It doesn’t always go this way. Wild Card teams make runs. All-time great teams stumble. The Giants won three championships in five years.
But here we are. The two best teams in baseball are meeting in the World Series. And it feels so right.
The Astros have been building toward this for seven years. Ever since Jeff Luhnow took over in 2011 and started tearing down the team, Houston has been stockpiling talent by hoarding high draft picks, signing international talent, and finally adding some veteran free agents when the time came.
Dodger fans have been smelling the World Series ever since Magic Johnson and the Guggenheim group brought their bottomless pockets to the owner’s suite. First they put together a Justice League-level front office dream team. Then they started offloading bad contracts. Finally, they combined young position players with a deep, veteran pitching staff.
Now these two 100+ win teams will meet. Two teams that got here different ways; the Astros trusting the process with a ground-up rebuild, and the Dodgers as the NL Yankees, patching any roster weakness over with wads of cash.
Here we go.
Astros: Justin Verlander is officially a legend. He straight dominated a potent Yankees lineup over 16 brilliant innings in the ALCS: 2 wins, 1 run allowed, 21 strikeouts. He’s slated to start Game 2, putting him on track for a long-rest Game 6 start, a short-rest Game 5 start, and/or a clutch relief appearance. Dallas Keuchel will face Kershaw in Game 1. He was sensational in his first two starts, but got knocked around by the Yankees the second time they saw him. It’s one hell of a 1-2 punch. But we knew that. What the world – including prayer-hands-emoji-flashin’ Astros manager A.J. Hinch – didn’t know, was that Lance McCullers, Jr. and Charlie Morton were going to form a backside of the rotation battering ram. Here’s proof that Morton’s bad game was largely due to bad luck. Both guys will have an extra day’s rest heading into Game 3, so Hinch can mix and match as he sees fit.
Dodgers: What do we make of Clayton Kershaw’s postseason so far? He allowed six home runs in just 17.1 innings pitched, which was representative of a 2017 that saw Kershaw allow the most of his career – 23 (1.2 HR/9). I’m not sure. It’s a righty-heavy Astros lineup that is loaded with power, top to bottom. The good news for manager Dave Roberts? Kershaw just needs to give him 5+ good innings, just like Yu Darvish has done in both playoff starts. LA’s top deadline acquisition has looked dominant in both starts, and might give the Dodgers their best shot at fully shutting down the loaded Astros lineup. Rich Hill has been money in September and October. Alex Wood is a question mark. But beyond the talent, we have to consider the smart way the Dodgers have managed the workload of these starters, both over the season, and game-to-game. Given the great bullpen work Roberts has gotten, he’s been content to get five good innings out of his horses. That’s important.
Advantage: Astros. It’s close. As weird as this would have sounded in April, I trust Verlander and Keuchel more than Kershaw and Darvish right now. That said, I would not be shocked to see LA toss multiple gems this series.
Astros: I’m not really sure where A.J. Hinch’s head is at vis-à-vis his bullpen. We’re less than a week removed from their Game 4 collapse, when Chris Devenski, Joe Musgrove, Ken Giles, and Luke Gregerson combined to cough up five runs on six hits and three walks without striking out a batter over the final three innings. Then Peacock gave up home runs to Gary Sanchez and Aaron Judge in the next two games. So who can Hinch trust? His closer, Giles, ostensibly. Maybe Will Harris? He’ll need to deploy Francisco Liriano to counter Cody Bellinger, Yasmani Grandal, Andre Ethier, Chase Utley, and whatever combination of Corey Seager, Joc Pederson, and Curtis Granderson make the roster. Maybe the biggest question is – how clear will the roles even be on Houston’s pitching staff? Will they continue to blur the line between starter and reliever? Might we have another dramatic Verlander fireman appearance?
Dodgers: This group has been nails. The Dodgers officially broke the all-time record for consecutive scoreless bullpen innings, which they now hold at 23. Kenley Jansen might be the best pitcher in the world. But it’s amazing how the group in front of his has come together – credit a front office and manager for being creative in their acquisition and deployment of October’s best bullpen. Hardcore baseball fans might remember August 8, 2010, the day that Brandon Morrow struck out 17 men. He left Canada starry-eyed and drooling, maple syrup pooling in their great bushy beards as they dreamt of a Morrow-led rotation. Well that dream is dead, but a different dream, a high-leverage, late-inning one has taken its place. The kid from Santa Rosa has reinvented himself as a shut-down reliever in his 30s. In almost as good a story, Kenta Maeda has flipped from rotation to bullpen, tossing five perfect innings in the 2017 postseason.
Advantage: Dodgers, comfortably. This should not surprise you. It should also not surprise you if LA’s pen melts down in multiple games. Because that’s baseball. Duh.
Astros: Make no mistake; this is a truly great lineup. Despite their swoon against New York, Houston’s row of batsmen is as murderous as any in the land. Altuve, Correa, & Co. will feel renewed confidence after scoring 11 runs in the last two ALCS games. They kept grinding, using a contact-heavy approach (11:8 K:BB ratio) and popping timely dingers to get past the Yanks. But as good as the Astros’ All-World double-play combination has been, they’ll need the rest of the order to step up if they want to conquer LA. Outside of their 3-4 punch, their lineup hit .142/.235/.210. That’s pitcher-level bad. They’d better lock in for the World Series. At least Hinch saw some signs of life late in the ALCS – Gattis’s homer, Reddick finally getting off the schneid, McCann’s RBI double. Unlike most AL teams, the Astros don’t lose one of their top hitters when forced to play without a DH. This will help them mitigate the Dodgers’ home field advantage, which they’ll enjoy for four games (assuming the series goes seven).
Dodgers: This lineup is cash money. They lose Corey Seager and don’t miss a beat, as the ghost of Duke Snider chose to inhabit Charlie Culberson’s body for five games. It helps that guys like Enrique Hernandez and Chris Taylor are versatile enough to play both SS and CF. It’s amazing to have one guy who can do that, but two is unheard of. Turner is the real engine of this group, though Bellinger and Puig provide a powerful middle of the order. The big question is whether Seager will be back for the Fall Classic. If he is, Dave Roberts has a great problem on his hands – namely, how to get Hernandez and Culberson in the lineup even with their All-Star SS back. He could stick Culberson at 2nd base in lieu of the light-hitting duo of Chase Utley and Logan Forsythe. He could start Hernandez in left and Taylor in center, leaving Joc Pederson off the roster. If Seager can’t go, then it’ll be Culberson back at short, and the beat will go on. The final question is at catcher, where Austin Barnes and Yasmani Grandal platoon. Either one is a heck of a 7th or 8th place hitter, so Roberts will be happy to ride the hot hand. When LA travels to Houston, they can either rest Seager at DH, or maybe give Andre Ethier a start against righties Morton and McCullers.
Advantage: Astros. Like the rotations, this comparison is really close. I’m buying the Altuve/Correa foundation to keep raking. I’m also buying some combination of Springer/Bregman/Gurriel/Gonzalez catching fire. I wonder if inserting Corey Seager would weirdly hinder the Dodger lineup, as his timing might be way off and it would remove Culberson’s bat.
Astros: This is one of the best-throwing teams that I’ve ever seen. Here are 8 amazing throws the ‘Stros have made in 11 playoff games. Please take five minutes and watch these – you’ll enjoy yourself, I promise.
Alex Bregman’s Game 4 running laser beam to nab Starlin Castro:
Bregman’s precision strike to preserve Houston’s 1-0 Game 7 lead:
Marwin Gonzalez’s critical Gatling gun shot to nail Greg Bird:
Marwin’s hosing of Mitch Moreland in the clinching game of the ALDS:
Reddick and Correa’s double-tap combo snipe of Brett Garnder:
Altuve’s spinning attack-dreidel of death that Chase Headley could not escape:
Correa’s deep-short across-the-body cannon:
Bregman’s heads up double-off of Andrew Benintendi in ALDS Game 4:
Dodgers: Flexibility is the name of the game for LA – they employ two Swiss Army Knives in Chris Taylor and Enrique Hernandez who can basically do everything except pitch and catch. That’s great, but LA’s defense is more solid than spectacular. Puig in right is a huge asset, as is an extremely athletic Cody Bellinger at first. Catcher is an interesting question, as Austin Barnes has snatched most of the playing time away from Yasmani Grandal this October. Grandal is an elite pitch framer, but Barnes isn’t far behind. Barnes rates as one of the best blockers, while Grandal is one of the worst.
Advantage: Astros. It’s all in the athleticism and throwing arms, and Houston is loaded in both.
A.J. Hinch – Astros: A.J. Hinch has not been very second-guessable this postseason. He did bring Verlander into the clinching ALDS Game 4, which seemed like a panic move at the time, but it worked out beautifully. He stuck with Josh Reddick in the 2-hole for a long time, despite Reddick’s struggles, but he wasn’t afraid to drop him in the order for Game 7.
Dave Roberts – Dodgers: Dave Roberts is a cool customer. I know that. What else do I know about Dave Roberts? He seems to be pretty good at deploying his bullpen. But has he really been tested? Certainly not in the playoffs. Maybe you want to credit him for how the Dodgers responded after their long losing streak? Go ahead, I ain’t stopping ya.
Advantage: Push. These are managers; they barely matter. Don’t @ me.
Prediction: Astros in 6
It’s their year. I can feel it. Getting past the Yankees after going down 3-2 was HUGE for Houston’s confidence. Any one of their starters can throw a gem at any time. Ultimately, it comes down to hitting for me. And as good as LA has hit in the playoffs, I will take the team that’s been the best at scoring all year – a lineup that rarely strikes out, threatens from every spot, and runs the bases like crazy.
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