Look out, AL teams. There’s a new dynasty in town in the Houston Astros. They’re playing in the World Series for the second time in the last three years after finishing with league-high 108 regular-season wins and are widely regarded the favourites to win it all against the Washington Nationals.
It is a different campaign compared to 2017. In the Astros’ first ever championship season, they were the second seed in the AL bracket. They were also the underdog against the Dodgers, managing to beat them on the road in Game 7 of the Fall Classic. And, most notably, the current team is a lot stronger than in 2017.
Despite their wins against the Yankees and Rays thus far in the postseason, Houston showed that, however, the clash for the Commissioner’s Trophy could be more intriguing than you might think.
Both Justin Verlander and Gerrit Cole were far off their best stuff in their latest outings in the ALCS. Greinke, meanwhile, has surrendered 10 runs in 14 innings in the playoffs, including 5 homeruns. Their bullpen isn’t perfect either and that would be a problem against a deep Nationals lineup that ripped apart Cardinals rookie sensation Dakota Hudson in their last offensive showing.
The Nationals have actually been very consistent on the offensive side of the ball. Howie Kendrick, a very good hitter in a background role in the regular season, has had his impact in the postseason, winning the NLCS Most Valuable Player award. Anthony Rendon has driven in 7 runs and, alongside Kendrick, will be the toughest get out by Astros pitching.
Expect the Nationals to be scoring often rather than be explosive, and to want to get to the Houston bullpen as early in the games as possible.
In spite of how big the stakes are for Astros starting pitching, what will decide the series could be the other matchup. It’s been quieter than usual but the Astros offense is what separates them from other teams. You cannot beat them unless you shut that lineup down. The bad news for the Nationals is that the offense has found its shape, led by Jose Altuve’s 5 homeruns. One of them, on Saturday night, was a walk-off two-run shot that sent Houston to the 115th Fall Classic.
The good news is that the Nationals are also more than capable to do so considering the way that the pitching staff has carried them so far. There are two things here that deserve a further thought. Firstly, the Nationals trio of starters Max Scherzer, Stephen Strasburg and Patrick Corbin struck out at least ten batters in each of the four games in the NLCS.
The Astros were the team that struck out league-low 1166 times during the regular season. That means those three, as well as everyone else in that staff, might need to reconsider their approach against that lineup. They’ll need to get quick outs also in order for the starting pitcher to stay longer into the game.
That gets us to the second topic about Nationals pitching which is the bullpen usage. It’s pretty easy to come to the conclusion that a starter with no less than a day rest could be effective at worst in relief. What’s more interesting is that the traditional relievers have also stepped up in October. That’s no consequence – no reliever in those four games against St. Louis, three of which ended in a save opportunity, pitched more than 1.2 innings.
Daniel Hudson closed out two of those opportunities to earn a save. If it can be covered up, decreasing workload leads to effectiveness, which has turned Hudson a crucial piece for Washington’s chances to win its first championship.
How the teams can win the series
Astros – Strikeout dominance
That will be the deciding component as the Nationals aren’t a power-hitting team. They’ve hit 8 homeruns – of the final four teams alive, only the Cardinals hit less (5). If they don’t put runners on bases often, they will have a hard time scoring anything, especially against the starting pitching.
Nationals – Patience at the plate
Against strikeout-heavy and durable starters, the Nationals’ best chances could come against that bullpen. They need to find their way to it as early as possible and if they want to get anything, even against starting pitchers, they need to make them throw as many pitches as possible.
Gerrit Cole vs. Juan Soto
First off, Juan Soto has to be relegated to the fifth spot after hitting .188 in the NLCS. Even there, he needs to improve that because he’ll have chances, even against the Astros’ starters. Gerrit Cole starts Game 1 at Minute Maid Park and the team that wins Game 1 has won the series 64% of the time.
Who wins it all?
The Nationals’ best chances are Game 2 and Game 6, Strasburg’s two potential starts. Corbin’s starts, if underwhelming, could feature heavy bullpen usage. Those games would be decided by Scherzer’s starts, where he needs to pitch deep into the game. He’s done just that in every start since the Wildcard game and, if the Nationals manage to spoil either a Verlander or a Cole start, their chances are very good.