 2018. With Francisco Lindor banking $341 million over 10 years with the Mets, the price for Correa is likely to stretch well beyond Houston’s comfort zone.

In some ways, the two-time All Star and 2015 A.L. Rookie of the Year sounded as if he was offering a valedictory address.

“To the fans, I want to say thank you for your support,” Correa said. “My time here was amazing, the seven greatest years of my life. I got here as a boy, turned into a man, grew in this city and the fans embraced me.”

For Baker, 72, this was another bitter loss. Though he is a three-time manager of the year and has led his teams to 1,987 victories — 12th on the career list — this is the second time he’s guided a team to the World Series and lost. In 2002, his San Francisco Giants led then-Anaheim Angels three games to two before losing.

The mood in Houston was somber as the team was eliminated from the World Series at home in Minute Maid Park for the second time in three seasons. Credit…Eric Gay/Associated Press

“I think you get over it,” Baker said. “Other people don’t let you get over it. And other people don’t get over it. To me, we did all we could to get to this point.”

He added, “Quite frankly, this one doesn’t hurt quite as much as the first one did because the first one, I thought we had that won, you know what I mean? More than this one.”

Baker also has had a run of bad luck to fall just short of the World Series. His 2003 Chicago Cubs were within five outs of the N.L. pennant when a foul ball in the stands, the infamous Steve Bartman play, derailed their season. In his two seasons managing the Washington Nationals his teams won 95 and 97 games, each earning the N.L. East title, and yet he was fired.

Now, in Houston, he maneuvered the Astros to within one win of the A.L. pennant during the pandemic-shortened 2020 season before losing Game 7 to Tampa Bay. Then, this.

“I feel bad. I feel terrible because I’m not really ready to go home,” Baker said. “I haven’t been home since I left in February, so you know I must love these guys and love what I’m doing. I mean, when’s the last time you weren’t home? It’s dang near, I looked on the calendar today and it’s almost Thanksgiving.”

In what might have been Correa’s last game with Houston he went 1 for 4 with two strikeouts.Credit…Elsa/Getty Images

Baker made it clear he hopes he is back because, after this loss, he said, he’s “still got some unfinished business.”

If he is back, it will be with a team that likely will be significantly altered. Correa’s return is in doubt. Ace Justin Verlander, who missed all season following Tommy John surgery, is a free agent. So, too, are starter Zack Greinke and key relievers Kendall Graveman, Brooks Raley and Yimi Garcia.

“I’d be sad, but like I said, he’s not a free agent yet,” Jose Altuve said of Correa’s possible departure, adding, “I haven’t lost my hopes.”

Bregman, too, lobbied for the Astros to do what it takes to keep Correa.

“He’s one of the smartest baseball players in the world,” said Bregman, who badly struggled in this World Series, batting just .095 (2 for 21) with two R.B.I. and no home runs. “And he’s one of the hardest working. He eats, sleeps and breathes the game. It’s been honestly amazing to play with him.”

The seasons are long and the endings, for the nine other teams who play in the postseason, are harsh. Summers come with no guarantees, and after playing in the A.L.C.S. in five consecutive seasons and winning only one World Series, it was difficult enough for the Astros to believe that they wouldn’t be forcing Atlanta into a Game 7 on Wednesday.

“I mean, it really hurts,” Baker said. “But it’s over.”

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