We’ve reached the pinnacle of the 2019 season as the Nationals and Astros get ready to face off in the World Series. Washington, a surprise representative for the National League, is looking to cap off a fantasy run which was nearly unimaginable at various points earlier in the season. Meanwhile, Houston is looking to take one step closer to being a dynasty, something Alex Bregman has been talking about since last winter. The two teams match up well and seem to offer an entertaining series.
World Series Schedule
Game 1: Tuesday, Oct. 22, in Houston, 8:08 PM EDT.
Game 2: Wednesday, Oct. 23, in Houston, 8:07 PM EDT.
Game 3: Friday, Oct. 25, in Washington, 8:07 PM EDT.
Game 4: Saturday, Oct. 26, in Washington, 8:07 PM EDT.
Game 5 (if necessary): Sunday, Oct. 27, in Washington, 8:07 PM EDT.
Game 6 (if necessary): Tuesday, Oct. 29, in Houston, 8:07 PM EDT.
Game 7 (if necessary): Wednesday, Oct. 30, in Houston, 8:07 PM EDT.
All games will be aired on FOX.
The Nationals and the Astros did not play each other in the regular season, perhaps making advance scouting even more important than it otherwise would be. It’s how the Royals figured out and exploited José Bautista’s crow hop in Game 6 of the 2015 ALCS. It’s how the Red Sox helped Jonathan Papelbon pick off Matt Holliday in Game 2 of the 2007 World Series, despite Papelbon having never picked off anyone in the major leagues. And it’s certainly led to plenty of other moments through the annals of each postseason.
This postseason for the Nationals has berthed a rather appropriate Twitter hashtag: #StayInTheFight. Before now, the team had never even made it past the first round of the playoffs. But this October has been patently different, with heroes at seemingly every turn.
The team’s run started to pronounce itself when Juan Soto sliced a double with a funky bounce to Trent Grisham in the eighth inning of the play-in Wild Card game. The team had picked away at Josh Hader, the league’s third-most valuable reliever by fWAR in 2019 and its leader in K-BB rate at 40.8%. Then they squared off against the Dodgers and disposed of them in just five games. The Nats coerced Clayton Kershaw to say things such as, “Everything people say about [my struggles in] the postseason is true,” per Dylan Hernandez of the LA Times, and left Joe Kelly to shake his head in disbelief as Howie Kendrick blasted a game-winning grand slam in extra innings in the deciding game. Up next were the Cardinals, who were working a magic of their own. But Washington set the pace in Game 1, where Anibal Sanchez nearly no-hit them, and cruised to a sweep with having hardly been threatened in any game.
Guys such as Kendrick and Sanchez have been provided opportunities for meaningful moments through each series as a direct result of the Nationals’ biggest names doing what they’re supposed to. No team’s starting pitchers were worth more than Washington’s, who posted a combined 21.4 fWAR in 2019. They also logged the second-most innings through the regular season with 938.2. For comparison, the Astros ranked fourth in each category after accruing 19.4 fWAR and 907.1 innings. In 10 postseason games so far, Max Scherzer, Stephen Strasburg, and Patrick Corbin have logged 55.1 innings and racked up 86 strikeouts. These three horses will inevitably have to continue being exactly who they’ve been all year to give the Nats a chance.
In addition to providing chances for role players to shine, the starters have also helped nullify concerns about the team’s bullpen. After being a mess all year, they’ve only been relied on for 22 innings these playoffs. When Washington has gone to relievers, it’s primarily been Sean Doolittle, Daniel Hudson, and Taylor Rainey. Four guys on the NLCS roster didn’t even pitch—Javy Guerra, Austin Voth, Roenis Elias, and Wander Suero. One way to reduce the effects of a weakness is to leave it leave it less exposed, and the Nationals have certainly achieved that so far.
The offense got a boost from Victor Robles in Game 3 of the NLCS as he returned from a mild hamstring strain suffered against the Dodgers. He picked up right where he left off and has gone 5-for-16 in the playoffs with a .915 OPS while contributing in every way imaginable. As for the offense as a whole, they’ve only smacked eight home runs, or three more than Jose Altuve alone. But on the flipside, they also only have one batter who has struck at more than nine times, and remarkably, Juan Soto. The Astros, who had the lowest strikeout rate for hitters in the history of baseball through the regular season, have four: Yordan Alvarez, Carlos Correa, George Springer, and Robinson Chirinos. Correa and Springer have provided enormous moments with home runs, though, adding unique wrinkles in the fabric of this October narrative.
The Astros may be the strongest opponent the Nationals face this postseason. However, Washington boasts more rotation depth. They’ve made a strength of their bullpen. Their hitting has been both consistent and timely. If they can continue to minimize disadvantages that Houston could exploit, we may be in for a true slobberknocker.
The Astros’ run to the World Series was not without its drama, but Minute Maid Park has largely been their safe haven. The Tampa Bay Rays pushed Houston to a 2-2 series tie with back-to-back wins in Tampa in the ALCS, but when the Astros got back to Houston, the Rays folded. After falling behind 3-1 in the ALCS, the Yankees put pressure on the astros, winning Game 5 in New York. But when the Astros got back to Houston, the Yankees folded. Overall, the team is 5-1 in six games at Minute Maid this postseason versus 2-3 on the road—a clear home-field advantage, which is no surprise given their 60-21 home record this season.
After their Game 6 win, the Astros announced their starters for the first three games: Gerrit Cole, Justin Verlander, and Zack Greinke. Who else? Cole gets the ball in Game 1, fresh off a five-walk performance with 27% CSW in Game 3 vs. the Yankees; Cole also allowed 20 foul balls, 18 on his elite four-seamer. He and Verlander both establish their game with a high fastball paired with elite breaking balls. The Nationals should be an easier opponent than the Yankees, as the Nats rank 18th in batting average and slugging percentage on four-seamers as opposed to the Yankees, who ranked first in both. That said, when we look at fastballs in the upper third of the zone and above it, the Nats jump up to 10th. On top of that, only six teams hit more foul balls on such pitches than the Nationals, making them a well-positioned team to beat those starters. Then again, there was no team with a lower batting average or slugging percentage than the Nationals on breaking pitches down—the other pitch these two aces use. It will be interesting how the Astros attack these Nationals hitters.
Coming into the playoffs, the big question mark for the Astros was the bullpen, and that concern was well-placed, as relievers gave up a 4.13 ERA over 24 innings to the Yankees in the ALCS. That sounds like a lot of innings, but outside of the nine-inning bullpen game, the Stros only averaged about three innings from their pen. This is a recipe for success for Houston who, like Washington, will succeed on the strength of the rotation. The real problem is: Who do the Astros feel confident about? Roberto Osuna gave up a game-tying two-run homer in his most recent appearance. Ryan Pressly gave up five hits, one walk, and two earned runs over 1.2 innings against the Yankees (Pressly hurt himself in Game 6 but says he’ll be ready for the World Series), Joe Smith gave up a run over 3.2 in four appearances but threw just 25 innings during the regular season, leaving Will Harris as the most reliable arm right now. How will AJ Hinch deploy this bullpen? Harris and Pressly have typically been the first arms out of the bullpen, but from there, who knows? Will Hinch replace someone with Wade Miley to use in high leverage spots against Soto and Adam Eaton? The Astros had no left-handed pitchers on the roster for the ALCS, after all.
Now to the biggest question mark right now, the question mark I never thought we’d have: the Astros lineup. Throughout the six-game set, the team hit 5-46 (.109) with runners in scoring position, Alvarez went 1-24 with 12 strikeouts, Bregman (who finished fifth in the AL in RBI) went 3-18 with one RBI, and Springer went 4-25. It doesn’t matter that Altuve and Michael Brantley hit over .300 if the team can’t drive in runs. They won big games on the strength of the long ball—walkoff home runs by Correa and game-defining three-run home runs by Springer, Correa, and Gurriel. They are unlikely to get the same long-ball opportunities against the Nationals pitching staff, so they’ll have to perform with runners on base to win.
The Astros have a tremendous edge in nearly every category here. Their world-beating offense is highlighted, as well as their ability to maximize the effectiveness of whiffs and walks in both sides of the game. But the other thing emphasized is just how much Washington’s pitching has grown through and since the regular season. A competitive series will hinge on those changes continuing to stick.
Things to Watch
- What if Soto takes back the plate and stops whiffing? Containing him in addition to the likes of Anthony Rendon, Kendrick, and Robles could prove difficult. That may be especially true with how the Yankees made Cole and Verlander look human at times.
- Do the Nationals have another unexpected hero sitting in the shadows of the dugout? Maybe Ryan Zimmerman reemerges to make an impact or Rainey plugs a hole in the dam if a starter gets chased early.
- How quickly will Dave Martinez call on one of his starters to relieve, if necessary? Everyone is well-rested, and there basically is no tomorrow at this point. “All hands on deck” might be an understatement, and the Nats might not be able to afford to wait around if the Astros put up a crooked number early in a game.
- Can the Nationals get to the Astros bullpen early? How quick will AJ Hinch be on the hook? He’s given Verlander and Cole a long leash and is unlikely to deviate from that strategy, but he can be quick on the draw in his bullpen.
- Will Greinke show up as a playoff ace and silence the Nationals hitters, or will he continue to just be above average?
- Can the Astros wake up with men on base and start getting the timely hits needed to get these Nats starters out of the game early? Can Alvarez, Bregman, and Springer reverse their fortune at the plate and spark the top of this Astros lineup?
- Who will step up alongside Harris in the Astros bullpen?
Tim Jackson: Astros in seven games. There is a part of my sports being that feasts on chaos, and the Nationals winning the World Series would certainly represent that. They’ve had a magical run. I just can’t get over how great the Astros are, though, how well-oiled a machine they’ve been no matter who they’re facing. It may not be easy, but they seem unstoppable.
Dave Cherman: This is tough. I’m all on board the Nats bandwagon and think they have what it takes to neutralize the Astros completely. I’m going to play it safe and say the Astros in six games. But my heart is shouting Nats in seven.
Featured image by Justin Paradis (@FreshMeatComm on Twitter)