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HOUSTON – Yordan Alvarez followed the flight of the baseball as it rose beyond the center field fence, high enough to hover parallel to the 2017 World Series flag on the left, far enough to produce a new flag to fly at Minute Maid Park next spring. Alvarez admired his work as his sixth-inning three-run homer landed about 450 feet, a blast of colossal proportions, destined to be replayed across Texas for years to come. Few men can hit a baseball that far. Even fewer can make it on a stage like this, in Game 6 of the Fall Classic, to deliver Houston to a championship with a 4-1 win over the Philadelphia Phillies.

As Alvarez circled the bases, his teammates climbed over the dugout railing. The stadium shook with screams. After silver medals in 2019 and 2021, these Astros could not be denied. For the second time in franchise history, Houston can call itself baseball’s world champion.

The trophy represented the continuation of an era of dominance. Houston established itself as the preeminent team of that era. The Astros have won two titles and four pennants over the past six seasons. Yet a distance of six years separates the championships from dueling, an eternity on the baseball calendar.

The main stars of Game 6 — Alvarez and starter Framber Valdez — were working in Houston’s farm system in the final round of the championship. Jeremy Peña, their most consistent hitter in the playoffs, was entering his freshman year at the University of Maine. Manager Dusty Baker had just failed in the playoffs with the Washington Nationals. General manager James Click was still living in relative obscurity, even with a promotion to vice president of Tampa Bay’s baseball operations department.

These Astros are not these Astros. These Astros just might be the best team ever assembled in franchise history. The group won 106 games in the regular season, swept both playoff series against American League opponents and absorbed a hellish charge from the Phillies in the World Series. Valdez held Philadelphia to one run over six innings in Game 6. Peña provided two more hits and set the stage for Alvarez’s gargantuan home run.

Valdez outlasted Phillies starter Zack Wheeler, who put up a valiant effort in his final outing of the season. Philadelphia manager Rob Thomson paid to stick with the aggressiveness that fueled his throwing decisions throughout the playoff season. It wasn’t Wheeler who served the circuit to Alvarez. It was reliever José Alvarado, whose entry into the game should linger with Phillies fans until winter. In Houston, of course, Alvarado will always be remembered fondly.

In the afternoon, downtown Houston looked set for a crowning glory. Fans lined the streets around the ballpark five hours before the first pitch. A rotating crowd posted photos with a massive replica of the franchise’s 2017 championship ring. There were guys in Altuve jerseys and kids in Astros caps and a bachelorette party decked out in cowboy hats. All wanted a photo with the ring that serves as an object of contempt for the 29 other markets in addition to this one.

For most audiences, the link between the sign-stealing scandal and the Astros’ current success will never unravel. The stain persists. Although only five players remain from the 2017 squad, all five are considered vital cogs in this machine: Jose Altuve, Alex Bregman, Justin Verlander, Yuli Gurriel and Lance McCullers Jr. transition from one iteration to another since taking office. after Jeff Luhnow was fired amid scandal ahead of the 2020 season.

“The most successful organizations have this good balance between old and new faces,” Click said before the game. “And trying to figure out who are the good old faces and who are the good new faces is part of the challenge.”

The 2017 Astros diaspora has spilled over into the industry. AJ Hinch manages the Tigers. George Springer has signed a long-term contract in Toronto. Carlos Correa will return to free agency after a year-long stint in Minnesota. Charlie Morton bounced back from Tampa Bay to Atlanta, where he last year teamed up with Collin McHugh. Dallas Keuchel left for the White Sox. Brian McCann and Josh Reddick have retired. Marwin Gonzalez played for the Yankees in 2022; Carlos Beltrán broadcast on the YES network.

The wave of new faces has mostly come from within. In the fall of 2017, as the Astros toppled the Dodgers to win it all, Valdez pitched for the Mesa Solar Sox in the Arizona Fall League. He was just two years away from leaving the Dominican Republic at the relatively old age of 21. Within a year, he reached the majors. Two years later, he was helping to smooth the departure of starters like Keuchel, Morton and Gerrit Cole. Valdez, 28, made his first All-Star team in 2022.

At 6:32 p.m. Saturday, Valdez climbed the steps of the Astros’ dugout and crossed the outfield grass. The crowd greeted his arrival. Verlander can win a third American League Cy Young Award for 2022, but Valdez led the team in innings, racking up grounders with his two-seam lead. The defense looked solid behind him early on: Bregman and Altuve made a tidy double play after an early walk, and Peña made a rolling hitch on the dirt to send off Bryce Harper.

At Wheeler, Valdez met an even match. The Game 3 rain gave Wheeler an extra day for his right elbow. He had been stopped with pain in the joint at the end of the season. He seemed to fade when he came out in Game 2. The extra rest may have helped: Wheeler opened the first inning pumping fastballs at 98 mph. He maintained his speed in the middle innings, as he exchanged goalless frames with Valdez.

At one point, Valdez struck out five straight batters, hitting the top hitters in the Philadelphia roster: Kyle Schwarber, Rhys Hoskins, JT Realmuto, Harper and Nick Castellanos all hit in the third and fourth. Wheeler responded by overpowering the Astros despite early singles in the same frames.

After a second-inning walk from outfielder Matt Vierling, Valdez didn’t allow a base runner until Schwarber lit a knee-high sinker in the sixth. Schwarber dropped the baseball over the right field fence. The circuit has unlocked the dead end. It was only the second left-hander Valdez allowed a left-handed hitter in 2022. It was also the last gasp of hope for Philadelphia.

Wheeler was unable to qualify for the bottom of the inning. He cut receiver Martin Maldonado with a 97.1 mph fastball to start the trouble. Two batters later, Peña landed his second single of the night. The hit put the runners in the corners and caused Thomson to intercede. Wheeler had only thrown 70 pitches. Peña’s sixth-inning hit was the first ball hit by an Astro with an exit velocity over 90 mph. But Thomson still wanted Alvarado, his top left-handed reliever, to take on Alvarez, the left-handed hitting monster.

By the summer of 2017, Alvarez was acclimating to life in the United States. The Dodgers had signed him out of Cuba the previous year, only to trade him to Houston without seeing him play in a game. The Dodgers have a reliever named Josh Fields. The Astros had a never-before-seen prospect that became one of the most formidable hitters in the game. Alvarez, 25, made his first All-Star team in 2022 and finished the season with 37 home runs and a 1.019 OPS.

Thomson preferred not to let Alvarez see Wheeler a third time. The Phillies had kept him quiet for most of that series. He arrived at the plate with just two hits in 21 at bats. His third would render all previous empty encounters meaningless. A 2-1 lead from Alvarado leaked onto the plate. Alvarez tore it down. The sound had a feel as it rounded out the bases.

The Astros weren’t done. Alvarado only recorded one takedown. He walked Bregman and uncorked a wild pitch that put him in scoring position. Bregman headed home on a single from designated hitter Christian Vázquez. The insurance run eased the tension in the crowd. For the last nine outs, the folks at Minute Maid Park intended to have a hell of a time.

And they did. The group resurrected the “We want Houston!” chants mocking the temporary hubris of Yankees fans. Applause echoed from the retractable roof during a faithful rendition of “Deep in The Heart of Texas” in round seven. For the ninth, the lights dimmed and fans used their phones to illuminate Ryan Pressly’s entrance. In 2017, he was going through a mediocre middle reliever career. The Astros acquired him a year later, altered his pitching streaks, and made him an All-Star.

Pressly finished the job. His teammates rushed to greet him. Above the diamond, fireworks exploded and the whistle of the Minute Maid Park train wailed. The conductor stood by the flag from 2017. A new one, the one who confirmed the dominance of this franchise at that time, will now fly alongside him.

(Photo: Rob Tringali/MLB Photos via Getty Images)