World Series preview: Astros, Nationals littered with aces

The Houston Astros and Washington Nationals did their part to lend credence to the theory that it takes good starting pitching to win in the postseason.

And for that, they were rewarded with a World Series berth, a first for the Nationals’ franchise, and the third in Houston’s history.

The Astros look to be following the same path that led them to their first title in 2017, once again ripping the hearts out of the New York Yankees to book their spot. After four division titles without a playoff series win in the past eight years, the Nationals finally got over the hump as a wild card team, slayed the 106-win Los Angeles Dodgers and swept the St. Louis Cardinals without being behind on the scoreboard at any point in the series.

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They each bring with them two of the best pitchers in the game, supplemented by an All-Star third starter. And while the starting pitchers earn top billing, both of these offenses have proven capable of pulling their weight. The Astros led MLB in team batting average during the regular season, and Washington is tops in batting average, runs and hits in the postseason.

An MLB wins leader faces a wild card team in a World Series that’s far from lopsided, despite the odds.

Gerrit Cole has recorded double-digit strikeouts in 14 of his past 17 starts. (Photo by Elsa/Getty Images)
Gerrit Cole has recorded double-digit strikeouts in 14 of his past 17 starts. (Photo by Elsa/Getty Images)

WORLD SERIES SCHEDULE

Game 1: Tuesday, Oct. 22, in Houston, 8:08 p.m. ET (FOX)

Game 2: Wednesday, Oct. 23, in Houston, 8:07 p.m. ET (FOX)

Game 3: Friday, Oct. 25, in Washington, 8:07 p.m. ET, (FOX)

Game 4: Saturday, Oct. 26, in Washington, 8:07 p.m. ET, (FOX)

Game 5*: Sunday, Oct. 27, in Washington, 8:07 p.m. ET, (FOX)

Game 6*: Tuesday, Oct. 29, in Houston, 8:07 p.m. ET, (FOX)

Game 7*: Wednesday, Oct. 30, in Houston, 8:08 p.m. ET, (FOX)

* if necessary

PREVIOUSLY BETWEEN NATIONALS-ASTROS

The two teams work in close quarters at the same Spring Training facility in West Palm Beach, Florida. But they last squared off in the regular season as division leaders in August 2017. The Nationals won two of the three games in the series. Though there were rumors of a potential deal that would have sent Bryce Harper to Houston last year, they haven’t made a deal with each other since 2007. In 1996, when the Nationals were the Montreal Expos, the Astros were in the National League, and Juan Soto and Yordan Alvarez had yet to be born, a brawl broke out between the two teams at Olympic Stadium which resulted in Moises Alou throwing a batting helmet into the face of then-Astros manager Terry Collins.

WORLD SERIES PITCHING MATCHUPS

Game 1: TBD vs. Gerrit Cole

Game 2: TBD vs. Justin Verlander

Game 3: TBD vs. Zack Greinke

Game 4: TBD vs. TBD

Game 5*: TBD vs. TBD

Game 6*: TBD vs. TBD

Game 7*: TBD vs. TBD

* - if necessary

Cole is on a nearly impossible streak in which he has a 1.59 ERA in his past 25 starts over a 169 1/3-inning span. Verlander and Zack Greinke have had an up-and-down postseason, but were both able to navigate around early trouble in their starts at Yankee Stadium. They were able to come up with a win using Brad Peacock as an opener in their Game 6 ALCS clincher. Relievers like Joe Smith, Josh James and Jose Urquidy showed that they could provide Houston with some depth should they need to go to the bullpen in the early innings.

Stephen Strasburg is a proven postseason performer, owning a 1.10 ERA in eight starts. While the Astros lack a fourth starter, the Nationals have a very reliable Anibal Sanchez at their disposal. In the series against the Cardinals, Sanchez, Max Scherzer and Strasburg combined to allow four hits and struck out 28 over 21 2/3 innings without an earned run. Patrick Corbin was used four times out of the bullpen in between his two postseason starts and has 26 strikeouts in 13 1/3 postseason innings.

In the wild card game and short series against the Dodgers, Washington used their frontline starters out of the bullpen in key moments, which wasn’t necessary when they steamrolled the Cardinals. Sean Doolittle and Daniel Hudson are the Nationals’ sturdiest bullpen options.

Stephen Strasburg has a 1.10 ERA in eight starts spanning 41 innings. (Patrick Smith/Getty Images)
Stephen Strasburg has a 1.10 ERA in eight starts spanning 41 innings. (Patrick Smith/Getty Images)

ASTROS KEYS TO VICTORY

  • When the runners get into scoring position, don’t stop hitting. Houston went 5-for-46 with RISP in six games against the Yankees, and had to fall back on clutch home runs from Jose Altuve, George Springer and Carlos Correa. While even the best of the Nationals’ starters aren’t impervious to the long ball, they don’t often give opposing teams much room to make up for missed opportunities.

  • Awake the sleeping giant that is Yordan Alvarez. Altuve has been excellent throughout the postseason, while Springer and Correa’s clutch hitting has made up for disappointing overall playoff numbers. But Alvarez, the Rookie of the Year frontrunner, has seven hits and one RBI in 41 at-bats. He faced a lot of lefties against the Yankees, but Corbin and Doolittle are the only southpaws that have appeared for Washington in October — the Nats’ lack of left-handers should also provide more opportunities for Josh Reddick and Kyle Tucker to complement some of the superstars, like Alex Bregman and Michael Brantley.

  • Be the better bullpen. The starters are expected to lead the way in this series, which should keep the games close in the later innings. Although they did perform well against St. Louis, the Nationals, though they have been excellent this postseason, are short on reliable bullpen options outside of Doolittle and Hudson. Will Harris has been Houston’s best reliever in the postseason, but they’ll need Roberto Osuna to be a shut-down closer.

NATIONALS KEYS TO VICTORY

  • Make the most of the starting pitching depth. Greinke and Verlander have been shaky, and the Astros will have to throw a bullpen game at some point. This is where the Nationals can remain consistent, especially after the starters have had more than a full week off. Sanchez hasn’t pitched in 11 days, and Scherzer’s last start was Oct. 12. Even they can’t overcome Cole, which nobody really has, they’ll likely matchup an All-Star starter, perhaps even Strasburg, against Houston in a bullpen game. Even though it worked against the Yankees in Game 6, that situation presents a must-win for Washington.

  • Don’t let the week off cool the bats down. It’s hard not to understate how dominant the Nats were against the Cardinals. But Game 1 is a full week after they last played. Anthony Rendon and Trea Turner have led the way at the plate for the Nationals, but NLCS MVP Howie Kendrick and 35-year-old Ryan Zimmerman have provided the necessary boost to this offense. Juan Soto is too good a hitter to continue to strike out at the same rate, and Adam Eaton is batting .194 in the postseason. The week-long hiatus needs to have the proper effect on the right players.

  • Preserve this version of Fernando Rodney. Perhaps it helped to only have to pitch nine innings in the NLCS, but Rodney, Doolittle, Hudson and Tanner Rainey have combined for a 1.83 ERA in the postseason. The 42-year-old Rodney had a 5.66 ERA in the regular season, but he seems to have found his form. He’ll be an important piece during a series in which the opponent won’t be so easy to push around, and manager Dave Martinez will likely have to ask more of his bullpen.

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