Courtesy: Houston Chronicle
The Washington Nationals and Houston Astros will begin the 115th World Series on Tuesday secure in the knowledge that the majority of their pitches will be thrown by the greatest arms in the game. The methods that can carry a team through 162 games – the “Opener” strategy, the commitment to short starts or bullpen games – crumbled this postseason.
The Tampa Bay Rays? Sure, they pushed the Astros to a five-game test in the AL Division Series, but they’re golfing.
The New York Yankees? Their relievers were admittedly gassed after absorbing one too many brief outings from James Paxton and couldn’t pull off a do-or-die bullpen game, succumbing to Houston in a six-game ALCS.
Even the mighty, 106-win Los Angeles Dodgers were felled by a roster that was one starter short of a full deck, as they let the Nationals up for air in their NLDS with a Game 4 dud that turned the fortunes of both franchises.
It’s aces galore in what on paper looks to be a delight for pitching aficionados as the Astros aim for their second in three years and the Nationals their first in franchise history.
Game 1: RHP Max Scherzer (11-7, 2.92 ERA) vs. RHP Gerrit Cole (20-5, 2.50 ERA)
Game 2: RHP Stephen Strasburg (18-6, 3.32) vs. RHP Justin Verlander (21-6, 2.58)
Game 3: LHP Patrick Corbin (14-7, 3.25) vs. RHP Zack Greinke (18-5, 2.93)
Game 4: RHP Anibal Sanchez (11-8, 3.85 ERA) vs. RHP Brad Peacock (7-6, 4.12)
In a series featuring three former Cy Young winners and at least five hurlers who should receive votes in this year’s balloting, Cole looms above them all. Nobody was more dominant this season – Cole struck out 326 in 212 ⅓ innings – and perhaps most significant, no starter in this series has been so unblemished in the postseason.
Cole carried the Astros out of danger in the ALDS, beating Tampa Bay in Games 1 and 5, and also bulled past the Yankees in ALCS Game 3. He’s given up just one earned run in 22 ⅔ innings overall – a 0.40 ERA. All the other highly decorated hurlers have gotten clipped at least once:
A four-run first inning toppled Verlander in ALCS Game 5, and the Rays also blitzed him for four runs in an ALDS start on three days’ rest.
Greinke was ambushed by Tampa Bay for six runs in ALDS Game 3.
Scherzer gave up three runs in the first two innings of the NL wild-card game.
Strasburg’s career postseason ERA is now 1.10 – but he departed NLDS Game 5 facing a 3-1 deficit.
Corbin walked five in NLDS Game 1 and gave up six runs in a Game 3 relief appearance.
So there’s only one truly invulnerable arm in this Series, and that makes the Astros’ walk-off win in ALCS Game 6 all the more significant – Cole will start Game 1 and Game 5, at least, rather than a Game 7 ALCS start limiting him to perhaps one outing in this battle.
Should he win both outings – and thus neutralize Scherzer – the Nationals will have to go 4-1 against everybody else. It’s a perilous, but navigable path, almost certainly requiring two outcomes: Strasburg continuing his playoff dominance and besting Verlander in Game 2, and Sanchez continuing his stellar postseason (one earned run, five hits in 12 ⅔ innings) by beating Peacock, Urquidy and a cast of many in Game 4.
Keep an eye on
Juan Soto: He’ll turn 21 the night of Game 3, but in lieu of gifts, he and the Nationals hope the prodigy can regain his stroke at the plate. In less than two years in the majors, Soto has shown a knack for adjusting when even the briefest slumps occur. The Cardinals pitched him very tough, striking him out seven times in 16 at-bats and holding him to just one extra-base hit. Washington has enjoyed epic production from Nos. 4-5 hitters Anthony Rendon and Howie Kendrick (a combined 23 hits this postseason), but the going’s about to get tougher. They will need a productive Soto to keep the middle of the order cooking.
George Springer: He was held to four hits in 25 ALCS at-bats, but this is October, and Springer always equals damage. He homered in Astros victories in Games 1 and 3, the latter a go-ahead third-inning shot. Springer has an .894 OPS in 43 career playoff games, and the Astros are 9-3 when he goes deep.
In the end
It has been an epic run for the Nationals – an absurd 82-40 record since their well-documented 19-31 skid to start the season. It seems almost foolish to side against a club that is playing so well and, at this point, demoralizing opponents.
But the Astros are no ordinary foe. While the Nationals have leaned on a veteran core that’s the oldest in the majors, Houston combines the seasoning of three deep playoff runs with a squad that remains in its physical prime. They dispatched an excellent Yankees team in six games despite batting just .179.
"Altuve, and Gerrit and Will Harris are the only three who have played outstanding this postseason," said third baseman Alex Bregman, who batted .167 against the Yankees. "I think our best baseball is yet to be played."
These Nationals have holes – namely, that bullpen that only received a partial fix at the trade deadline – but they just vanquished a squad that was incapable of exposing them. Houston’s deep lineup, potentially dominant rotation and good-enough bullpen will provide a test the Nationals can’t quite pass.
The Astros should win in 5, but in baseball who knows!