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  • The American League champions have yet to trail at Minute Maid Park this postseason. And it doesn't seem likely any time soon.
By Tom Verducci
October 28, 2017

HOUSTON – Like a fingerprint or a Facebook page, a ballplayer’s locker reveals much about a person in shorthand. Cluttered or neat? Tokens of family or friends? Boxers or briefs?

On the cubby doors in the locker of Houston Astros shortstop Carlos Correa, at eye-level height, are two 5-by-7 snapshots. One shows a line of people–it could well be a family–walking through waist-deep water and carrying sacks of their belongings over their heads. In the other photograph, a man walks over the scattered lumber and sheetrock of what used to be his house and instead has become the sad monument of a life undone.

Correa affixed these photos to his locker when the Astros returned to Minute Maid Park Sept. 2 after Hurricane Harvey hit Houston and its surrounding environs. There the pictures have remained. He is not the only Astro to have placed pictures in their lockers of the devastation and disruption of the hurricane. Outfielder Marwin Gonzalez, for instance, is another player with two similar pictures.

“They are a reminder,” Correa said Friday night, “that there are bigger things than baseball. Some nights when I go 0-for-4 and I come back here and I want to throw my bat or my glove in my locker, I will look at these pictures and I realize there are many people with much bigger problems still trying to get through this right now. They have no home to go home to. They have to walk through water. And I’m complaining? I have no right. I’m just playing a game.

“All we can do is hope that for three or four hours a night we give them something where they can come out and enjoy their time. Maybe we can at least give them a little joy and happiness.”

Bigger than baseball is the bond that has formed between this community and this team. In the worst of times, the town and the team have brought out the best in each other.

Since Hurricane Harvey, the Astros are 17-2 at Minute Maid Park, including 7-0 in the postseason after a 5-3 throttling of the Los Angeles Dodgers in World Series Game 3 Friday night. It was the first home World Series win in Astros history. So powerful is this bond that the Astros never have trailed at home this postseason–63 consecutive innings without falling behind in front of their home fans. In their 19 post-Harvey home games, they have more than doubled the run production of their opponents, outscoring them 102-40.

The fans have done their part, packing the joint–one of the coziest of the new parks, with its dearth of foul ground–and raising a ruckus that bounces off the roof of the ballyard.

“Guys from other teams are telling me this is the loudest place they’ve ever been in,” said Astros catcher Brian McCann.

Said Houston centerfielder George Springer, “It’s been different since the hurricane. It’s the energy. The fans seem like they are living and dying with every pitch. They don’t need to be told what to do or when to get loud. It’s energizing to play in front of them. This place is loud. It’s the loudest place I can remember.”

Game 3 provided another night of joyful diversion for Houston. The only discordant note was when Cuban-born first baseman Yuli Gurriel, after smacking a second-inning homer off Japanese-born Yu Darvish, mocked the pitcher with a gesture that made fun of his ethnicity. After the game Gurriel, who played in Japan in 2014, apologized for the gesture and said he did not mean for it to be offensive.

Gurriel, whose gesture was captured by cameras on the international broadcast, was made aware during the game of the controversial nature of it. Teammate Carlos Beltran and coach Alex Cora were among those who counseled Gurriel. Having grown up in Cuba, under an oppressive communist regime with little diversity or contact with other cultures and countries, Gurriel appeared surprised by the reaction to it.

Major League Baseball commissioner Rob Manfred began conferring with others in his office about possible discipline for Gurriel, including a one-game suspension during the World Series. Any discipline would be subject to a possible appeal by Gurriel through the players association, though if Manfred decided on a suspension during the World Series that appeal and its resolution would have to be accelerated in order to complete or rescind the penalty before the series is over.

Gurriel’s home run kickstarted a second-inning rally in which the first seven batters produced four runs and drove Darvish from the game. Darvish, given his 0.88 ERA in his previous five starts, was shockingly bad. He couldn’t command his fastball and threw his vaunted slider with a lazy roll to it, rather than its usual sharp tilt. He became the first World Series starter since Don Robinson of the 1989 Pirates to give up four runs and fail to register a strikeout while facing as few as 12 batters.

Against Darvish, the Astros hit baseballs off or over the Minute Maid Park walls five times. With every hit, the noise grew, building upon itself like a snowball bounding downhill, and the Dodgers, who hadn’t lost back-to-back games in 37 days, were powerless to stop it. That’s the kind of momentum the Astros keep gathering in this baseball hangar built around Union Station, the rail hub that opened in 1911 under the design of the New York architectural firm Warren and Wetmore, which two years later would produce New York’s Grand Central Terminal. (The long-defunct station actually serves as a cornerstone and central design element to the ballpark.)

It took only two innings for the Dodgers (0-1 in Houston this month) to discover what the Red Sox (0-2) and Yankees (0-3) did: there is a strong force evident in this ballpark—something Houston strong. Think about that: The teams with the three highest payrolls in baseball all have come to Houston this postseason and all have managed not even get a lead, never mind an actual victory.

With the second inning, the Astros were on their way to victory in a direction that seemed as fixed as rail tracks. Starting pitcher Lance McCullers tempted fate in the third when he walked the bases loaded with a 4-0 lead. But he escaped serious harm by getting Corey Seager to ground into a 3-6-1 double play, the ball darting back and forth quickly and assuredly between Gurriel, Correa and McCullers like a game of Pong.

The night was set in motion. The Dodgers committed their first error in 10 games, and it cost them a run when pitcher Tony Cingrani spiked a throw past first base and off the stands, allowing Josh Reddick to dash all the way from first to home. Los Angeles scored its runs on a double-play grounder, an infield out and a wild pitch–no run-producing hits. Dodgers first baseman Cody Bellinger whiffed in all four at-bats–all of them swinging, the first to go down that way in the World Series since Pat Burrell of the 2010 Giants.

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The best evidence that there is some serious feng shui harmonization going on in this town is what Brad Peacock did. Entering this year, Peacock had the fourth-highest career walk rate (11 percent of batters faced) of any active pitcher who had as many career starts as he did, 46. His career record was 11-17.

When he left for spring training this year, Peacock, at age 29, told his wife, Stephanie, that he feared he wouldn’t even make the team. He began preparing for the idea that he would have to find a job pitching in Japan.

He made the team and, thanks to a hard winter of training motivated by the possibility that this was his last shot, was in better shape and with better stuff. Peacock, as his namesakes are known to do, showed his true colors brilliantly this year. He went 13-2 with a 3.00 ERA over 132 innings, most of those out of the rotation. He showed a ferocious slider that spins faster than any slider except the ones thrown by Marcus Stroman of Toronto and Darvish–at least on a good day (minimum 500 sliders). His fastball is devious in that its late life causes hitters to swing under it. Hitters bat .208 against his heater, well below the major league average of .269.

Last night he shoved 89 percent fastballs down the throats of the Dodgers–47 of his 53 pitches. The Dodgers swung 23 times at his heater without managing a hit.

“The hitters will tell you,” teammate Justin Verlander said. “It was like McCullers and his curveball in [ALCS Game 7]: When they’re not seeing it and swinging underneath it, just keep throwing it.”

Manager A.J. Hinch never bothered to warm closer Ken Giles, whose command of his signature slider has been shaky. There was no reason to go to anybody else.

“Yeah, I felt good,” Peacock said. “And they weren’t taking really good swings off me. And I’m just glad he gave me the opportunity to do that. And I’ll thank him forever for it, I’m sure.”

Peacock, like McCullers in the ALCS clincher and Mike Montgomery of the Cubs in 2016 World Series Game 7, never had a save in his career before getting one in such a pivotal postseason game. Only two pitchers ever threw more hitless innings in a World Series outing than Peacock did in his 3 2/3 innings: Ron Taylor, who pitched the final four innings for the Cardinals in Game 4 of the 1964 World Series, and Don Larsen, who threw his perfect game for the Yankees in the fifth game of the 1956 series.

“This postseason I’ve really enjoyed bringing back the three-inning save–that’s cool,” said Hinch.

The Astros are the first team since the save rule was established in 1969 to have two saves of three innings or more in the same postseason. (The 1964 Cardinals, with Taylor and Barney Schultz, are the only team to do so if you apply saves retroactively.)

Home field advantage, not more than about a two-percent edge in postseason history, has become powerful and meaningful in Houston. The strange abounds. McCullers and Peacock getting the first saves of their professional lives … Darvish inexplicably seeing his fierce slider turn to mush … An undefeated postseason at home for the Astros … And the noise … oh, the kind of noise that stays with you even in the quiet of the after … the constant, cathartic clatter and cacophony, an audible joy not so much because it was just four years ago that the Astros lost more than 106 games for a third straight year, but because only two months ago the worst rainfall event in the recorded history of this country landed smack on top of these people and stayed for days, and these people want to move on.

“There’s great enthusiasm around our fan base with this team,” Hinch said. “They’ve fallen in love with this team.”

The way the Astros have been playing here ever since the hurricane, the franchise’s first world championship can be calculated with simple math.

“If we win two more games here,” Correa said, “we’re World Series champs. We’ve got to stay focused.”

The Astros haven’t lost at home in a month and three days. They haven’t lost two straight games in Houston since the middle of August, when lives were yet to be torn asunder by the wickedness of wind and wet. When the gates of Minute Maid Park open each night since, and they walk through what had been the waiting room of Union Station, past the walls gleaming with Belgian, Tennessee and Vermont marble and the grand two-story fluted columns, Houstonians can, at least for a few hours, forget the troubles Harvey wrought and believe in their baseball team.

Do you feel that rumble? It’s no longer the Sam Houston Zephyr or the Twin Star Rocket or the Texas Eagle rolling into the station. They stopped running here long ago. The last passenger train left Union Station in 1974. But you can feel it. You can most definitely hear it. Something powerful is going on down here on Crawford Street, and nobody, not the Dodgers any more than the Red Sox and Yankees, have been able to do a thing about it.

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