The matchup is now set. After a thrilling Game 6 victory over the Yankees late Saturday night, the Astros captured their second American League pennant in three years and thus advanced to the 2019 World Series to face the very well rested Nationals, who today will work out and meet with a throng of media members at Minute Maid Park, with Game 1 of the Fall Classic set for 8:08 p.m. Tuesday.
This World Series may not appeal as much to casual observers and television executives as, say, Yankees-Dodgers would have, but in truth this might be the best matchup of all the possibilities when the postseason began three weeks ago.
You want compelling storylines? How about former Tigers aces Scherzer and Verlander going up against each other? How about Houston native Rendon returning home? How about Altuve continuing to provide a big bat in a small package? How about Ryan Zimmerman and the veteran Nationals seeking their first World Series title?
This is a great matchup. And anyone who can’t see that doesn’t understand that there are great players, great teams and great stories outside of New York, Los Angeles, Boston and Chicago.
How, though, do these two teams stack up against each other? The Astros are being touted as prohibitive favorites. Is that a fair designation?
Let’s run through each team’s strengths and weaknesses and decide for ourselves. It’s the World Series Tale of the Tape ...
Nationals: They scored the second-most runs in the National League during the regular season, leading the league with a .342 on-base percentage and ranking second with a .796 OPS. This is a well balanced lineup, with speed at the top (Trea Turner) and bottom (Victor Robles), patience and power in the middle (Rendon, Soto) and veteran run producers throughout the second half (Howie Kendrick, Zimmerman, Kurt Suzuki). What the Nats really have done well, though, is sustain rallies, especially late in games. They led the NL in batting average (.258), on-base percentage (.351) and OPS (.811) with two outs. And they scored the second-most runs in baseball from the seventh inning on. And they’ve excelled this month: With two outs and runners in scoring position this postseason, the Nationals are batting .333 with a .452 on-base percentage and .937 OPS.
Astros: Likewise, Houston has a well balanced lineup that does a lot of things well. The Astros led the majors this season in batting average (.274), on-base percentage (.352), slugging percentage (.495) and OPS (.848). Four players hit 31 or more homers (Bregman, Altuve, George Springer and Yuli Gurriel) and four regulars boasted an on-base percentage of at least .370 (Bregman, Springer, Yordan Alvarez and Michael Brantley). They’ve relied more on the home run in the postseason, though, with 14 blasts in 11 games, making up for their subpar overall October numbers (.208 batting average, .287 on-base percentage, .645 OPS).
Edge: Astros, slightly.
Nationals: Only 36 major league pitchers this season started at least 27 games and logged an ERA under 3.90. Four of them pitch for the Nats: Scherzer, Strasburg, Corbin and Aníbal Sánchez. And they’ve been great this month, combining for a 2.04 ERA, 0.92 WHIP and 12.8 strikeouts per nine innings. All of those rank tops among all teams that played more than one game this postseason. The Nationals truly have a Big Four, and in a seven-game series that’s all the more significant.
Astros: You want a dominant rotation? How about this: Three of the top nine ERAs among all qualifying major league starters this season belonged to Houston pitchers: Verlander, Cole and Greinke (who was acquired from the Diamondbacks at the trade deadline to complete the most impressive pitching trio in the sport). They haven’t really been all that dominant in the postseason, though, aside from Cole (one run, 10 hits in 22 2/3 innings). Verlander and Greinke have combined to give up 20 earned runs in 38 1/3 innings (a 4.70 ERA). And there’s nothing special beyond the Big Three. The only other guy to start a game this postseason was Brad Peacock, who pitched 1 2/3 innings to open Game 6 of the American League Championship Series on Saturday night.
Edge: Nationals, slightly.
Nationals: OK, so this was statistically the majors’ worst bullpen during the regular season. We know that. But did you know that the Nats’ four most-often used relievers during this posteason (Daniel Hudson, Sean Doolittle, Tanner Rainey, Fernando Rodney) have a combined 1.83 ERA and 0.97 WHIP across 19 2/3 innings? They haven’t blown a lead in the seventh inning or later, with Hudson and Doolittle a combined 5-for-5 in save opportunities. Sure, there are still some shaky moments, and the idea of Davey Martinez needing to ask for three or four innings of relief every night from this group will send a shiver down your spine. But as long as the rotation continues to do its part, this bullpen has a good chance to continue to do its part.
Astros: They had the majors’ third-lowest bullpen ERA (3.75), second-lowest WHIP (1.20) and fifth-best save percentage (70.1 percent) during the regular season. They’ve got five guys they’ll turn to in Roberto Osuna, Will Harris, Joe Smith, Josh James and Ryan Pressly. Collectively, that quintet has a 3.42 ERA and 1.29 WHIP this postseason. They’re 2-for-3 in save opportunities, with Osuna giving up the game-tying homer to D.J. LeMahieu in the top of the ninth the other night. All five top relievers are righties, creating some less-than-ideal matchup situations. And Pressly had to come out of Game 6 of the ALCS with discomfort in his right knee, though he is expected to be ready for the World Series.
Edge: Nationals. No, seriously.
Nationals: Martinez has plenty of quality options on his bench, from both sides of the plate, in Matt Adams, Asdrúbal Cabrera, Brian Dozier, Gerardo Parra, Michael A. Taylor and Yan Gomes. He’ll have his pick of designated hitters for the games in Houston, able to play matchups rather than stick with one consistent option. There won’t be many pinch-hitting opportunities in the four games in the AL park, but they’re well stocked for Games 3-5 in D.C. Nats pinch-hitters are 4-for-12 with only one strikeout this postseason.
Astros: A.J. Hinch has enough depth to mix and match with his lineup. Six players have started all 11 postseason games to date, but Robinson Chirinos and Martín Maldonado have split catching duties and Josh Reddick, Jake Marisnick and Kyle Tucker have collectively started 11 games in the outfield alongside regulars Springer and Brantley. Aledmys Díaz has been their most-used pinch-hitter, but he’s 0-for-6 with a walk in that role this month.
Nationals: Three of the four regular infielders (Rendon, Turner, Zimmerman) have been fantastic in the field this month. The other (Kendrick) was a mess in the National League Division Series but played well in the NLCS. Robles looks healthy and thus is an elite center fielder. Soto has looked rough at times in left field. Suzuki remains a major liability behind the plate, having failed to throw out any of four basestealers in the postseason, continuing his struggles from the regular season.
Astros: If you watched the ALCS, you saw what you need to see. This is a fantastic team in the field, from Correa and Bregman in the infield to Springer, Reddick and Brantley in the outfield. Chirinos hasn’t looked great behind the plate, though, and he was 0-for-3 throwing out basestealers.
Nationals: Despite what they’ve accomplished this month, and really the last five months, the Nats still don’t seem to get the credit they deserve outside of the DMV. Sure, they have their flaws, especially when it comes to bullpen depth and a lineup that too often goes ice cold for long stretches within games. But the rotation has been fantastic, and that has allowed the bullpen to be short and highly effective. The lineup has produced when it has needed to, riding those veteran bats through some impressive two-out rallies. In case you hadn’t heard, these guys have baseball’s best record since May 24. They aren’t a fluke. They’re legitimately great.
Astros: What’s not to like about this team? The Astros have a deep and diverse lineup that can hit the ball out of the park and grind out at-bats. The three big starters are fearsome, with Cole elevating himself to otherworldly levels this month. They play great defense all around. And they have the experience of winning a title only two years ago, so they aren’t about to be spooked by the bright lights. This was the most complete team in baseball all season long, and we’ve seen why in October.
Edge: The best team in baseball since March 28 or the best team in baseball since May 24? We’ll ride the hot hand (hoping the six-day layoff doesn’t come back to haunt them). We’ll add significance to the Nationals’ ability to put four excellent starters out there, as opposed to only three for the Astros. We’ll give them credit for having several viable DH options in the AL park and several potent pinch-hitting options in the NL park, creating advantageous matchups. And we’ll trust that the two big arms at the back of the ‘pen can hang on and finish this thing off. Nats in seven.