Say good night to the bad guys: Astros fall short in Game 7

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SAN DIEGO (AP) — The Houston Astros spent this odyssey of a season as baseball's biggest villains.

When Aledmys Diaz flied out with a runner on first to end Game 7 of the AL Championship Series, the bad guys finally lost.

Ridiculed, roasted and ripped all year long, the Astros still summoned enough October heart and poise to reach the brink of another World Series. Manager Dusty Baker's club even came agonizingly close to matching the biggest playoff comeback in baseball history in a wild ALCS.

Although they couldn't quite conjure one more incredible postseason feat, this playoff run should be a source of pride for these Astros long after the boos stop.

Although if fans are allowed back in most stadiums in 2021, this tarnished franchise probably won't hear the end of 2020 anytime soon.

Houston fell behind early and never caught up in a 4-2 loss to Tampa Bay in Game 7 on Saturday night, coming up short of an astonishing series comeback after three consecutive victories.

After winning two of the previous three AL pennants and the 2017 World Series championship, the Astros played the entire season under a large, dark cloud created by revelations of the franchise's sign-stealing tactics during 2017 and 2018.

The Astros’ wild year began in January with the firings of manager A.J. Hinch and general manager Jeff Luhnow. But several Astros veterans from those tainted seasons remain on the team, and the players weren’t sanctioned.

They reported to spring training in February only to face widespread condemnation from their fellow major leaguers as the team that every other team loved to hate.

The Astros were relentlessly ripped by their opponents and castigated online from spring training onward. They were soundly booed and serenaded by the banging of trash cans whenever opponents’ fans were allowed to be around them during this coronavirus-shortened season.

A fan even got a megaphone and broadcast his condemnation of the 2017 Astros into Petco Park from an apartment balcony beyond the outfield fence in Game 4 in this ALCS, calling them out individually by name as cheaters.

Some Astros ignored the hate, while others reveled in it. The beloved Baker took over on the bench and immediately provided a level of respectability, but the Astros were set to face a long regular season as the most reviled team in the majors — until the coronavirus pandemic upended everything.

When baseball finally got back underway in July, the Astros played in largely empty stadiums where opposing fans couldn’t boo or heckle them — although they tried. Fans gathered outside Dodger Stadium to express their displeasure when the team buses brought the Astros to Chavez Ravine for a regular-season series against the Dodgers, who lost the 2017 World Series to Houston in seven games.

After an offseason of turnover and injury losses, the defending AL champions struggled through a mediocre regular season and only made the playoffs due to the expanded field. At 29-31, they had their worst season by winning percentage since 2014.

That's when they swiftly returned to the superb big-game form they've had so consistently over the past four years — whether or not they knew what pitches were coming.

Houston swept favored Minnesota in the wild-card round and then bashed 12 homers in a four-game division series victory over Oakland.

The Astros lost the first three games of the ALCS by a combined 11-5 to the deep, talented Rays. Rather than giving up, Houston became the second team in baseball history to win three straight after being down 0-3 in a playoff series.

Houston's follow-up to its 2019 pennant is even more impressive in the absence of Gerrit Cole, who signed with the Yankees, and Justin Verlander, who needed Tommy John surgery. The Astros also went into October without much of their preseason bullpen due to injuries to closer Robert Osuna and right-handers Brad Peacock, Austin Pruitt, Chris Devenski and Rogelio Armenteros, while veteran reliever Joe Smith opted out before the season began.

Houston's lineup of veteran hitters simply kept slugging, and the Astros got enough solid pitching from Zack Greinke and his fellow starters to stay competitive all the way to the brink of the World Series.

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