The Astros were the best team in baseball in 2019, winning 107 games, so everyone expected them to be here. As you’ve heard a thousand times by now the Nationals started out poorly in 2019, standing at 19-31 in late May. After that, however, they went on a 74-38 tear in 112 games. A tear which, if extrapolated to 162 games is a . . . 107-win pace.
Which is to say that, despite whatever the oddsmakers are telling you, this is not quite the mismatch some may want to make it out to be. The Astros are a great team, no question, but the Nationals as they stand right now are a strong match for them. If you doubt it, go ask the Dodgers and Cardinals about whether Washington played like a 93-win Wild Card team when they met in the earlier rounds.
No matter how you think the teams matchup overall, however, you can’t help but love the matchups between the clubs’ starting pitchers.
The Astros feature the top two Cy Young candidates in the American league in Gerrit Cole and Justin Verlander and feature a third starter, Zack Greinke, who would be most teams’ ace. The Nationals, meanwhile, counter with Max Scherzer, who won the Cy Young in 2016 and 2017, finished in second place last year and, before for an injury this season, was a strong contender to take home the hardware again. After him comes Stephen Strasburg, also a 2019 Cy Young candidate, and Patrick Corbin, who was last offseason’s big pickup and who won 14 games and posted an ERA+ of 141 this season. It may be the Era of Bullpenning and all of that, but this Fall Classic looks to be a throwback to a time when — gasp! — starting pitchers mattered.
Here’s how it all breaks down:
We just listed the big names. The exact order in which they appear is not yet officially known but you’ll color me shocked if Game 1 isn’t Max Scherzer vs. Gerrit Cole, Game 2 isn’t Stephen Strasburg vs. Justin Verlander, and Game 3 isn’t Zack Greinke vs. Patrick Corbin. In Game 4 the Nats will likely go with the hot Aníbal Sánchez who, if he stays on his game like he has been of late, gives them depth the Astros can’t quite match. Brad Peacock or “Bullpen” could get the ball for A.J. Hinch in Game 4, depending on the circumstances of the series at that point.
As for Game 1, Scherzer is coming off two strong postseason outings, allowing one run on five hits with 18 strikeouts in 14 innings in those starts. Cole was somewhat human in his last start, walking five guys. But, um, yeah, he still tossed seven shutout innings. It seems like all he has done since before Memorial day is toss seven or eight shutout innings or something close to it.
We simply couldn’t ask for a better head-to-head matchup to start this bad boy. There isn’t a hitter on either of these teams happy about who they’ll have to face in this series.
Saturday night’s José Altuve walkoff blast notwithstanding, the Astros’ mighty offense has been somewhat less mighty over the past couple of weeks, averaging just 3.7 runs per game and posting a .645 team OPS. A lot of that was due to the scads of fresh and strong bullpen arms the Rays and Yankees trotted out, but it’s not like things will get easier, at least against Washington’s starting pitching. The Astros had timely hitting — and some big home runs — as they made their way to the World Series, but they’ll definitely need to rattle the ball off the walls and get on base at a higher clip like they did in the regular season if they want to win this thing. To do so, I don’t suspect A.J. Hinch will do much shuffling or fiddling with his lineup — his dudes are his dudes — he’ll just have to hope that they snap out of their relative funk and remind everyone that, when everyone is healthy on this club, there is no better offense in baseball.
Washington’s lineup was nowhere near as fearsome during the regular season but it was the second-best unit in the National League, so they’re no slouches. Like the Astros, they have not exactly set the world ablaze offensively in the playoffs, posting a team OPS about a hundred points lower than their regular season mark. Also, like the Astros, they’ve had some huge hits at great times, as do all teams that get this far. Luck and good timing matter a whole heck of a lot in October.
A bit of a wild card here: the de-juiced ball everyone is talking about. While the Nats, like everyone else, hit a lot more homers in 2019, they were somewhat less reliant on homers than a lot of other winning teams, finishing only sixth in that category in the NL. The Astros were third in the AL and might’ve come close to matching New York and Minnesota’s totals if they didn’t have so many injuries to key offensive performers in the first half. Which is to say that the dead ball’s taking away of a few feet of flight from equally-struck balls probably hurts the Astros a bit more than the Nats, even if the Astros hitters are better on average.
One can overstate all that, of course. At the end of the day both of these teams have MVP-candidates — Alex Bregman for Houston, Anthony Rendon for Washington — and a good supporting cast of thumpers like Juan Soto, José Altuve, Yordan Álvarez and hot-in-October Howie Kendrick, who will likely see DH action in the games in Houston. Ultimately it will come down, as always, to who is hotter over the next 4-7 games.
The bullpen was the Nationals’ biggest weakness all season long. In the NLDS against the Dodgers Dave Martinez masked the problem by creatively deploying starting pitchers in relief, praying a bit, and watching it work. in the NLCS they so thoroughly steamrolled the Cardinals that it didn’t truly matter, though they did get some good innings from guys not named Sean Doolittle and Daniel Hudson. Meaning that, heck, you may even see Fernando Rodney and Tanner Rainey in games that aren’t blowouts. Either way, the week off the Nationals have been given by wrapping up the NLCS so quickly means that every arm is fresh, with extra rest even, so the team’s biggest weakness is about as contained at the outset as it can be. As suggested above, the deeper Scherzer, Strasburg, Corbin and Sánchez can go, the better.
Houston’s bullpen has allowed 16 earned runs in 35.1 innings this postseason (4.08 ERA). This after having the third-best bullpen ERA in all of baseball during the regular season (3.75). Sample sizes are obviously an issue here. As is the class of competition. They were more than capable of getting the job done during the ALDS and their failures — like Roberto Osuna‘s blown save in Game 6 — were either contained by the work of others or led to less-than-fatal wounds. They simply have better arms that Washington does down there even if, as is the case with the Nats, they’ll hope to need them as little as possible.
A.J. Hinch has hoisted a trophy before and rarely harms his team. Dave Martinez learned over the course of the season that the less he does the better. Without putting too fine a point on it, if it comes down to a chess match, it’s advantage: Astros. At this point Martinez simply needs to let his horses run and muster enough will to pull them out of the race if they’re tired. That’s easier said than done when it’s, say, Max Scherzer. His arm could be hanging by frayed tendons and he’d still probably glare at Martinez if he walked out to pull him.
There is virtually none. These teams share a spring training complex but they have not faced each other in interleague play since 2017. A host of players on each squad has never faced the pitchers on the other. In addition to starting pitchers being so critical here, add “NL vs. AL, in a matchup of unknowns” to the list of things that make this Fall Classic a throwback to olden days.
If we did the usual “Advantage: [TEAM]” for every one of those categories, I feel like we’d probably end up with the Astros coming out on top in each of them. The closest is probably the rotation, with the top-end talent of Cole, Verlander and Greinke outweighing the four-deep depth the Nats have at the moment. But as the earlier rounds showed, it’s not as much of an advantage as you might think and being able to run four starters out there whom you trust matters a lot.
Which is to say that, yeah, I think the Astros are the better team. They’re better in record, better on paper and should be favored. But I don’t think they’re overwhelming favorites. And I don’t think it could or should be considered a massive upset if this better-than-most-people think Nats team comes out on top. I feel like this will be a very, very even and competitive series, in fact.