Astros sweep Yankees in ALCS, advance to World Series again

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NEW YORK — In recent years, it’s almost become an October ritual: Astros top Yankees. Astros take pennant.

Yordan Alvarez and Alex Bregman delivered big hits and Houston advanced to the World Series again, finishing a four-game sweep in the AL Championship Series with a 6-5 victory aided by another defensive gaffe from New York.

Taking advantage of a costly error by second baseman Gleyber Torres to produce the go-ahead rally in the seventh inning, the Astros won their second consecutive pennant and fourth in six years.

Rookie shortstop Jeremy Pena hit a three-run homer off ailing Yankees starter Nestor Cortes to help the AL West champions overcome an early 3-0 deficit. Pena was picked as the ALCS MVP.

“It’s surreal. You dream about this stuff when you’re a kid,” he said. “We’re a step away from the ultimate goal.”

Perfect in the playoffs, Houston opens the World Series at home Friday night against Bryce Harper and the wild-card Philadelphia Phillies, who beat San Diego to close out the best-of-seven NLCS in five games.

It was the first time both pennants were decided on the same day since 1992.

After losing to Atlanta in last year’s World Series, Houston is 7-0 this postseason, earning the fifth pennant in franchise history and another chance at its second championship.

The team’s 2017 title was tainted by a cheating scandal.

“A lot has been said but there’s not a lot to say anymore, man. We keep coming here. We keep facing the best of the best and we keep winning,” pitcher Lance McCullers Jr. said.

“When everything happened a few years ago, we knew the one thing that we could do is we could win and we could win and win a lot. I understand people are still not going to like us. They’re going to boo us, but at some point you have to respect what we’re doing.”

New York remained without a World Series appearance for 13 years as Aaron Judge‘s sensational season ended with a whimper. After setting an AL record with 62 home runs, the star slugger can become a free agent next month.

“I could sit here and make excuses about if a ball falls this way, a ball drops that way or a pitch is made here and there. But what it comes down to is they just played better than us,” Judge said.

With the playoffs expanded to 12 teams this year, the Phillies became the first club in baseball history to finish third in the standings and reach the World Series. Philadelphia was 87-75 during the regular season – Justin Verlander and the Astros went 106-56 under manager Dusty Baker, seven games better than any other American League team.

“These are the greatest guys that I’ve ever been around!” Baker said during the postgame celebration on the field. “They come to play every day, all day.”

After racing to a 61-23 record in early July, AL East champion New York was no match for the Astros in October – again.

Houston went 9-2 against the Yankees overall this year and has eliminated them from the playoffs four times in the past eight seasons, including in the ALCS in 2017 and 2019.

In fact, New York has lost in its last five trips to the AL Championship Series and hasn’t claimed a pennant since winning its record 27th World Series championship in 2009.

No. 28 has proved most elusive.

“This is as bad as it gets,” manager Aaron Boone said.

Back in the leadoff spot, Harrison Bader had three hits and scored three times for New York. He connected off winning pitcher Hector Neris for his fifth home run of the playoffs, giving the Yankees a 5-4 lead in the sixth.

They couldn’t hold it when they absolutely had to.

Pena hit what should have been an inning-ending double-play ball to Torres in the seventh. But his flip to second base went wide of shortstop Isiah Kiner-Falefa as the crowd of 46,545 groaned, and the Astros had two runners on.

Alvarez singled home the tying run on the next delivery from losing pitcher Jonathan Loaisiga, and Bregman put Houston ahead with an RBI single off Clay Holmes.

It was the sixth error of this postseason for the Yankees, who also gave the Astros a pivotal gift in Game 3. Chas McCormick hit an early two-run homer off New York ace Gerrit Cole after Bader, a Gold Glove outfielder, dropped a two-out fly when he nearly collided with Judge in right-center.

Bryan Abreu, Rafael Montero and Ryan Pressly shut the door with perfect relief.

Pressly retired Judge on a comebacker for his third save of the series and fourth this postseason, sending the Astros rushing out of the dugout for ecstatic hugs and handshakes on the infield.

Moments later, a throng of orange-clad Houston fans chanted “Sweep! Sweep!” behind the team’s third base dugout in a mostly empty Yankee Stadium.

Astros players and coaches then headed inside their clubhouse for a booze-filled party, dancing to loud rap music and drinking beer out of Pena’s MVP trophy.

“They beat us in every facet,” Cole said.

DUSTY’S QUEST

The 73-year-old Baker is headed to his third World Series in 25 seasons as a major league manager, still seeking his first championship as bench boss. He did win as a player with the Los Angeles Dodgers.

“It’s a very exciting time for me and the organization,” Baker said before the game. “These guys have come to expect winning. Winning breeds winning.”

OPENING ACT

Needing a win to extend their season, the Yankees got off to a fast start in the first inning following an 84-minute delay due to a threat of rain. Giancarlo Stanton laced an RBI single off McCullers, and Torres blooped a run-scoring single into center.

Anthony Rizzo‘s two-out RBI double made it 3-0 in the second, but Stanton struck out with runners at second and third. Rizzo also delivered a two-out RBI single that tied it 4-all in the fourth.

UP NEXT

Verlander is likely to start his third World Series opener. The 39-year-old ace went 18-4 with a 1.75 ERA this season in a hugely successful comeback from Tommy John surgery, making him a favorite to win his third Cy Young Award. He was hit hard in the Division Series opener against Seattle, then struck out 11 in six innings of one-run ball to win Game 1 of the ALCS. He is 0-6 in seven World Series starts.

Phillies select active duty Navy aviator in MLB Rule 5 draft

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SAN DIEGO — The Philadelphia Phillies took U.S. Navy aviator Noah Song in the Rule 5 draft Wednesday, hoping the former top pitching prospect can still be effective once he completes his military service.

There is no definitive date on when the 25-year-old Song might be able to join the Phillies.

Song was picked from the Boston Red Sox system in the draft for unprotected minor league players. Philadelphia put him on the military list while he continues his active duty and he won’t count on the 40-man roster, the pool from which major league teams can select players for the 26-man active roster.

Song impressed in his only pro season, making seven starts for Boston’s Class A Lowell affiliate in 2019, with a 1.06 ERA and 19 strikeouts in 17 innings. With a fastball clocked in the upper 90s mph, the right-hander dominated that year as a senior at the U.S. Naval Academy, going 11-1 with a 1.44 ERA and 161 strikeouts in 94 innings.

The Red Sox drafted Song in the fourth round – he likely would’ve gone much higher, but his impending military service caused teams to back off.

In November 2019, Defense Secretary Mark Esper signed a memo clearing the way for athletes at the nation’s military academies to delay their service commitments and play pro sports after graduation. Song’s request to have those new rules retroactively applied to his case was denied.

Song began school as a flight officer in the summer of 2020 and finished that phase last April. He started additional aviation training in May.

Song was among the 15 players, including three Boston pitchers, taken in the big league phase of the Rule 5 draft, which wasn’t held last year because of the MLB lockout.

Washington took righty Thad Ward from Boston’s Triple-A roster with the first pick. Baltimore took Red Sox minor league pitcher Andrew Politi with the ninth choice and the Phillies chose Song with the 11th selection.

Teams pay $100,000 to take players in the major league portion of the Rule 5 draft. The players must stay on the big league roster next season or go on waivers and, if unclaimed, be offered back to their original organization for $50,000.