World Series primer
October 22, 2019
And then there were two.
We've arrived at the main event: After spring training camps, 162-game seasons for 30 teams, Wild Card games, and two rounds of playoffs, it's time for the World Series. Raise your hand if you predicted this year's matchup of the Washington Nationals vs. the Houston Astros.
Good on you, I did not predict that (kinda close, though). Even at the conclusion of the regular season, when my preseason forecast of a dominant Colorado Rockies team had already crashed and burned in a spectacular blaze, I figured we'd be seeing, yes, the seemingly unstoppable Houston Astros, but against the Dodgers in a 2017 rematch. I'm glad to be wrong on that, though, and pleased to see the Nats win their first pennant, even if it does leave Your Seattle Mariners as the only Major League franchise never to glimpse a World Series.
Because the Nationals are a fun team to root for. Perhaps my visit earlier this year to Nationals Park has something to do with it, but my rooting interests go above and beyond earned antipathy for an Astros team that beat the stuffing out of the Mairners this year. (Houston beat the M's 18 of 19 times in 2019. Eighteen times. Including a no-hitter. Screw 'em.) I'm not just pulling for Houston to have a problem, I want to see the DC former Expos triumph in their own right even though it seems unlikely. Despite their awesome starting rotation, Washington is the underdog; Houston is, as established, a brutal bully. But the Nats were underdogs to the Dodgers, too, and they defeated LA in a dramatic Game Five of the NLDS and trounced the Central Division champion Cardinals in four straight. They may not look like much, but this is not a team to be trifled with. You've got young Juan Soto barely containing his energy in the batter's box; Trea Turner making amazing plays at shortstop; Anthony Rendon being, well, Anthony Rendon. And Max Scherzer's dual-colored eyes on the mound, of course.
The Nats and Astros are more alike than you might think: Each team has spectacular starting pitching and so-so relievers; each has a third baseman vying for league MVP honors; each has a rookie slugger that tore the cover off the ball this season; each led their league in batting average and on-base percentage; each has great defenders up the middle. It may not be the clash of titans we expected, but it promises to be a mighty good series.
If you like low scores, that is. Yeah, these teams are top of the heap in getting on base, but look at the starting pitchers we'll see: Scherzer. Gerrit Cole. Justin Verlander. Stephen Strasburg. Zack Greinke. Patrick Corbin. Even Wade Miley and Anibal Sánchez are nothing to sneeze at.
It's gonna be fun. First pitch at 5:08 PDT.
Nationals vs. Astros: Who's got the edge?
Having seen them play the Mariners 19 times, as well as what you may have seen in the playoffs, we know all about the Astros' Big Two of Cole and Verlander. They're beyond good. They are likely to finish 1-2 in this year's AL Cy Young Award balloting. Cole is perhaps more fearsome, as Verlander has shown he can be susceptible to either Big Game Pressure or falloff due to breaks in his days-of-rest schedule—and he's more likely to give up a longball—but would you want to face either one of them? No. No, you would not. JV led the league in wins (Cole was second), WHIP (Cole was second), and innings; Cole led in ERA (Verlander was second) and strikeouts (Verlander was second). Following them is Greinke, himself no slouch with 18 wins, a sub-3.00 ERA and sub-1.000 WHIP. Houston opted not to use a fourth starter in the playoffs, going with (oddly) a bullpen game in the only match not started by one of those three, and Houston manager A.J. Hinch hasn't said if he'll start Brad Peacock or Miley in Game 4 or do another weird bullpen game.
As for the Nationals, Scherzer gets the nod in Game 1 with Strasburg going in Wednesday's Game 2. These Big Two don't have quite the same gaudy numbers as Houston's Big Two, but think of it this way: Scherzer went 11-7 with a 2.92 ERA, 1.027 WHIP, and 243 Ks to only 33 walks and he had a down year. Since coming to Washington in 2015, the Nats' heterochromic ace has 79 regular season wins, a 2.74 ERA, and a sub-1.000 WHIP, a phenomenally consistent string of excellence that included three NL-best strikeout marks and three NL-best WHIPs. And Strasburg posted an NL-best 18 wins this season, topped 200 innings for the second time in his career, and struck out an average of nearly 11 batters per nine innings. Washington manager Dave Martínez hasn't confirmed Game 3 and 4 starters, but they'll surely be Corbin and Sánchez; Corbin matches up well with Greinke while Sánchez showed the world he can still bring it when he took a no-hitter into the seventh inning against the Cardinals in the NLCS.
Sadly, the managers have deprived us of a high-profile ex-teammate matchup by not scheduling Scherzer and Verlander together; from 2010-2014, those two were both stars for the Detroit Tigers, each winning a Cy Young in that span. We may get the less-exciting Corbin-Greinke matchup, though, pitting the former Arizona Diamondback All-Star teammates against each other in Game 3.
It's tough to give an edge here—Cole and Verlander had the better year over Scherzer and Strasburg, but the Nats have more depth after their Big Two and the dropoff between the respective ace pairs isn't that much. Call it even.
Neither side crows about its relief corps, but Houston is sure to rely on theirs more. Will Harris and Ryan Pressly are the reliable standouts, but Pressly was injured in his last appearance in the ALCS and might not make the roster. The Astros' closer, Roberto Osuna, led the league in saves and perhaps in boos (outside of Houston, anyway), as he is among the most reviled players in the bigs thanks to his history of domestic violence. The Nats have a patchwork ’pen that's been a trouble spot this summer, but since late-season trades (including one with the Mariners) have given it some stability. They are without former Mariner Roenis Elías, who is injured, but Daniel Hudson has been lights-out since coming over from the Blue Jays (1.44 ERA, 0.880 WHIP as a Nat) and taking the closer's job from Sean Doolittle, who is still pretty good despite having had a down season due to three bad games (one in May, two in August) that each saw him surrender four runs in less than an inning. It's slim pickings after that, though, evidenced by 42-year-old ex-Mariner Fernando Rodney's prominence among the rest.
Edge: Astros, but not by much.
Washington has legit stars in 3B Anthony Rendon and SS Trea Turner, with solid support from 1B Ryan Zimmerman and NLCS MVP Howie Kendrick. It's a good group, better than many, but Houston just overwhelms here. With 1B Yuli Gurriel, SS Carlos Correa, and superhumans José Altuve and Alex Bregman at 2B and 3B, the Astros are peerless. It's almost unfair that all four of them are on the same team.
The Astros feature power threats George Springer and Michael Brantley here, both fearsome hitters, and Brantley dazzled with his glove in the playoffs. The third spot is a timeshare of sorts between Josh Reddick and Jake Marisnick, neither of whom make pitchers quake in their cleats. The Nats have rookie sensation Juan Soto and his .401 OBP and Adam Eaton's well-balanced I-can-bunt-and-hit-homers attack in the corners and fleet-footed rookie Victor Robles in center, with Michael Taylor and Gerardo Parra backing up. This is also a tough call, but even though Houston has the power advantage, I think the Nats' overall skillset tips the scale.
Edge: Nationals, barely.
Similarities here as well, as Houston features defensive whiz Martín Maldonado and the pop of Robinson Chirinos behind the plate while Washington has veterans Kurt Suzuki and Yan Gomes sharing receiver duties. None will wow you in the batter's box, but Suzuki/Gomes is a much more potent offensive combo than Maldonado/Chirinos. Maldonado is the best receiver of the bunch, but the others are plenty good with the gear on.
For games 1 and 2—and 6 and 7 if it goes that far—there will be a designated hitter in the lineup as the AL Astros host in Texas, and the Astros have a star in the making there. 22-year-old Yordan Alvarez has only half a Major League season under his belt thus far, but what a half-season. A .313/.412/.655 batting line and 27 homers make him a force to be reckoned with. The Nationals, of course, rarely need a DH so don't have a regular there; they'll likely go with Howie Kendrick in that spot with the better-defending Brian Dozier playing second base, or perhaps Gerardo Parra will get DH duty if the matchup is favorable—Parra does have decent numbers in limited at-bats against Verlander and Greinke. On the flip side, come Game 3 in DC, the pitchers will be in the lineup and Alvarez will get relegated to the bench; at least for one game, though, Houston still will have the advantage because Greinke is among the best-hitting pitchers in recent years (.271 average this year in Arizona before being traded).