PHILADELPHIA — Those World Series fans who find comfort in familiar Fall Classic traditions like complaining about the start times, criticizing the play-by-play announcer and questioning every manager’s decision seem to have added another ritual to that list: accusing the Houston Astros of cheating.
Houston is back in the title series for the fourth time in six years, and the second time since its sign-stealing scandal shook Major League Baseball to its core. As much as the Astros, who split the first two games with the Philadelphia Phillies in Houston, want to finally put the controversy behind them, they continue to face skeptics in every baseball stadium not named Minute Maid Park.
“There’s no way I’ll ever be convinced that the Astros are not still cheating at home,” tweeted a Phillies fan during Game 2, which Houston won 5-2. Both teams were off Sunday before Game 3 in Philadelphia Monday night.
The concern over Houston’s integrity in this series is mostly a Twitter issue. Philadelphia manager Rob Thomson didn’t seem too concerned Saturday night with the least irrelevant allegation against the Astros. Houston starter Framber Valdez was constantly rubbing his throwing hand and thumb against his right hand and glove, causing some to wonder if the southpaw was using an illegal substance.
“The umpires check these guys after almost every inning, and if there’s something going on MLB will take care of it,” Thomson said, adding that Valdez’s fidgetiness wasn’t abnormal or unexpected to him.
It’s not surprising that some fans still have a sour taste in their mouths when it comes to the Astros, arguably the best team in baseball over the last six years. Just a few years ago, the team was punished by MLB for stealing pitch signs using technology and relaying them to batters during the 2017 and 2018 seasons. The incident made the Astros and some of its stars — Jose Altuve chiefly among them — as public enemy No. 1.
In fact, according to a review of Twitter hashtags by offshore gambling website BetOnline.ag, only six states (Texas, Colorado, New Mexico, Oklahoma, Louisiana and Mississippi) are rooting for the Astros to win the championship. Last year, when Houston lost to the Atlanta Braves in the World Series, only three states were pulling for the Astros.
The brouhaha about Valdez, who tossed 6 1/3 innings of one-run ball for the win, was actually the final of three incidents that riled up frenzied Philadelphia fans and the many rooting against the Astros.
The first was in Game 1, when Aledmys Diaz leaned into a pitch with two outs in the 10th inning. This, of course, isn’t cheating, or anything close to it, as batters have been leaning into pitches — in fact, encouraged to do so by their coaches — for over a century. The umpire made the right call, sent Diaz back to the plate to later ground out and the Phillies came back from down five runs to win 6-5.
Then, to open Game 2, analyst Tom Verducci said during Fox’s broadcast that catcher Martin Maldonado used an illegal bat in Friday’s contest. Maldonado, who smacked an RBI single in Game 1, was using an old model of a bat that is no longer allowed in the major leagues for players who debuted after 2010 due to safety concerns.
The Maldonado saga is almost certainly inconsequential — unless, somehow, that bat gave him a competitive advantage, which MLB determined wasn’t the case — but it kept the snowball rolling for fans dissecting every Astros move with a microscope.
Monday’s Game 3, which is certain to feature some sort of discourse online about the Astros and their tactics, features two starting pitchers with experience pitching in the Fall Classic several years ago. Lance McCullers, who was the winning pitcher in the Astros’ Game 7 win over the Dodgers in the 2017 World Series, will start against Philadelphia after missing both of Houston’s previous two trips to the Fall Classic in 2019 and 2021 due to injury.
“He’s been there, he’s done that,” Astros pitching coach Josh Miller said Sunday. “He’s experienced the emotions that come along with pitching in big games, and he can handle that emotion and do well.”
Noah Syndergaard, another injury-plagued right-hander, will take the mound for Philadelphia, starting a game in the World Series for the first time since his Game 3 win with the New York Mets against the Kansas City Royals in 2015. Syndergaard hasn’t thrown more than 35 pitches in a game since the postseason began, and he’s expected to go about one time through Houston’s order, although Thomson said he could go deeper into the game.
First pitch for Game 3 on Monday at Citizens Bank Park is 8:03 p.m.