LOS ANGELES — Carlos Correa reached third base, brought his right hand up against his right ear and pretended to listen, as if to once again ask the question that seemed to enrage every MLB fan outside of Houston in recent days.
What are they gonna say now?
The cardboard people in the stands remained quiet.
Five days after his brash — some might say tone-deaf — comments in the aftermath of a wild-card sweep, Correa homered twice, drove in four and ignited a 16-hit barrage in the Houston Astros‘ 10-5 victory over the Oakland Athletics in Monday’s American League Division Series opener.
After his first home run — 421 feet, on a 2-0, chest-high cutter from Chris Bassitt in the fourth — Correa paused, admired his shot, then yelled toward his dugout and summoned his best Hulk Hogan before pounding fists with third-base coach Omar Lopez. After his second — 408 feet, on a 1-1, low-and-in fastball from Lou Trivino in the seventh — he lifted his right index finger to the sky and pointed in the direction of center field, the place where he deposited two of the six home runs that were hit on a warm, bouncy afternoon at Dodger Stadium.
Correa has gone full heel, whether he intended to or not.
He seems to be thriving off it.
“The way people want to perceive us is fine,” Astros starter Lance McCullers Jr. said. “People are allowed to have their own opinions. People are allowed to feel any way they want to feel about the Houston Astros. But we have to go out there and win baseball games. And Carlos Correa — when he’s right, there’s nobody better.”
Correa, still only 26 years old, is the first shortstop with two multihomer games in the postseason and the first shortstop with three four-RBI games in the postseason.
The Astros’ celebrated offense was stuck in a malaise for most of the shortened season, but on Monday — against an angry A’s team that might have been the most affected by Houston’s cheating — their best players finally emerged. Correa, George Springer, Alex Bregman and Jose Altuve combined for 11 hits and drove in eight runs, a troubling sign for a sport that feared the awakening of this high-powered offense.
Correa, who recently unlocked his 2015 swing with the help of Astros hitting coach Alex Cintron, seemingly set the tone by embracing the hate that encircles this team. It was obvious on Wednesday, after his Astros made quick work of the Minnesota Twins, when he lashed out with the one sentence that has evolved into a misguided rallying cry: “I know a lot of people don’t wanna see us here, but what are they gonna say now?”
“I love it,” Astros right fielder Josh Reddick said. “It’s all about silencing the haters, and that’s what this year is all about.”
The flaw in that logic is obvious, of course. The Astros don’t have “haters.” They have people — inside and outside their sport — rightfully upset about the elaborate sign-stealing methods that led to the firing of three managers, ruined countless pitching careers and propelled the team to what many believe to be a tainted championship.
“The role of the villain was given to us,” Astros manager Dusty Baker said. “It wasn’t something that we took on, even though some of it was probably merited — or most of it was probably merited.”
Baker can’t fully assess how his team has handled the label because the coronavirus pandemic has kept ballparks closed. The Astros got a taste on Sept. 12 and 13, when a group of angry fans gathered at the entrance of Dodger Stadium to boo the team bus. Reddick was ready to record the action.
“I thought there’d be more,” he said. “I was kinda disappointed there wasn’t enough out there.”
There were fewer protesters on Monday, both because it was early and because the Dodgers were getting ready to play 1,400 miles away. But the animosity has been obvious. It’s all over social media, noticeable in the dismissive tone of a team such as the A’s and wildly apparent, still, among pitchers, particularly CC Sabathia, who called Correa “a clown” — and cursed a lot — in his podcast for The Ringer.
“Carlos Correa is not a villain,” McCullers said, defending his longtime teammate. “He’s an amazing human. He’s a humanitarian. He takes care of Houston. He takes care of Puerto Rico. He’s a great friend. He’s a great husband.”
Those traits might have been part of the reason Correa frequently found himself at the forefront this year while the Astros navigated an unprecedented season as baseball’s sworn enemy. When spring training began, Correa passionately defended former teammate Carlos Beltran, who lost his new job as the New York Mets‘ manager. When Cody Bellinger discredited Altuve, Correa went after Bellinger. Five months later, after a global health crisis put the Astros on the back burner, Correa was in the middle of a confrontation with Los Angeles Dodgers reliever Joe Kelly, prompting the pouty face that is now emblazoned on the side of a building.
Now, with the Astros swaggering again, Correa is at the center of it all, feeding off the vitriol and igniting his team, hate it or love it.
“I feel like people are gonna have their own perspective of things every single time,” Correa said. “All we can control is what happens inside this clubhouse. And we’re having fun, we’re having a great time, we’re playing great baseball right now, and we want to keep it that way. We love each other in this clubhouse, we’ve got each other’s back, and to us, what we think inside our clubhouse, our inner circle, that’s what matters to us.”