LOS ANGELES -- Three years after a sign-stealing scheme propelled the Astros to their first championship, Houston's star-studded lineup did little during the regular season to quiet criticism it could only hit when cheating.
Back in the postseason, they're banging away as well as ever -- no trash cans necessary.
Carlos Correa hit a go-ahead, three-run home run after Michael Brantley's two-run shot in the fourth inning, helping the Astros beat the Oakland Athletics 11-6 on Thursday to clinch their home-run heavy AL division series in four games.
"We didn't show this too much during the season, but this lineup can do this every night," left fielder Kyle Tucker said.
Correa drove in five as the Astros -- October villains to many a year after their espionage was exposed -- advanced to the AL championship series for the fourth consecutive season. They improved to 5-1 in the playoffs after struggling to a 29-31 record in the pandemic-shortened season.
"This is a special team that has been here before," Brantley said. "We have young guys that are leaning on the veterans and the veterans are taking care of them right now. No one guy has to carry this team when you have so many special players in the locker room like we do."
It will be the Astros' first championship series under Dusty Baker, their 71-year-old manager. Baker earned his first closeout win since the 2003 NL Division Series and improved to 4-13 in closeouts.
"It's been a long, tough road, but we're halfway there," Baker said. "I'm thankful and happy, but I still got some happiness left to give."
Houston will play either the New York Yankees or Tampa Bay Rays in the best-of-seven ALCS in San Diego.
The Astros and A's combined for 24 home runs -- 12 each -- the most in a postseason series of five games or fewer.
Houston clinched at Dodger Stadium, where it won the 2017 World Series in seven games. The Astros' sign-stealing scheme -- involving live video feeds and banging on dugout trash bins -- used during their title run was revealed last year by former teammate and current A's pitcher Mike Fiers, who didn't pitch in this series.
The scandal led to season-long suspensions of Houston General Manager Jeff Luhnow and Manager AJ Hinch, who both were fired. Boston Manager Alex Cora and Mets Manager Carlos Beltran also lost their jobs as fallout their roles with the '17 Astros, and Houston still draws ire of other players and fans.
"They closed the circle and got into each other," Baker said of his team. "It made them closer."
Correa said outside opinions don't matter to the team.
"We're motivated because we want to win and we want to bring another championship to the city of Houston," he said. "We know what it feels like and we want to have that feeling again."
During the shortened regular season, the Astros ranked 20th in the majors with a .240 average and 14th with 279 runs.
The slump continued through the wild-card round before Houston turned Dodger Stadium into a launching pad against Oakland. The team batted .322 in the division series, with Correa, Jose Altuve, Alex Bregman and Tucker each batting over .400, and George Springer at .389.
"We never gave up because we had a down year offensively," Correa said. "We kept going to the cage. That helped us in this series."
Much of that damage came against Oakland's vaunted bullpen. A's relievers combined for a 6.27 ERA in the series, including six earned runs Thursday.
Facing elimination for the fourth time this postseason, Oakland's Ramon Laureano hit a pair of home runs, including a three-run shot in the second that gave the West champion A's the early lead for the fourth consecutive game.
Houston starter Zack Greinke held up two fingers facing Laureano and catcher Martin Maldonado before Laureano homered 440 feet to left for a 3-0 lead. It might have appeared that Greinke was signaling his pitch, although he has at times used a hand signal to switch sign sets mid-inning.
"I just switched the pitch so I don't waste time shaking off," Greinke said. "Just a way to save some time."
It was the first postseason home run Greinke allowed since last year's Game 7 of the World Series against Washington, when Anthony Rendon's home run began the Nationals' comeback.
Laureano's leadoff home run in the fifth cut Oakland's deficit to 5-4, but the A's would get no closer.
"It just hurts. It hurts a lot," outfielder Mark Canha said. "It felt like this was our year."
Frankie Montas couldn't withstand Houston's onslaught in the fourth, when the Astros sent 10 batters to the plate and scored five. Altuve led off with a walk and scored on Brantley's home run to pull the Astros to 3-2. Bregman and Tucker had back-to-back singles and scored on Correa's shot to left that he stood and admired, giving Houston the lead for good, 5-3.
"We just couldn't do enough on the pitching end to hold them down," A's Manager Bob Melvin said. "And then you start to press a little bit even though our guys had a good attitude every inning even going into the ninth inning and get some guys on. We battled until the end as you would expect, just not enough."
YANKEES 5, RAYS 1
SAN DIEGO -- Luke Voit and Gleyber Torres hit impressive home runs, Jordan Montgomery and three relievers combined on a three-hitter and New York beat Tampa Bay to force a deciding fifth game in their AL division series.
The Yankees bounced back from two consecutive losses against their AL East rivals to set up an expected showdown between aces Gerrit Cole of New York and Tyler Glasnow of Tampa Bay tonight.
Cole, backed by four home runs, beat Snell 9-3 in the series opener Monday and will be pitching on short rest for the first time in his big league career. Yankees Manager Aaron Boone said the decision was made when he passed his ace Thursday and made eye contact.
"Hey, give me the ball," he remembered Cole saying.
Cole said he took inspiration from watching CC Sabathia, Justin Verlander and other past aces carry teams on short rest.
"When the lights turn on, it doesn't matter if it's three, four, five, six, seven days," Cole said. "Ït's a special opportunity."
Glasnow will be pitching on two days' rest after throwing 93 pitches.
The Game 5 winner will remain in San Diego to face the Houston Astros in the AL championship series starting Sunday night.
The Yankees are trying to reach the championship series for the third time in four seasons following eliminations by the Astros at that stage in 2017 and last season. The Rays are trying to advance to the championship series for the first time since 2008, when they made it to their only World Series.
Wearing their home pinstripes for a second consecutive night at neutral site Petco Park, the Yankees lived up to their Bronx Bombers nickname.
Voit, who led the majors with 22 home runs in the pandemic-shortened season, led off the second by driving a 1-0 pitch from Rays opener Ryan Thompson into the second deck in left field for his first career postseason shot.
Torres one-upped his teammate when he deposited a two-run home run onto the balcony on the fourth floor of the Western Metal Supply Co. brick warehouse in the left-field corner, the centerpiece of the downtown ballpark. That came on the first pitch he saw from Ryan Yarbrough and put the Yankees ahead 4-1 with one out in the sixth.
It was Torres' first this postseason and fifth of his career, tying Mickey Mantle for the most playoff home runs for a Yankees player 23 or younger.