HOUSTON — If the baseball world had gotten its way, the Houston Astros would be toiling in obscurity by now.

After winning the 2017 World Series championship and falling one win short of another title in 2019, the Astros looked set to dominate for years to come. Then news of the team's sign stealing scandal broke, and suddenly the Astros were pariahs.

Manager A.J. Hinch? Gone. General manager Jeff Luhnow? Gone.

The players involved? Not formally punished, but doomed to wear a scarlet letter for the rest of their careers.

It could have and maybe should have been a death blow to the franchise. It probably should have been, if not for the efforts of one man.

Dusty Baker.

Hired in the immediate wake of the scandal, Baker became the team's biggest advocate and most forceful defender. As one of baseball's longest tenured and most respected managers, he brought credibility and stability to the clubhouse and immediately pushed back against those who advocated frontier justice against a team many felt got off easy.

In doing so, he rallied his players in the face of widespread condemnation, and now Baker has his team back in the American League Championship Series for the second time since taking over and for the fifth straight year overall.

"Coming from a different team, he had no part of what happened in the past. He still was there for us every single second of the way," said Astros shortstop Carlos Correa. "And also the stories that he's got, he's got so many great stories that I'm going to tell my kid. He's a great manager, but an even better human being. I'm grateful that I got to meet him and work with him."

Given everything he's dealt with since taking over, Baker's work with the Astros deserves to be considered the best managerial job of his career. Even putting aside the scandal and its aftermath, Baker has faced a number of challenges that could have derailed the club's competitive prospects.

Since the 2019 World Series, the Astros have lost Gerrit Cole, George Springer and Wade Miley to free agency, as well as Justin Verlander to Tommy John surgery. Only five players from the 2017 championship team remain, and last year two of them — Jose Altuve and Carlos Correa — struggled as the club finished 29-31 before squeaking into the expanded playoff field and catching fire.

"From the moment he got here, he didn't have it easy," Correa said. "He had to deal with a lot, especially that Spring Training 2020. He loved us from the moment he met us, and he had our backs from the moment he met us. So for me, that truly means a lot."

No matter how you feel about the Astros post-scandal, it's impossible to deny Baker's approach in helping the team move forward. From day one he has been highly protective of his club in the face of unrelenting hostility, and whenever the scandal or the vocal disapproval from opposing crowds comes up, he typically challenges the narrative, often in a defiant tone.

"I don't care nothing about perception. You know what I mean? I care about results, the happiness of my team, and winning baseball games," Baker said when asked about the subject on Monday. "And there's nothing you can do about perception because perception is whatever you perceive it to be, and so everybody doesn't have the same perception of every situation or everybody's attitude, so it's kind of a waste of my time to even talk about it further. I would appreciate if nobody else would even ask me because I really — I really don't care, if you haven't noticed."

That hasn't gone unnoticed within the Astros clubhouse, and it has helped the team cultivate a hearty chip on its shoulder and a potent "us against the world" dynamic. Where last year's team limped into the playoffs, this year's team has rediscovered its mojo and cruised to a fourth AL West title in five years.

Now, whether the baseball world likes it or not, Baker's Astros are just four wins away from another trip to the World Series. 

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Learning from the legend

After leading the Houston Astros to a 3-1 series win over the Chicago White Sox, manager Dusty Baker was asked if his players feed off the boos and the jeers they get whenever they play in front of a home crowd. Baker said they play so well in the face of adversity because they love each other, which reminded him of a conversation he once had with Boston Celtics legend Bill Russell.

"I asked him, 'Man, how did you win all those championships in Boston?', and he told me, 'You know' — I thought he was going to say Red Auerbach, you know a lot of hard work, but he told me that they loved each other, and they love each other. And love can take you to heights you never thought you could get to. And they feed off of each other and pull for each other on a daily basis. And one guy falls down, and the next guy, you know, picks him up."

***

2021 American League Championship Series

Game 1: Fri., at Houston, Oct. 15, 8:07 p.m. ET, Fox

Game 2: Sat., at Houston, Oct. 16, TBD, Fox or FS1

Game 3: Mon., at Boston, Oct. 18, TBD, FS1

Game 4: Tues., at Boston, Oct. 19, TBD, FS1

Game 5*: Wed., at Boston, Oct. 20, TBD, FS1

Game 6*: Fri., at Houston, Oct. 22, TBD, FS1

Game 7*: Sat., at Houston, Oct. 23, TBD, Fox or FS1

* If necessary 

Email: mcerullo@northofboston.com. Twitter: @MacCerullo.

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