Houston Astros manager Dusty Baker celebrates after his club clinched a trip to the World Series

Washington (AFP) - After a sign-stealing scandal tainted their 2017 Major League Baseball title, the Houston Astros seek an unblemished crown against the Philadelphia Phillies when the World Series begins on Friday.

The Astros have reached MLB’s best-of-seven championship series for the fourth time in six seasons without dropping a game, going 7-0 in the American League playoffs.

“It definitely was not easy. There was a lot of work that went into this, a lot of blood, sweat and tears,” Astros rookie slugger Jeremy Pena said. “We battled all year and it’s great to be here at this point.”

The Phillies, who ended an 11-year playoff drought this season, reached the World Series for the first time since 2009 and chase their first title since 2008 with an underdog squad that was the last to qualify for this year’s post-season.

“I believed we could get in and once we got in, everybody would relax. And they have,” said Phillies manager Rob Thomson, who took over a 22-29 club in June.

“They’ve been poised. They’ve played their best baseball during this stretch. You get on a roll, have a little good fortune and things keep going in your favor.”

Houston’s dynasty run has been impressive, but the Astros lost last year’s World Series to Atlanta and the 2019 “Fall Classic” to Washington in a series where road teams won all seven contests.

Houston won the 2017 World Series by defeating the Los Angeles Dodgers in seven games, but an MLB investigation report in 2020 found the Astros used illicit technology to steal pitching signals of rival teams in 2017 and 2018, including in their title run.

A video camera in centerfield picked up opposing catchers’ signs to pitchers about what sort of ball would be thrown next to Houston batters.

A monitor behind the dugout tipped off the Astros, and players or staff members would signal batters what was coming by banging on trash cans or give other audio cues.

The scandal led to a $5 million fine and lost draft picks for the Astros, firings of team manager A.J. Hinch and general manager Jeff Luhnow and lost managerial jobs for former Astros player Carlos Beltran and bench coach Alex Cora.

Other players were given immunity for testimony and the Astros kept their title, although they were jeered as cheaters by fans in 2020 and 2021.

“Maybe the crowd has finally forgiven things of the past,” Astros manager Dusty Baker said.

“Some people are rooting for us, some people are rooting against us. It doesn’t matter. That motivates you either way. I’ve never heard a cross word or anybody boo in our town for the team and that means an awful lot.”

- Nola opens for Phillies -

The Astros hired Baker, 73, as their manager after the scandal. In his 25th season as an MLB manager, he hopes to claim his first crown as a manager in his 11th playoff trip and third World Series appearance.

He won a title as a player with the Dodgers in 1981.

“It was a long road to get here,” Baker said. “It means that we persevered and we stayed together.”

Philadelphia slugger Bryce Harper rounds the bases after hitting a two-run home run in game five of the Phillies' National League Championship series win over the San Diego Padres

Houston won 19 more regular-season games than the Phillies, the second-largest such win disparity in World Series history.

Philadelphia has been powered by slugger Bryce Harper, who signed a record-shattering 13-year deal worth $330 million before the 2019 season vowing to make the Phillies a champion. He’s within four wins of making it happen.

With each team clinching their spot in the World Series on Sunday, both teams can set their pitching rotation as they like.

The Phillies named right-hander Aaron Nola to pitch game one with right-hander Zack Wheeler set for game two, both in Houston.

Wheeler has a 1.78 earned-run average with 25 strikeouts in 25 13 innings in the playoffs. Nola has a 3.12 ERA and 18 strikeouts in 17 13 playoff innings.

Nola took a perfect game into the seventh inning at Houston on October 3 in a 3-0 victory that sealed a playoff spot for the Phillies. The Astros haven’t lost a game since.