CHICAGO — Before Game 4 of the American League division series between the Chicago White Sox and the Houston Astros was postponed from Monday to Tuesday because of rain, Astros Manager Dusty Baker, a music aficionado, was listening to a blues classic. The lyrics, he said, were fitting when he was later asked about comments made Sunday night by White Sox reliever Ryan Tepera, who suggested that the Astros were still up to their sign-stealing ways.
“I was listening to Eric Clapton this morning and he had a song, ‘Before You Accuse Me,’ take a look at yourself,” Baker said. “You know what I mean? That’s all I got to say.”
Well, Baker and a few others had a little more to say about Tepera’s thoughts. On Sunday, after the Astros had easily claimed the first two games of the best-of-five series, the White Sox staved off elimination with a 12-6 victory at home.
Afterward, Tepera, who tossed two spotless innings, hinted that the Astros’ offense was behaving differently on the road in Game 3 than it did at Minute Maid Park in Houston, where the best offense in baseball throughout the regular season had outscored the White Sox by a combined score of 15-5 in the first two games of the series.
The Astros were discovered to have cheated during their World Series-winning 2017 season by using illegal live video feeds to decode opposing catchers’ signs and relaying to their teammates at the plate what pitch was coming next by banging a trash can near the home dugout.
“They’ve obviously had a reputation of doing some sketchy stuff over there,” Tepera said on Sunday night, without offering specifics when asked to expound upon what he meant. “You can say that it’s a little bit of difference. You saw the swings and misses tonight compared to the first two games at Minute Maid.”
In Game 3, the Astros struck out 16 times after having had that many, combined, in Games 1 and 2.
After the cheating allegations came to light in November 2019, Major League Baseball investigated the Astros and punished the organization with a $5 million fine and loss of draft picks. The general manager, Jeff Luhnow, and manager, A.J. Hinch, lost their jobs and were suspended, and the league stepped up its efforts to guard against illegal sign stealing.
(Players are allowed to use their own eyes and brains, not technology, to decipher opponents’ signs, and it is up to teams to change their signs to avoid detection.)
M.L.B. did not suspend Astros players — they were granted immunity in exchange for honest testimony — which angered opposing players. But since then, the remaining hitters from the 2017 team, like Jose Altuve, Alex Bregman and Carlos Correa, have been showered with boos and vulgarities at every turn, including Sunday night at Guaranteed Rate Field. The cloud of suspicion may always remain.
“They’ll probably have to deal with it forever really because people don’t forget,” said Baker, who took over after the dismissal of Hinch, who was hired by Detroit before the 2021 season.
Paranoia runs rampant in baseball, but particularly in the postseason and when facing the Astros. It was on the minds of other White Sox pitchers but Tepera was the first to say so publicly. There are many factors that could have resulted in the change in fortune beyond sign stealing.
Some players were frustrated with a strike zone they called inconsistent on Sunday night. Several White Sox players pointed to the impact of a packed, boisterous crowd on their play. White Sox catcher Yasmani Grandal said his teammates did a better job with their two-strike pitches in Game 3 compared to the previous games — which supported data that showed that the swing-and-miss rates weren’t dramatically different but the strikeout rates were. And the White Sox pitching staff possessed the highest strikeout rate in baseball during the regular season, so something was bound to give.
“Are we aware that there are certain teams out there that are better at relaying signs at second base? Yeah, absolutely,” White Sox reliever Aaron Bummer said, adding later, “We’re going to go out there, do our business, change up the signs and do the things we need to do with every team, not just them.”
On Monday, the Astros largely brushed off questions about Tepera’s allegations. But catcher Martin Maldonaldo wrote on Twitter that it was “always good” to get “extra motivation.”
“Whatever works, it’s all good,” Bregman said, adding later, “They got really good pitchers. They executed pitches and held us to six runs.”
Baker correctly pointed out that the Astros hit almost exactly the same at home as they did on the road this season. (Their strikeout rates, too, were basically identical.) He noted that the White Sox, in fact, had done better at home than on the road. Although he called Tepera’s comments “heavy accusations,” Baker said his opponent could say whatever he wanted.
“I never even heard his name before until we played the White Sox, so no, man, I’m not bothered at all by it,” Baker said, adding later, “Let them talk.”