Adjustments in their lineup and approach, and savvy managing by Dusty Baker, fuel Astros’ revived offense.

Adjustments in their lineup and approach, and savvy managing by Dusty Baker, fuel Astros’ revived offense.

Astros owe manager Dusty Baker an extension

Astros starting pitcher Framber Valdez (59) is pulled by manager Dusty Baker Jr., left, during the third inning of Game 5 of the World Series on Sunday in Atlanta.
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Astros starting pitcher Framber Valdez (59) is pulled by manager Dusty Baker Jr., left, during the third inning of Game 5 of the World Series on Sunday in Atlanta.

Typically, Dusty Baker chews on a couple toothpicks a game.

While he didn’t begin dangling wood from his mouth during games as a way to deal with tension, he admits that what happens on the field directly affects his toothpick usage.

“It depends on the game,” Baker said. “Everything depends on the game.”

Suffice it to say, with everything riding on Sunday night’s Game 5 of the World Series, there were surely more toothpicks called in from the bullpen than usual. Perhaps an entire box was in jeopardy after the Astros fell behind 4-0 on a first-inning grand slam.

The Astros, trailing Atlanta 3-1 in the series, faced elimination at Truist Park.

But these Astros, Dusty’s Astros, didn’t fold.

Thanks in part to several surprise contributions, Houston battled back to claim a series-saving 9-5 victory. Game 6 will be Tuesday at Minute Maid Park.

It is a testament to Baker that the Astros didn’t wilt when their odds seemed so dire.

FanGraphs gave the Braves an 84.3-percent chance of winning the game and the series after Adam Duvall’s grand slam in the bottom of the first.

Considering the Astros had scored only two runs in two road losses in the World Series and just four runs in their three losses, a four-run deficit seemed insurmountable.

When others lose faith in the Astros, Baker believes. And they believe in him.

“I’m a person that believes in miracles,” said Baker, who survived a prostate cancer diagnosis 20 years ago. “I really believe in miracles because I’ve had a few of them happen to me in my life.”

Baker doesn’t get credit for Martin Maldonado knocking in a run with a crucial sacrifice fly in the second inning or for Maldonado coaxing a timely bases-loaded walk in the fifth to pull the Astros into a tie, or Maldonado’s two-out single in the seventh that plated an insurance run.

But Baker was the one who kept Maldonado in the lineup game after game, despite vehement protestations from fans and media.

The three RBIs on the night for the Astros catcher were more than he had in the entire postseason.

Baker isn’t why Marwin Gonzalez, who hadn’t had a hit in the major leagues in almost a month and wasn’t expected to be on the playoff roster after he was released by the Red Sox and signed a minor league contract with the Astros.

But there he was, sending in Gonzalez to pinch-hit with the bases loaded and the game tied. The man has “win” in his name for a reason, and he delivered a sharp single that brought home two runs to give the Astros’ their first lead of the game.

It is almost impossible to make all the right moves in a baseball game, especially in a National League stadium, but Baker pulled enough right strings Sunday night to extend the series, the season, and his managing career.

If he isn’t with the Astros next year, Baker will not be managing in the major leagues.

Baker knows not to ever say never. He pretty much said it the last time he was out of work, then a never-before miracle hit, and the Astros fired A.J. Hinch for not properly policing his team’s sign-stealing operation.

Baker was back, with a good team and a decent chance at winning his first World Series as a manager.

Most everyone figured it would be a short-term gig.

Despite words to the contrary, the Astros have made it obvious that will likely be the case, as Baker wasn’t offered a contract extension and he will officially be out of work when the World Series ends.

At 73, after 24 seasons and more than 3,800 games, this stint with the Astros was his last shot.

It’s a shame, really.

Baker has been a superb manager, starting with handling the difficult situation of his first season as well as anyone could.

Remember, Baker came in last season just prior to spring training, not knowing any of the players. And we’re talking about players who were reeling from losing their manager and general manager, and quite a bit of respect after the sign-stealing revelation.

In a COVID-shortened season, with major injuries to his best starting pitcher, best reliever and best power hitter, Baker led the Astros to Game 7 of the American League Championship Series.

He did such a good job in handling the controversy during spring training that the Astros picked up the option year of his contract a mere four games into the start of the 2020 season.

“Dusty has been a perfect fit for our ballclub,” General Manager James Click said at the time. “His knowledge of the game and experience have been invaluable to us.”

None of that has changed. Baker brought stability and respect. Intelligence, decency, accountability.

He makes the Astros look good; he helps them play well.

Though when pressed recently, owner Jim Crane said contract talks with Baker would commence after the season, the words ring a bit hollow.

When it comes to a Baker contract with the Astros, there isn’t much conversation to be had; nothing to discuss.

Saying they will talk about a contract is like Sesame Street promising to have a conversation with Cookie Monster about cookies.

“There is nothing to discuss,” Monster would say. “Me want cookie!”

Baker wants to keep managing. If the Astros wanted him to, they would have already made him an offer.

Baker has earned another contract because of his accomplishments in his two seasons.

He has done more than just keep the team from collapsing. He kept it contending for championships by massaging egos and motivating players, while working around largely inexperienced pitching.

Sunday was another example of how good Baker is at this.

These are his Astros, still fighting to stay alive — two wins from a World Series — and he’s still chewing toothpicks.

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@DustyBakerTV

Dusty Baker remembers Hank Aaron during Braves/Astros World Series

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Aaron was a longtime mentor, father figure to Baker

Cincinnati Reds manager Dusty Baker, left, stands with his son Darren Baker, center, and baseball great Hank Aaron, right, as the national anthem plays during the Civil Rights Game ceremony before a game between the Chicago White Sox and the Cincinnati Reds at Great American Ball Park, Saturday, June 20, 2009, in Cincinnati. (AP Photo/David Kohl)
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Cincinnati Reds manager Dusty Baker, left, stands with his son Darren Baker, center, and baseball great Hank Aaron, right, as the national anthem plays during the Civil Rights Game ceremony before a game between the Chicago White Sox and the Cincinnati Reds at Great American Ball Park, Saturday, June 20, 2009, in Cincinnati.

When Dusty Baker was a young man, he prayed he wouldn’t get drafted by a team in the south. He wasn’t sure how he would handle being an African American in the deep south; this was, of course, the 1960s.

But he was drafted by a southern team; the Atlanta Braves. Baker would become close with Hank Aaron, who helped guide him through baseball and eventually life. Aaron promised Baker’s mother he would help take care of her son.

Now, the memory of Hank Aaron stays with Baker as the Braves and Astros play in the World Series.

“I think about him all the time,” said Baker. “Especially in a series like this. I feel his presence.”

Baker and Aaron were present in many aspects of each other’s lives. Baker was in the on-deck circle when Aaron hit his iconic 715th home run, breaking Babe Ruth’s record. Aaron was like a grandfather to Baker’s son, Darren. The two remained close until Aaron’s death on January 22. Posthumously, Aaron has his imprint all over this World Series as his Braves take on Baker, manager for the Astros.

“His footprints are all over this series,” said Baker.

Baker spoke with media throughout the week about everything the late Aaron taught him.

“About being a proud African American, but not wearing that on your sleeve because it’s already on your face. He taught me a lot of life lessons, big time.”

The Astros’ skipper was asked what Aaron would have said to him if he were still living.

“Going over the conversations we would have had, we probably wouldn’t have (talked) much about baseball.”

Now, Baker is in the midst of trying to win his first World Series as a manager against the team who drafted him.

“He had a tremendous impact, not only on the baseball field but on my life, and in my family, and in my business,” said Baker. “I’ll be forever grateful.”

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