World Series storylines: 7 things to watch in Astros-Phillies, from Bryce Harper to Dusty Baker to the chaos factor

The World Series is here. An exhilarating, and at times shocking, postseason has offered up familiar faces and brand new ones to duke it out in the Fall Classic. It’s the Houston Astros and the Philadelphia Phillies, the American League’s top seed vs. the National League’s last team in. It’s a club making its fourth World Series appearance in six seasons against one vaulting back into the spotlight for the first time since 2009.

The Astros, winners of 106 games in the regular season, will have the home-field advantage and host Game 1 on Friday. That game, like the rest of the series, starts at 8 p.m. ET on Fox.

Before the first pitch is thrown, we can already see some of the biggest topics of conversation that will hover over the season’s decisive games. Here are seven storylines to watch.

1. Can the Astros go undefeated in the postseason?

In case you hadn’t noticed, the Astros haven’t lost yet in the playoffs. They swept the Seattle Mariners in the ALDS — even though it took four games’ worth of baseball to get three wins. They swept the New York Yankees in the ALCS.

They enter the World Series 7-0. If they were to sweep the Phillies to claim the championship, they would be the first team to pull off an 11-0 postseason. Since the wild card was added in 1995, the closest teams to October perfection were the 2005 Chicago White Sox and 1999 Yankees (each going 11-1).

Since 1969 — when the ALCS and NLCS game into being — the only team to complete an undefeated season is the Big Red Machine, the 1976 Reds. That team had to go only 7-0 to win the whole shebang.

The 2014 Kansas City Royals and 2007 Colorado Rockies both entered the World Series undefeated, but fell short of championships. (Maybe remember that one when broadcasters bandy about the importance of momentum.)

Of note, the last time the Astros lost was Oct. 3. To the Phillies.

Bryce Harper, seen here celebrating a hit with Kyle Schwarber, is leading the Phillies into the World Series against the Astros. (Photo by Logan Riely/Getty Images)

2. Bryce Harper reaches for the pinnacle

Let’s take a second to simply celebrate that one of baseball’s most recognizable stars is getting a chance to have a moment in the World Series. Phillies superstar Bryce Harper very much kicked down the door to the big stage with his game-winning homer in Game 5 of the NLCS, and in the process won an opportunity that has eluded some of the biggest, brightest stars of this and previous generations.

Identified as a star at age 16, Harper’s MVP-level performance for the Washington Nationals was never enough to win even a single playoff series. His commitment to the Phillies in free agency looked similarly snakebitten until this summer’s ascendant turn accelerated into a magical fall.

3. Can Justin Verlander avoid World Series stumble?

The Astros ace doesn't need much more shine on his legacy. He's likely going to add his third Cy Young Award next month, and do so after an age-39 season where he returned from Tommy John surgery looking like one of the best pitchers in the world.

But if there's one line on his résumé that Verlander would like to change, it's probably his performance in the World Series. He enters with a 5.68 ERA, and an 0-6 record, in seven starts across four World Series appearances. He got his ring in 2017, but even then his starts couldn't have been totally satisfying. He allowed three runs in a Game 2 that devolved into an extra-inning thriller, then he took the loss in Game 6 despite allowing only two runs.

In the Astros' 2019 World Series defeat to the Washington Nationals, he was bested twice by Stephen Strasburg, losing Games 2 and 6. If he's remembered for anything in that series, it's for serving up the pitch that Juan Soto turned into an iconic, reputation-cementing homer as an all-time precocious talent.

4. Dusty Baker continues quest for title No. 1 as a manager

While we're on the topic of individual legacies, Astros manager Dusty Baker is looking for the cherry on top of a managerial career that will likely land him in the Hall of Fame. This is his third pennant and 12th playoff team at the helm.

At age 73, his charming quips and superstitious dugout antics have made him an MLB institution — along with that whole track record of persistently winning. A teammate of Henry Aaron in his playing days, few people reach back through the sport’s history like Baker.

More than a few people would be thrilled to see him inscribe his name into history as a World Series-winning manager.

5. Phillies manager Rob Thomson steers his very first team into the Fall Classic

Meanwhile, the manager in the other dugout is calling the shots in a World Series before his first opening day as a skipper. The Phillies’ Rob Thomson, 59, took over the reins from Joe Girardi in June. Right about then, everything about a disappointing Phillies season brightened.

The unassuming Canadian, a career coach who had largely let the idea of running a team go, has been exactly what this Phillies team needed. Initially handed the job on an interim basis, he now has a two-year contract to lead them through 2024.

He has pressed just about every right button so far, including navigating a thinner bullpen through the stresses of October. He’s already the toast of Philadelphia. If he can find four more wins, he might never buy a drink again.

New faces and old standbys, the Astros just keep winning despite the turnover and shame in the wake of the sign-stealing scandal. (Photo by Mary DeCicco/MLB Photos via Getty Images)
New faces and old standbys, the Astros just keep winning despite the turnover and shame in the wake of the sign-stealing scandal. (Photo by Mary DeCicco/MLB Photos via Getty Images)

6. Would a clean Astros championship change anyone's mind?

Nothing will ever totally dispel the black cloud over the 2017 Astros for some people. Yankees and Dodgers fans, and some assorted others will always feel aggrieved, always harbor suspicion around the members of the team that used electronics and trash cans to steal signs. That's their (and maybe your) prerogative.

What's becoming more difficult is holding up the cheating as a reason to discount the Astros' success.

They are perpetually the class of the American League, despite turnover on the field and in the front office. The players who remain from that 2017 team — most notably Jose Altuve and Alex Bregman — are still putting up superstar stats (presumably) without the benefit of untoward assistance. The players who were unrelated or have come into their own since then — Yordan Alvarez, Kyle Tucker, any and all pitchers — form one of the most successful cores in baseball history.

This will be their third World Series without the sign-stealing operation, and second since the scandal came to light. If they win a second set of rings, will it fan the flames of Astros hate? Or quiet the boos with a stamp of legitimacy?

7. Logic or chaos? Choose your fighter for Astros-Phillies

To the dismay of some and delight of most, this month has reinforced the playoffs’ propensity for unpredictable outcomes.

Perhaps, then, given the discourse surrounding the correct balance of measuring up and entertainment value, this is the matchup we deserve. The Astros are a juggernaut, their skill and depth of talent proven by six straight ALCS appearances and yes, even that 2017 World Series victory that was tainted by the sign-stealing scandal. The Phillies, meanwhile, barely made the playoffs.

Where the Astros are a sleek machine — from a pitching pipeline to a well-established core of all-around position players to a savvy defense — the Phillies are a bundle of bottle rockets all going off at once. Their default starting lineup will feature four players whose ideal position is probably designated hitter, and none of them will be playing designated hitter — that will be Harper, who has an elbow injury that affects his throwing. But the flip side also works, or at least has this postseason: The Phillies have so many guys who can hit! That includes catcher J.T. Realmuto, one of the only backstops in the history of the sport who is even a threat to tally an inside-the-park home run, much less do so in a playoff game.

The Astros are a culmination of the tanking effort and player development operation built by former general manager Jeff Luhnow and continued (in the wake of the sign-stealing scandal) by current GM James Click. They have kept on winning through waves of public criticism and even as foundational stars like George Springer and Carlos Correa have departed in free agency. No one sums up the team's regenerative powers better than rookie shortstop Jeremy Peña. The 25-year-old stepped into Correa's position this year and more than held his own. He proved one of the better defenders in the majors and has made a habit of hitting mammoth playoff homers — dispatching of the Mariners with his 18th-inning shot in the ALDS and erasing one of the Yankees' only leads in ALCS Game 4.

The Phillies are a mish-mash of a final product, but an exciting one. It’s a team less built than salvaged from the wreckage of a rebuild that aimed for the Astros, fell short and pivoted to filling gaps with astronomical spending. That began under former GM Matt Klentak, with Harper, Realmuto and co-ace Zack Wheeler. Team owner John Middleton, refreshingly ready to win at all costs, hired current president of baseball operations Dave Dombrowski prior to 2021, and he doubled down on the slugging mindset, signing Kyle Schwarber and Nick Castellanos. He patched other holes — glaring deficiencies at shortstop and center field, instability in the bullpen — as the season progressed.

The result is a series that feels like a collision of a team with a detailed map and a team that got here blindfolded.

But don’t mistake their disparate routes here for a hint at where they will go next. Both of them have the horsepower to get to the finish line first. All that's left to do is sit back and watch.

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