Grudge match, anyone?
It has been five years since the Houston Astros cheated their way to a 2017 World Series title, beating the New York Yankees in seven games along the way. Three years ago, the Astros eliminated the Yankees again, winning the American League Championship Series in six games.
Now the Astros, who have made five consecutive ALCS appearances, are playing like a team bent on a return engagement. They have skyrocketed into the top four of our MLB Power Rankings by winning 16 of their last 19 games, including an 11-game winning streak that fell one victory short last Saturday night of matching the club record.
Looming dead ahead in our rankings are the No. 1 Yankees, who have baseball’s best record at 25-9 after taking three of four games from the Chicago White Sox. Yankees general manager Brian Cashman has a long memory. Irked by reminders that the Yankees have not won a World Series since 2009, Cashman told The Athletic this spring: “The only thing that stopped (us) was something that was so illegal and horrific. … The only thing that derailed us was a cheating circumstance that threw us off.”
But Astros owner Jim Crane is trying to make the case that the Yankees’ behavior in 2015 and 2016 — detailed in a 2017 letter to the team from commissioner Rob Manfred in which he fined the Yankees for using their video replay room to decode catchers’ signs and have them relayed to runners on second base — was no different than the real-time sign-stealing that the trash-can-banging Astros engaged in, even after Manfred had warned clubs that such conduct would no longer be tolerated.
“You were there, dude,” Crane told USA Today last week, referring to Cashman. “What are you talking about? If I was one of the teams, and I knew our team was doing it (cheating), I'd keep my mouth shut and just go about our business.”
Well, Cashman wasn’t going to let that pass.
"I don't think anybody's going to dance to the tune he's singing," Cashman told ESPN last Thursday. “I’d say it's called deflection, him trying to equate probably … an equivalent of a parking ticket to maybe 162 felonies.”
The front-office mudslinging only adds to the intrigue an October rematch between the Astros and Yankees would bring. After a so-so start, Houston has returned to powerhouse status, winning all seven games of a homestand against the Seattle Mariners and Detroit Tigers before going on the road to sweep three straight against the Minnesota Twins and winning two of three from the Washington Nationals. In winning 12 of their last 13, the Astros have posted six shutouts and held the opposition to two runs or fewer in 10 of those games.
The headliner has been 39-year-old Justin Verlander, who took a no-hitter into the eighth inning against the Twins and followed that with five scoreless innings against the Nationals on Sunday. He is showing no ill effects from the Tommy John surgery that sidelined him last season. On Sunday, he touched 98.3 mph on the gun and threw a season-high 107 pitches to improve to 5-1 with a 1.38 ERA and 0.68 WHIP, both league bests.
Jeremy Pena had the unenviable assignment of replacing Carlos Correa, who left Houston as a free agent to sign with the Twins, but the rookie shortstop has been equal to the task in the season’s early stages. Pena, who missed the last two games with knee discomfort, had hit .480 (13 for 29) in his previous nine games and was leading all AL rookies with six home runs.
The Astros’ winning ways also coincided with the return of Jose Altuve from the injured list on May 2. They have won all 12 games in which Altuve has played since coming off the IL, the second baseman batting .333 (15 for 45) with six home runs in that span.
And this past weekend, the Astros added more depth by acquiring the versatile Mauricio Dubon from the San Francisco Giants. Dubon can play infield and outfield, though manager Dusty Baker probably will introduce him into the team’s center-field mix. Another outfield prospect, Pedro Leon, just hit home runs of 458 and 449 feet in the same game in Triple-A and could be forcing his way into the conversation.
Baker just became the first Black manager and 12th in big-league history to win his 2,000th game, further burnishing his Hall of Fame credentials. The only thing missing from his dance card is a World Series title. He lost with the Giants in 2002, and last season, his Astros fell to the Braves. But with the way the Astros are playing in 2022, the 72-year-old Baker may get another chance.
MLB Power Rankings
Rankings are determined by staff vote
Records and statistics are through May 15
1. New York Yankees (25-9, Last week: 2): All in a week’s work for pitcher Nestor Cortes (15 1/3 IP, 4 H, 1 ER, 18 K). The Yankees have lost back-to-back games just once this season (April 10-11).
2. Los Angeles Angels (24-13, LW: 5): Too soon to print postseason tickets in Anaheim? The no-hitter by 22-year-old rookie Reid Detmers and six scoreless innings from Chase Silseth in his big-league debut have the Halos thinking they may have the pitching depth to put Mike Trout and Shohei Ohtani on the October marquee.
3. New York Mets (23-13, LW: 3): Sunday’s loss to the Mariners was the first time in seven tries that the Mets have been beaten in a series rubber game. Shortstop Francisco Lindor homered Sunday, but he’s just 8-for-53 (.151) in May.
4. Houston Astros (23-12, LW: 9): Winners of all seven games on their last homestand, the Astros are 5-1 on their current nine-game trip, with three games left in Boston, where Houston is 9-4 at Fenway Park since 2017.
5. Los Angeles Dodgers (21-12, LW: 1): The last time the Dodgers were swept four straight by the Phillies in L.A. was in 1985, when Dodger broadcasters Fernando Valenzuela and Orel Hershiser and special assistant to GM Rick Honeycutt were all pitching for L.A. Gavin Lux’s two-run double in the bottom of the ninth Sunday enabled the Dodgers to escape that fate again.
6. San Diego Padres (22-13, LW: 6): Robinson Cano, cut by the Mets, goes 0-for-5 in his Padres debut on Sunday after they signed him for he big-league minimum.
7. Milwaukee Brewers (22-13, LW: 4): Closer Josh Hader, who recorded his 13th save against the Marlins on Friday night, has yet to give up an earned run this season. His 13 saves in 13 appearances broke the record of 12 in 12 held by Lee Smith (Orioles, 1994) and Jose Mesa (Pirates, 2005). Hader's last blown save came last July against the Mets.
8t. Tampa Bay Rays (21-14, LW: 7): In their last seven games, the Rays are hitting just .173 with four home runs, but they have won three of those games, including Sunday’s 3-0 victory over the Blue Jays. After giving up 17 extra-base hits, including 11 home runs, in their previous five games, the Rays held Toronto to four singles and a double in Sunday’s shutout.
8t. San Francisco Giants (20-14, LW: 11): Carlos Rodon entered Sunday night’s game as just one of four pitchers in the modern era who, in his first six starts, struck out at least 53 batters without allowing a home run. The most whiffs in six starts without allowing a home run is 66, by Hall of Famer Pedro Martinez in 2001. Paul Goldschmidt, the Cardinals’ second batter of the night, took Rodon deep, ending the homer-less streak.
10. Minnesota Twins (20-15, LW: 8): Reliever Jhoan Duran threw the fastest pitch of the season — 103.3 mph — to Franmil Reyes of the Indians last Saturday night. The pitch was a ball. His third pitch, also a ball, was clocked at 101.8 mph. Reyes ultimately struck out on a 98.8 mph splitter. Duran is averaging 100.4 mph with his four-seamer.
11. St. Louis Cardinals (19-15, LW: 12): The returning hero angle had dimmed a bit for Albert Pujols. After seven hits, including two home runs, in a four-game span, the 42-year-old Pujols came into Sunday night’s game having gone only 2-for-25 (.080) with one RBI in his last 11 games. But he doubled and singled and made his pitching debut in a 15-6 rout of the Giants.
12. Toronto Blue Jays (18-17, LW: 10): They have dropped six of seven and four consecutive series. Their .185 average with runners in scoring position is the worst in the majors.
13. Philadelphia Phillies (17-18, LW: 20): Since blowing a seven-run, ninth-inning lead to the Mets on May 5, the Phils coughed up a 7-3 lead a week later to the Dodgers before winning 9-7, then blew a 4-0 lead to the Dodgers Sunday in losing in walk-off fashion in the ninth. Philadelphia had scored 29 runs in winning the first three games of the series, with Bryce Harper joining Adrian Gonzalez as the only players to collect seven extra-base hits in a three-game span in the 60-year history of Dodger Stadium.
14. Arizona Diamondbacks (18-17, LW: 16): Arizona starters enter this week's series against the Dodgers with a 2.00 ERA in their last 15 games. Monday night’s starter, Madison Bumgarner, has a 1.78 ERA in seven starts but hasn’t beaten the Dodgers since 2017. Outfielder Alek Thomas, the D-backs' top prospect who was promoted last week, hit his first big-league home run on May 11 and had three straight multi-hit games.
15. Colorado Rockies (17-17, LW: 13): The Rockies have lost six of their last seven games and have been outscored 48-18 in those defeats. Slugger C.J. Cron is showing drastic home-road splits: .386 with seven home runs at Coors Field, .211 with two homers on the road.
16. Cleveland Guardians (16-17, LW: 15): They are reeling from the COVID-19 outbreak that affected manager Terry Francona and six members of his coaching staff, leading to a cancellation of Wednesday’s game against the White Sox. COVID also idled Josh Naylor, who on Monday night became the first player to drive in eight runs after the eighth inning on, with an eighth-inning double, ninth-inning grand slam and 11th-inning three-run homer.
17. Chicago White Sox (16-17, LW: 14): Fresh from a three-game sweep of the Red Sox in Boston, the White Sox blew a six-run lead in the ninth in a 12-9, 11-inning loss to the Guardians. They then lost three of four to the Yankees, making them 2-10 in their last dozen games against New York.
18. Atlanta Braves (16-19, LW: 17): They were still weighing Sunday whether to place Ronald Acuna Jr. on the injured list. He hasn’t played since Tuesday after straining his right groin against the Red Sox and is listed as day-to-day.
19. Seattle Mariners (16-19, LW: 19): The Mariners’ top prospect, 21-year-old center fielder Julio Rodriguez, enjoyed his best day in the majors Sunday, going 4-for-4, including his second home run, in an 8-7 win over the Mets. Rodriguez raised his average to .264 and has a .912 OPS so far in May.
20. Miami Marlins (15-19, LW: 18): They have 11 one-run losses, most in the big leagues. But Marlins right-hander Pablo Lopez continues to look like a Cy Young favorite. On Saturday night, he gave up a leadoff home run to Kolten Wong, then blanked the Brewers until departing after seven innings, lowering his big-league best ERA to 1.05.
21. Pittsburgh Pirates (15-19, LW: 23): The Pirates became just the sixth team since 1901 to win a game without a hit, beating the Reds 1-0 on Sunday on an RBI grounder by Ke'Bryan Hayes in the eighth inning.
22. Oakland Athletics (15-22, LW: 24): Incredibly as a team, the A’s are at the Mendoza line, batting a major-league low .200. They are also last in the majors in on-base percentage (.270) and slugging percentage (.309).
23. Texas Rangers (14-19, LW: 21): Marcus Semien was 0-for-27, which had matched Detroit’s Robbie Grossman for longest 0-fer streak this season, until his sixth-inning double touched off a four-run rally in the Rangers’ 7-1 win over Red Sox on Sunday. But Semien (.157) remains a black hole in Texas' lineup. Corey Seager, the Rangers’ other big-ticket acquisition, has just five hits in his last 35 at-bats (.143).
24. Baltimore Orioles (14-21, LW: 22): They have a tough homestand this week with four against the Yankees and three against the Rays, but they have the lowest home ERA in baseball (2.51). That will be put to the test.
25. Boston Red Sox (13-21, LW: 25): The Red Sox are 12 games behind the first-place Yankees in the AL East and 4 1/2 games behind in the wild card. Stunning. And Chris Sale’s return from the injured list has been pushed back because of an undisclosed “personal” medical issue. He may not return until late June.
26. Chicago Cubs (13-20, LW: 26): After winning back-to-back games against Arizona that were tied entering the ninth inning, the Cubs are now 3-19 in games in which they've entered the ninth either trailing or tied. They currently have 13 players on the injured list.
27. Detroit Tigers (12-23, LW: 29): The Motor City power outage remains acute. In 35 games, the Tigers have hit 16 home runs. That puts them on a pace to hit 74, the fewest by any team in a full season since the 1992 Dodgers hit 72.
28. Kansas City Royals (12-20, LW: 27): Whit Merrifield played in a club-record 501st consecutive game Sunday, the longest consecutive-games streak since Prince Fielder played in 547 straight from 2010 to 2014. Merrifield is only 2,131 games behind record-holder Carl Ripken Jr.
29. Washington Nationals (12-24, LW: 28): Patrick Corbin has the worst win-loss record in the majors (0-6), his six defeats matching teammate Joan Adon (1-6) and two other pitchers. The Nats have scored just 15 runs in Corbin’s eight starts, but with a 6.28 ERA, he can’t hide behind that.
30. Cincinnati Reds (9-26, LW: 30): Can it get any worse? The Reds don’t give up a hit to the Pirates on Sunday and still lose.