In a year so uniquely and unrelentingly nightmarish, the Houston Astros were baseball's logical champions.
Universally loathed. Unrepentant in the wake of their sign-stealing scandal, for which not a single active player was suspended or even fined. Mediocre on the field absent Justin Verlander, whom they lost to injury on Opening Day, and amid drop-offs from multiple key hitters. A playoff team only by virtue of this wacky season's expanded postseason, which allowed multiple losing clubs - the Astros, being one - to vie for the World Series. Of course that team would win a ring in 2020, a year best summed up visually by the Michael Scott "Please God, no!" meme.
Thankfully, in this instance, at least, the worst outcome imaginable won't come to pass.
On Saturday, the Astros' remarkable playoff run came to an end. After sweeping the Minnesota Twins in the best-of-three wild-card round, then pummelling the Oakland Athletics in the best-of-five league division series, the Astros were finally bested by the Tampa Bay Rays, dropping Game 7 of the American League League Championship, 4-2, after improbably winning three straight to force the decisive contest. The Rays, who finished with the best record in the AL this year, will head to the World Series for the first time since 2008, while the Astros will now start gearing up for a potentially transformative offseason, in which several key cogs (namely George Springer and Michael Brantley) are eligible for free agency.
And even for the most evolved among us, it's impossible not to feel at least a smidgen of joy over Houston's defeat, no matter how much sympathy and admiration one might have for Dusty Baker, who was brought in to shepherd this disgraced flock - and imbue a bit of charm into a profoundly unlikeable team - after AJ Hinch was suspended (then fired) in January. Had the Astros showed even a modicum of remorse after being exposed as cheats, perhaps baseball and its fans wouldn't be delighting in their loss and wouldn't have so fervently rooted for it. Instead, though, the Astros opted for collective defiance, cementing themselves as pariahs and villains who everyone wanted to see fail.
"It's all about silencing the haters," outfielder Josh Reddick said ahead of the ALDS. "That's what all this year was about."
"I know a lot of people are mad," shortstop Carlos Correa said days earlier. "I know a lot of people don’t want to see us here, but what are they going to say now?"
Well, now, they're going to say this: You had to cheat your way to a championship in 2017, thereby tarnishing the most prosperous stretch in your franchise's history, and your abortive 2020 season only proves that your past triumphs were illegitimate. That may or may not be true, of course, but they're going to say it - and they're going to say it loudly and repeatedly.
To their credit, the Astros played good baseball throughout the postseason (Jose Altuve's defense excepted) and looked like a different team than they were during their truncated, 29-31 regular season. After struggling all season to generate offense at even close to the level they did in 2019, their star-studded lineup rebounded in October, upping their OPS and runs per game despite squaring off against three elite pitching staffs. The pitching staff improved on its regular-season numbers, too, shaving its collective ERA down by almost a full run even amid less-than-stellar contributions from every starter except Framber Valdez - a testament to both the Astros' bullpen and Baker's deft deployment of his arms.
They weren't even definitively outplayed by the Rays, who nearly became just the second team ever to squander a 3-0 lead in the league championship series. In fact, in their seven games, none of which were decided by more than three runs, Houston markedly outhit the Rays, trumping them in all three slash-line constituents. The Astros struck out far less frequently and did a better job with runners in scoring position. And for as widely praised as the Rays' assemblage of arms is, they allowed the exact same number of earned runs for the series as did Houston's pitching staff while allowing considerably more baserunners. The margin of victory, in other words, was but a couple bounces. Had Tampa Bay's defense not taken away so many base hits with its exceptional defense, or had Charlie Morton (who won a World Series with Houston in 2017, incidentally) been even the least bit off in Game 7, the Astros may well be on their way to yet another World Series. But, to almost universal delight, they're not.
Watching a losing team win the World Series would've been anathema to baseball fans and a blow to the integrity of the title. But watching the Astros hoist the Commissioner's Trophy, basking in the misplaced righteousness of their continued defiance, would've been downright tragic.
Fortunately, thanks to the Rays, that potential crisis has been averted.
Jonah Birenbaum is theScore's senior MLB writer. He steams a good ham. You can find him on Twitter @birenball.