The Astros completed their ALCS win in dramatic fashion, walking off the Yankees with a home run from Jose Altuve. The Nationals, after beating the defending NL champs the Dodgers in five games in the ALDS coasted in a sweep of the Cardinals to reach the World Series for the first time since they came to D.C. in 2005.
Both teams would seem to be rested and have their lineups in order going into Game 1 and while the Astros are the biggest World Series favorite (about 60 to 70 percent) since 2007 (a series that saw a hot, underdog Rockies squad get swept by the much better Red Sox), these teams are well matched. How much? Let's see.
This series is every pitching geek's fantasy. Between the seven probable starters (Astros may go "bullpen" game at some point), there are trophy cases full of awards including ERA titles, Cy Young Awards and an MVP. The best two pitchers in the series are Gerrit Cole and Justin Verlander. But Max Scherzer and Stephen Strasburg are very close behind. Then there is Zack Greinke and Patrick Corbin, essentially a push. Where the Nationals have the distinct advantage is they have a former ERA title winner in Aníbal Sánchez to go fourth. The Astros had that earlier in the year until Wade Miley's game fell off a cliff. It's not a huge advantage, but it does give the Nationals the edge here.
For the entire postseason, the Nationals have pitched six players in 81 of their 90 total innings. That includes their four starters. In this era of specialty pitchers and bullpen games, that is radical. It makes sense for them given that their bullpen is not good and their starters are otherworldly, however. But, still, it could be a huge issue as the disciplined Astros get more and more looks at the starters over the course of the series. This is not the Cardinals offense and once the 'Stros get three or four looks at the starters, the Nats may need a bullpen they can depend on.
The Nats one through six are as good as anyone in baseball, but the Astros one through nine might be close to the best period. Both have young guys who have struggled in the playoffs (the Astros more than the Nationals), but they rely far more on Juan Soto than the Astros do on Yordan Alvarez. More importantly, the Astros have been here before and don't just seem calm under pressure, they relish it. No one would suggest the stage is too big for the Nationals, but experience counts, particularly in the postseason.
The Astros are, arguably, the best defensive team in baseball. They were second in baseball in fielding percentage and have shown throughout the postseason that they have an uncanny knack for coming up with huge plays at the right time. The Nationals were a very solid team defensively this season and have been OK in the playoffs, but the combination of the Astros Gold Glove-worth infield and their playmakers in the outfield give them the clear advantage.
As good as the Nationals are, and they are extremely good, their margin for error in the World Series is smaller than the Astros simply because they haven't been here before. They haven't been forced out of what they do best or had to adjust to another team warping the game in a pressure packed situation. The Astros have been to the ALCS three times in three straight years. This is their second World Series. Going back to 2015, they have been one of the better teams in baseball and have a core that has been together most of that time. To beat them often means being close to error free.
Dave Martinez has taken a team few believed would be a contender to the brink of the franchise's first championship. That is nothing short of remarkable. But, as MLB writer Richard Justice put it on a local radio show Monday, A.J. Hinch has practically re-written the book on how to manage in the postseason. His steady hand and creative use of analytics has made him one of the most skilled managers in all of baseball, never mind one of the most experienced in the playoffs. Martinez will have his hands full in this series.
Prediction: Astros in 6
Reading predictions around baseball, the feeling is the Nationals are either going to stretch this to seven and shock the world or the Astros are going to manhandle the Nats in short order. We are somewhat in the middle of that. The Nationals pitching is so good, it demands respect and will likely take a toll on the Astros bats early. Ultimately, the Astros are the better team. It doesn't mean the Nationals can't beat them, but in this case, they probably won't and the Astros will win their second title in three years.
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