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Astros to be spared fans' scorn over cheating because stadiums will be empty
AP

Astros to be spared fans' scorn over cheating because stadiums will be empty

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The Houston Astros' Jose Altuve, second from right, bumps elbows with Aledmys Diaz as Alex Bregman and Carlos Correa look on before an intrasquad game at Minute Maid Park in Houston on July 17, 2020.

The Houston Astros' Jose Altuve, second from right, bumps elbows with Aledmys Diaz as Alex Bregman and Carlos Correa look on before an intrasquad game at Minute Maid Park in Houston on July 17, 2020. (Bob Levey/Getty Images)

Oakland Athletics closer Liam Hendriks was beginning to warm to the Houston Astros last July, his conversations with them at the All-Star Game in Cleveland humanizing several players whose on-field theatrics had irritated him in the past.

But his burgeoning respect for a team that averaged nearly 104 victories and won two American League pennants and one World Series title in the past three years was replaced by utter disdain when the Astros were found to have used an illegal sign-stealing scheme throughout their 2017 championship season.

"There were a lot of guys on that team I didn't like, and then I spoke to them at the All-Star Game, and I actually enjoyed talking to them a lot," Hendriks said at the team's Mesa, Ariz., spring training facility in March. "Then this comes out over the offseason, and it's like, now, I can't even look them in the eye and have any respect for them."

The Astros incurred a winter's worth of wrath for their cheating scandal, which led to the firing of manager A.J. Hinch and general manager Jeff Luhnow, and they were expected to be shunned by fellow players and taunted and verbally abused by fans in visiting parks throughout this season.

Then came the coronavirus, which shut down baseball in March, pushed the start of a 60-game season to late July and forced teams to begin play in empty stadiums, sparing the Astros of fans' scorn.

"Oh, I'm sure this may have caused things to dissipate," Angels manager Joe Maddon said, when asked if the virus took the Astros off the hook. "The primary action probably would have been via fans in crowded ballparks, where it might have been more difficult (for them)."

"The pandemic has acted as a buffer right now. I know how adamantly angry some people were about all this stuff, so yeah, it probably has cooled down a bit."

Angels shortstop Andrelton Simmons was mad at the Astros in March, admitting it would be awkward to face them this season.

"Your perception of them changes," Simmons said then. "It's like any relationship. If someone cheats on you or does something wrong to you, it's going to affect you, and you don't really know how you're going to react to them face-to-face."

One pandemic and four baseball-less months later, his resentment toward the Astros has eased.

"At first, I was really upset about it - honestly, I wanted them to feel the fans getting on them," Simmons said this week. "But eventually, I guess I forgave them. I kind of let go of that.

"You just hope it doesn't happen again, because you want to play on an even field and play the sport the way it's meant to be played, so we can actually see who's the better team at the end of the season."

Opposing pitchers with long memories might try to exact revenge by throwing at the Astros, and rules this season strictly prohibiting fights could shield them from Houston batters charging the mound.

"I don't worry about that until it happens," Astros manager Dusty Baker said on a video conference call. "If somebody is still mad about that, they're holding a grudge for a long, long time."

Players who come within six feet of an opponent to engage in altercations "are subject to immediate ejection and discipline, including fines and suspensions," according to the 2020 operations manual.

Baker, who has spent almost five decades in the game as a player and manager, doesn't believe that will be a deterrent.

"If you're that mad or you have a short fuse, a rule is not going to stop you," said 71-year-old Baker. "You know, boys will be boys. You hope it doesn't happen, but we're coming into the dog days of August before we've played any games. It's hot. There will probably be (altercations). I just hope it doesn't happen to us."

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AMERICAN LEAGUE WEST

Teams listed in predicted order of finish

___

HOUSTON ASTROS

2019 5/8 107-55, 1st in West

Last year in playoffs 5/8 2019

Despite the loss of pitcher Gerrit Cole to the Yankees and the firing of manager A.J. Hinch and GM Jeff Luhnow in the wake of the sign-stealing scandal, the Astros are loaded. A lineup that had an MLB-record .495 slugging percentage last year is deep and dangerous, and two aces remain at the top of the rotation in Justin Verlander, who is healthy after March groin surgery, and Zack Greinke, who went 8-1 with a 3.02 ERA in 10 starts after his 2019 trade from Arizona.

LINEUP

CF George Springer

3B Alex Bregman

2B Jose Altuve

SS Carlos Correa

DH Yordan Alvarez

1B Yuli Gurriel

LF Michael Brantley

RF Josh Reddick

C Martin Maldonado

ROTATION

RH Justin Verlander

RH Zack Greinke

RH Lance McCullers Jr.

RH Jose Urquidy

RH Josh James

SETUP

RH Ryan Pressly

CLOSER

Roberto Osuna

___

OAKLAND ATHLETICS

2019 5/8 97-65, 2nd in West

Last year in playoffs 5/8 2019

The A's may have baseball's best infield defense, with Gold Glove winners Matt Chapman and Matt Olson. A healthy Sean Manaea, who went 4-0 with a 1.21 ERA in five September starts after missing most of 2019 because of shoulder surgery, and the return of Frankie Montas, who was 9-2 with a 2.70 ERA when he was hit with an 80-game performance-enhancing drug suspension in June 2019, boost a strong rotation.

LINEUP

SS Marcus Semien

LF Robbie Grossman

3B Matt Chapman

DH Khris Davis

1B Matt Olson

RF Stephen Piscotty

CF Ramon Laureano

2B Tony Kemp

C Sean Murphy

ROTATION

RH Mike Fiers

LH Sean Manaea

RH Frankie Montas

LH A.J. Puk

RH Chris Bassitt

SETUP

RH Joakim Soria

CLOSER

RH Liam Hendriks

___

LOS ANGELES ANGELS

2019 5/8 72-90, 4th in West

Last year in playoffs 5/8 2014

A potent lineup featuring three-time AL MVP Mike Trout, 2019 postseason hero Anthony Rendon and slugger Shohei Ohtani should score runs in bunches. The return of a healthy Keynan Middleton (Tommy John surgery in 2018) adds another power arm to a deep bullpen. But will the offense and relief corps be enough to compensate for a thin rotation likely to open without veteran right-hander Julio Teheran?

LINEUP

2B Tommy La Stella

CF Mike Trout

DH Shohei Ohtani

3B Anthony Rendon

LF Justin Upton

1B Albert Pujols

SS Andrelton Simmons

RF Brian Goodwin

C Jason Castro

ROTATION

LH Andrew Heaney

RH Dylan Bundy

RH Shohei Ohtani

RH Griffin Canning

RH Matt Andriese

RH Jaime Barria

SETUP

RH Keynan Middleton

CLOSER

RH Hansel Robles

___

TEXAS RANGERS

2019 5/8 78-84, 3rd in West

Last year in playoffs 5/8 2016

New Globe Life Field, with its retractable roof and deeper outfield dimensions, should be more pitcher-friendly than Texas' old stadium - good news for a rotation that added two-time AL Cy Young Award winner Corey Kluber in a trade from Cleveland. Third baseman Todd Frazier is a nice addition to the offense, but the bullpen is too thin for Texas to compete for a playoff spot.

LINEUP

DH Shin-Soo Choo

SS Elvis Andrus

LF Willie Calhoun

RF Joey Gallo

CF Danny Santana

3B Todd Frazier

2B Rougned Odor

C Robinson Chirinos

1B Ronald Guzman

ROTATION

RH Lance Lynn

LH Mike Minor

RH Corey Kluber

RH Kyle Gibson

RH Jordan Lyles

SETUP

RH Rafael Montero

CLOSER

RH Jose Leclerc

___

SEATTLE MARINERS

2019 5/8 68-94, 5th in West

Last year in playoffs 5/8 2001

Top pitching prospects Logan Gilbert, George Kirby and Emerson Hancock, dynamic outfield prospect Jarred Kelenic, who has impressed with his power and defense in intrasquad games, and potential rookie-of-the-year candidate Kyle Lewis give the perennially rebuilding Mariners hope for the future. But the present still looks bleak for a franchise that has had three winning seasons in 10 years.

LINEUP

2B Shed Long

1B Evan White

3B Kyle Seager

RF Kyle Lewis

DH Dan Vogelbach

C Tom Murphy

SS J.P. Crawford

LF Jake Fraley

CF Mallex Smith

ROTATION

LH Marco Gonzales

LH Yusei Kikuchi

RH Kendall Graveman

LH Justus Sheffield

RH Taijuan Walker

SETUP

RH Carl Edwards Jr.

CLOSER

RH Austin Adams

Visit the Los Angeles Times at www.latimes.com

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