• AP

  • SHARE

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 homer after Michael Brantley’s two-run shot in the fourth inning, helping the Astros beat the Oakland Athletics 11-6 on Thursday to end 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 ALCS 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 Yankees and Rays are tied 2-2.

The Astros and A’s combined for 24 homers — 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 ALDS, 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 homers, including a three-run shot in the second that gave the West champion A’s the early lead for the fourth straight game.

Houston starter Zack Greinke held up two fingers facing Laureano and catcher Martín 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 homer Greinke allowed since last year’s Game 7 of the World Series against Washington, when Anthony Rendon’s solo shot began the Nationals’ comeback.

Laureano’s leadoff homer 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 homer 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.

Brantley added a solo shot in the fifth and Altuve had a two-run blast in the seventh that extended the Astros’ lead to 11-4.

Yankees 5, Rays 1

In 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 straight 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 on Friday night.

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 ALCS 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 ALCS for the first time since 2008, when they made it to their only World Series.

Opener Ryan Thompson took the loss. He was chased after allowing DJ LeMahieu’s sacrifice fly for the second out of the second.

Braves 7, Marlins 0

In Houston, Rookie Kyle Wright dazzled for six innings in his postseason debut, and Atlanta rode its superb pitching to beat Miami for a three-game sweep and its first trip to the NL Championship Series since 2001.

Atlanta had lost eight straight Division Series, including in each of the previous two seasons, before outscoring the Marlins 18-5, including 11-0 in the final two games. The Braves are 5-0 with a 0.92 ERA in the postseason, allowing five runs in 49 innings.

They will play the Los Angeles Dodgers or San Diego in the NLCS starting Monday in Arlington, Texas.

Wright (1-0) was sharp despite not pitching since Sept. 25, allowing three hits and walking two with a career-high seven strikeouts. A.J. Minter, Jacob Webb and Shane Greene finished the five-hitter to give the Braves four shutouts in five playoff games.

Marlins rookie Sixto Sanchez (0-1) walked Ronald Acuna Jr. to start the third, and Acuna stole second before advancing to third on a single by Freddie Freeman. Marcell Ozuna laced a single that scored Acuna.

Dodgers 12, Padres 3

In Arlington, Texas, Justin Turner put the Dodgers ahead with a record-breaking hit in a big inning fueled by a nice stop-gone-bad by Fernando Tatis Jr., and Los Angeles closed out a three-game NL Division Series sweep.

Will Smith set a Dodgers postseason record with five hits, and Joc Pederson had a two-run single to cap that decisive five-run third as Los Angeles advanced to its fourth NL Championship Series in five years.

Turner’s RBI single made it 3-2 and was his 64th career postseason hit, breaking a tie with Steve Garvey for the most in Dodgers postseason history. That came right after Tatis, the 21-year-old budding superstar, made a diving play on Corey Seager’s hard grounder, but then tried to make a throw from his knee. The ball skipped along the dirt and past first baseman Eric Hosmer, allowing Mookie Betts to score the tying run.

Los Angeles will stay in Arlington to open the best-of-seven NLCS on Monday against Atlanta with fans in attendance for the first time during this pandemic-altered season. The World Series will also be played in the Texas Rangers’ new $1.2 billion stadium with the retractable roof.

Julio Urias (2-0), the third Dodgers pitcher, struck out six, walked one and allowed an unearned run over his five innings.

Only four pitchers had ever been younger when starting a potential elimination game than Padres lefty Adrian Morejon (0-1) at 21 years and 224 days old. He allowed three runs.

PHOTO GALLERY (CLICK TO ENLARGE)