HOUSTON — Astros manager Dusty Baker let out a little sigh as he pushed himself up from his chair. Interview time was over, and he had a plane to catch.
“I gotta go to Chicago,” he said, shaking his head.
But he was smiling, too, and thoroughly delighted. A 9-4 victory against the White Sox in Game 2 of the American League Division Series was complete. A commanding 2-0 series lead was in hand. And, oh, yes, that Astros defense. What manager wouldn’t feel like a million bucks if he had magicians and wizards all over the field?
A million bucks? Scratch that. Baker had a better way to put it.
“I feel 15 [years old] during these games,” he said. “I know I’m not 15, but I feel 15.”
He’s not that far off; the man is only 72. And he’s still oozing charisma, surging with emotion in the dugout and gunning for that elusive first World Series title as a manager.
And sending a team onto the field that’s so well-rounded — it’s kind of ridiculous. The Astros hit better than anybody in the AL and strike out less than everybody, too. Their starting pitchers have the second-lowest ERA (right behind the Sox) in the AL.
And that defense — the stats and the eye test leave no doubt it’s the best in baseball.
“These guys take pride in defense,” Baker said. “That’s something that I think is overlooked by a lot of clubs, but never on my club.”
The Astros aren’t cheating anymore, as far as we know, but what they’re doing to the Sox is totally unfair. Who knew they were going to foul up the Sox’ big postseason plans by playing utterly perfect baseball? Who knew it was possible to play utterly perfect baseball?
How did the Astros win only 95 games and not 162?
How the heck are the Sox supposed to come back in this best-of-five series and beat all that?
“Take the attitude, the effort level and the talent we’ve got and find a way to win [Sunday in Game 3],” manager Tony La Russa said. “Then you’re down one, and we play another one. It can be done. I’d rather be in their position, but I know our club. We’ll put together a winning effort, and hopefully the score reflects that.”
If not, La Russa will end the season stuck on 70 career postseason wins. He could have said the same thing 10 years ago.
La Russa claimed the final score in Game 2 was “very misleading.”
“How many hits did we get?” he said. “Did we get 11 and they had 10? Well, they’re a good-hitting club, we’re a good-hitting club. They made a lot of good defensive plays, we made a lot of good defensive plays. . . .
“They’re really good, but I thought we played really well, too. But they played better, just enough.”
If a five-run edge is “just enough,” the Sox have no hope at all.
Their hopes for a breakout first inning were tempered thanks to Astros second baseman Jose Altuve, who made a diving stop of a one-out, bases-loaded grounder by Eloy Jimenez, got a key forceout at second and held the Sox to a single run.
In the fourth, with the Astros up 2-1 and Jimenez on base with a leadoff single, Astros first baseman Yuli Gurriel reached toward the line and stabbed a blistering one-hopper, stepped on the bag and got a helpless Jimenez into a rundown for a double play.
In the sixth, Altuve made a diving catch on a sinking liner off the bat of Andrew Vaughn. In the eighth, he one-upped himself with a throw off one foot from the outfield grass behind second base to nip Jimenez at first.
And the real killer: right fielder Kyle Tucker’s running, leaping catch of Yasmani Grandal’s drive with two on and two out in a 4-4 game in the seventh. Instead of a two-run lead and their first extra-base hit of the series, the Sox had nothing — least of all the momentum.
Eerily, a similarly struck ball in the bottom of the seventh broke the game open. Carlos Correa hit it where Grandal had, but Sox right fielder Leury Garcia took the wrong angle, turned the wrong way, mistimed his jump and, well, that’s enough picture painting.
Adam Engel would have made that play, we all know, but La Russa had just pinch-hit for him. That decision turned out to be less than perfect.
“Like I’ve always said,” Baker noted, “you can’t win just on defense, but you can lose on defense.”
No wonder Baker, who was out of baseball a couple of years ago, is feeling fine.
“This is one of the reasons why I came back,” he said. “I mean, I’ve missed this. I’ve yearned for this.”
Anybody remember May 7? That was the last day the Sox woke up and weren’t in first place. They’ll wake up now feeling a whole lot worse than they did then.
They had a winning record in every month of the season. But not October — not if they don’t come back and win this series.
Not if they can’t somehow beat perfect.