This, baseball fans, should be a great one.
When the playoffs started, this eternal pessimist didn’t figure on the Houston Astros getting this far. They’d been woefully inconsistent at times at the plate, despite being near the top of the major leagues in runs, hits and average all season, outscoring opponents by an overwhelming margin. Their defense was stellar and starting pitching solid, but the bullpen had been unpredictably weak at times, prompting GM James Click to deal for relief help at the trade deadline.
Yet here they are, about to meet the Atlanta Braves in the World Series.
The Braves, about whom I didn’t know a great deal since I don’t really follow the National League closely, didn’t even have a winning record until Aug. 6. They lost their best player, right fielder Ronald Acuña Jr., to a torn right ACL in early July.
But the Braves’ front office made several bold midseason acquisitions that helped them win their fourth straight NL East title with 88 wins — least in the playoff field. In the postseason, they’ve eliminated a strong Brewers team and the defending champion Dodgers, who won 106 games in the regular season yet had to settle for a wild-card berth behind the 107-win Giants.
The Astros, booed and bashed in every road stadium this season over the 2017-18 sign-stealing scandal that surfaced after their World Series loss to the Nationals two years ago, won 95 games in capturing their fourth AL West crown in five years. They handled the White Sox with relative ease in the first round, winning in four games, before surviving with a remarkable show of resilience against the Red Sox in the ALCS. They fell behind 2-1 after Boston feasted on the Astros’ struggling rotation, outscoring Houston 21-8 in Games 2 and 3 after the Astros won the opener.
But over the next three, stalwart bullpen work and dominant starts by Framber Valdez and Luis Garcia, combined with an astounding display of clutch hitting, gave the Astros three straight victories in which they blew away the Red Sox 23-3 to win the series in six games.
To say these two teams have peaked at the right time wouldn’t be a stretch. The Braves have gotten great relief pitching, an amazing offensive display from Eddie Rosario in the NLCS, steady starting pitching and contributions up and down the lineup from guys like Austin Riley, Ozzie Albies, Freddie Freeman and Joc Pederson — one of those midseason pickups who brought to Atlanta a pedigree of seven-plus seasons with the Dodgers.
These Braves are really, really good. They remind me of the 2019 Nationals, the ones who weren’t supposed to beat the Astros in the World Series — but did. In seven games, in a series in which the home team never won.
So I’m a bit worried. Then again, I’m a worrier.
I know that “on paper” — at least comparing most of the offensive statistics — the Astros have the better team. Up and down the batting order, every spot except catcher is a tough out. With the Astros’ Lance McCullers Jr. injured in the ALDS and unavailable, I give the Braves an edge in starting pitching, especially with veteran Charlie Morton — who helped the Astros win the World Series in 2017 — set to pitch Games 1 and 5. He’s playoff-tested and has always pitched well against his old club.
The Atlanta bullpen’s strong lefties — A.J. Minter, Tyler Matzek and closer Will Smith — seem to have gotten more and more unhittable late in the season and through the playoffs, and have the potential to neutralize the Astros’ potent left-handed trio of Michael Brantley, Yordan Alvarez and Kyle Tucker. All three have shown they can hit lefties, and they’ll need to do so for the Astros to win this series, because they’re going to see A LOT of those three relievers.
It goes without saying, but the Astros’ hitters will need to be patient and work counts. No one’s going to persuade Jose Altuve to stop swinging at the first pitch, but he and his teammates need to make sure they’re swinging at pitches they can handle and not being overly aggressive like the Astros can be at times. They struck out less than any team in the majors this season, and that trend needs to continue.
There are so many intriguing storylines in this series. When Kay and I attended Game 2 of the ALCS against the Red Sox at Minute Maid Park on Oct. 16, one of the graphics flashing on one of the two huge video boards was “Houston vs. Everybody.” That, of course, is a wave at the cheating-fueled hatred that’s greeted the Astros everywhere they go and on every social media outlet in existence.
They may not say they’re out to prove the haters and nonbelievers wrong. But they are, and I hope beyond hope they do. Because there’s no way the Astros needed to resort to cameras in centerfield and trash can signals to get an extra edge over their opponents during their 2017 World Series run — and however long after that they continued to use the illegal system. They already had an advantage in terms of talent all over the field. I’m of the belief that the cheating surely made a difference in a few games, but that the Astros would’ve won the championship even if they hadn’t resorted to against-the-rules technology to steal signs.
(And as I’ve written before, I strongly believe what the Astros did was wrong and that the players involved should’ve been punished by MLB. They weren’t, but there were fines and the manager and GM were fired, and the team will have to live with the stain on its reputation and the far-and-wide loathing for a long, long time — well after the last handful of players from that era are no longer on the roster.)
The most gotta-love-it side to this World Series: Astros manager Dusty Baker. He’s been in pro baseball for over 50 years since making his debut as a player in 1968. What a delicious coincidence that when he was called up as a 19-year-old rookie in September 1968, it was for these same Braves, and when he entered a game for the first time, it was against these same Astros as a pinch-hitter for eventual Hall of Fame knuckleballer Phil Niekro.
Dusty, who was on deck in April 1974 when his mentor, Hank Aaron, hit his 715th home run to break Babe Ruth’s record, went on to have a solid playing career, being chosen an All-Star twice and winning one World Series in 1981 with the Dodgers — who beat the Astros in the first round along the way.
Although millions will be rooting against the Astros — not necessarily for the Braves — you’ve got to think a lot of folks will be rooting for Johnnie B. “Dusty” Baker Jr. He’s 72 years old and has been managing since he was hired to lead the Giants starting in 1993 at age 43 (the youngest manager in baseball at the time). He’s managed five teams and is the only field boss to take five teams to the playoffs, but he’s suffered some agonizingly memorable postseason losses. This is only Dusty’s second time to manage a team to baseball’s pinnacle series — his first since 2002 with the Giants, who lost to the Angels that year.
He’s universally beloved, and for all those pulling hard against the Astros, let’s hope there are equal numbers cheering for Dusty. He deserves to win this, and it would certainly cement his place in Cooperstown.
I generally try to stay away from predictions, mostly because I’m not very good at them and I don’t like to look stupid when they don’t pan out. But I do think this series will go seven games. I just don’t see how it won’t. And I’ll go against my prediction avoidance and go with the Astros prevailing in those seven.
If this is truly shortstop Carlos Correa’s last appearance in an Astros uniform before he signs a mega-free agent deal elsewhere, I’m thinking he goes out in a monster way. It’s all set up for him, right?
This is your time, Astros. Third World Series trip in five years, fourth in the franchise’s history. Time to win your second for the city of Houston, for Dusty and for integrity — what this team has always stood for until things got off course, when winning at any cost got in the way. Show everyone what you’re really made of.
Let’s go, Astros!!