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Astros keep soaring, winning

The Houston Astros are off to the World Series for the fourth time in six seasons — a remarkable feat of staying power for a franchise in any era of baseball history, let alone one that includes a 12-team playoff gauntlet filled with potential pitfalls.

Astros pitcher Lance McCullers Jr. put it succinctly: “This is not easy.”

Even so, the dichotomy that is this generation of Houston Astros will probably never go away.

They left no doubt that they’re the best team in the American League this season, sweeping aside slugger Aaron Judge and the New York Yankees in four games after Sunday’s 6-5 victory.

It should be a lovable group.

There’s pint-sized star Jose Altuve, two-time All-Star Alex Bregman, ace right-hander Justin Verlander and a slew of up-and-coming players like AL Championship Series Most Valuable Player Jeremy Peña, Yordan Alvarez and Kyle Tucker.

There’s also Dusty Baker, the 73-year-old manager who is still searching for his first World Series title and the oldest man to lead a team to the Fall Classic. And yet, the stench of the 2017 cheating scandal — when the Astros were found to have illicitly stolen signs that season — still lingers, even though 21 of the 26 players on this year’s ALCS roster were not on the 2017 team.

Only Altuve, Bregman, McCullers, Verlander and Yuli Gurriel remain.

The quintet has endured a firehose of hate from fans and even fellow players since the scandal was brought to light before the 2020 season.

The catcalls were still heard at Yankee Stadium over the past few days, but as the Astros piled up the runs and wins, there was a hint of another emotion.

“They got better treatment here this time than in previous times here,” Baker said.

“So maybe it was a different crowd or maybe the crowd has finally forgiven things of the past.”

That’s probably wishful thinking.

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