World Series teed up: Harper, Phillies go deep, face Astros

Bill Streicher-USA TODAY Sports
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Bryce Harper and Kyle Schwarber breaking the Bank in Philly. Yordan Alvarez launching moonshots in H-Town.

Dusty Baker trying for a most elusive win. Justin Verlander, too. A fired-up Harper and All-Stars J.T. Realmuto and Zack Wheeler, stepping onto baseball’s biggest platform for the first time.

Yo! The Philadelphia Phillies, of all teams, are headed to the World Series. Against those back-for-more Houston Astros, y’all.

A pretty tasty matchup starting Friday night at Minute Maid Park, a Fall Classic full of vibrant sights, scents and sounds.

Think cheesesteaks, hoagies and water ice vs. BBQ brisket, Tex-Mex and Blue Bell ice cream.

The Phanatic and Phils fans need a late rally at Citizens Bank Park? Dial up something from “Rocky.” Want to party in Houston? Sing and clap along with mascot Orbit to Moe Bandy’s bouncy “Deep in the Heart of Texas” during the seventh-inning stretch.

Harper already has hit five home runs this postseason. In the signature swing of his career, his eighth-inning drive against San Diego on Sunday in Game 5 sent the Phillies into the World Series for the first time since 2009 and earned him the NL Championship Series MVP.

The Astros are 7-0 this postseason after finishing off a four-game sweep of the New York Yankees in the AL Championship Series. Alex Bregman‘s go-ahead single keyed a 6-5 win Sunday night.

After losing the World Series last year, Houston opened as a solid favorite to win the title this year, according to FanDuel.

Odds are, crowd might witness a Schwar-bomb or the Chas Chomp along the way.

But no possibility of seeing a sibling rivalry. Astros reliever Phil Maton broke a finger on his pitching hand when he punched his locker after a shaky performance in the regular-season finale, an outing that included giving up a hit to his younger brother, Phils utilityman Nick Maton.

City of Brotherly Love, not so much. But a nice treat for fans in both cities: The Philadelphia Eagles, the NFL’s only unbeaten team, visit the Houston Texans on the travel day between Games 5 and 6, if those are needed.

Weather won’t be an issue with the retractable roof in Houston. No telling what the elements will be with the open air in Philly.

With the likes of Jose Altuve, ALCS MVP Jeremy Pena, Rhys Hoskins and Alec Bohm, this World Series is a best-of-seven matchup representing some of the game’s best present and future. Plus a good piece of the past – remember, these teams have played each other nearly 600 times.

There was the thrilling 1980 NL Championship Series, when Mike Schmidt, Pete Rose, Steve Carlton and the Fightin’ Phils outlasted Nolan Ryan at the Astrodome on the way to their first World Series title.

Years later, closers Brad Lidge, Billy Wagner, Mitch Williams and Ken Giles spent time with both clubs. So did future Hall of Famers Joe Morgan and Robin Roberts.

And this neat piece of history – the Phillies were the first team to ever beat Houston, back in 1962 when the expansion Colt .45s lost at Connie Mack Stadium.

Funny, the Phillies are also the most recent team to beat the Astros. Way back on Oct. 3, Philadelphia opened the final series of the regular season with a 3-0 win at Houston, with Schwarber homering twice as Aaron Nola outpitched Lance McCullers Jr.

The Astros then closed out an AL-best 106-56 record by winning the next two behind Verlander and Framber Valdez – Philadelphia still leads 297-283 in their head-to-head matchups, mostly all before Houston moved from the National League to the American League in 2013.

Houston then swept Seattle in the AL Division Series and the Yankees in the ALCS featuring its winning formula of imposing starting pitching, a dominant bullpen and a lineup full of home run hitters such as Alvarez and Kyle Tucker.

This marks the Astros’ fourth trip to the World Series in six years and their only title in 2017 was tainted by an illegal sign-stealing scandal. Last season, they lost to Freddie Freeman and the underdog Atlanta Braves in six games.

At 73 and in his 25th season as a manager, Baker is looking for a crown to cap his ample resume.

“I mean, victories drive me. And I’ll get it,” he said during the ALCS. “You can’t rush it before it gets here because it ain’t here yet. So you just got to put yourself in a position to do it.”

Verlander, the likely AL Cy Young Award winner after bouncing back from Tommy John surgery, is hoping to improve his 0-6 mark in seven career World Series starts.

The Phillies, meanwhile, looked like a big zero this year before getting to this point in October.

Stuck at 21-29 going into June, they fired manager Joe Girardi a few days later and put the interim tag on bench coach Rob Thomson. Then suddenly, the Phillies took off.

They overcame Harper’s broken thumb, sidelining the two-time NL MVP for two months, beat out Milwaukee for the final playoff spot in going 87-75, and quickly topped NL Central champion St. Louis in the wild-card round. Philadelphia eliminated defending World Series champ Atlanta in the NLDS and topped San Diego in the NLCS.

Now, with Thomson having been rewarded with a two-year contract, the Phillies are the first third-place team in baseball history to reach the World Series.

Philadelphia lost to the Yankees in its last trip this far. A year earlier in 2008, Lidge capped off his remarkable year of going 48 for 48 in save chances to close out the Phillies’ second title as a team led by Chase Utley, Jimmy Rollins and Ryan Howard beat Tampa Bay in five games.

Spurred by their rollicking home crowd, Harper and this bunch of Phils hope to add another banner.

Thomson is trying to join Jack McKeon (Marlins, 2003) and Bob Lemon (Yankees, 1978) as the only managers hired in midseason to win the title. To the 59-year-old Thomson, it’s not such a surprise his team is in this position.

“Coming out of spring training … we knew we had a good ballclub. We knew our bullpen was good, rotation was good, we had great offense,” he said earlier in the playoffs. “We just got off to a little bit of a slow start and kind of spiraled.”

“And we had ups and downs during the season, just like any other club does. But they knew that they were going to come out of it at some point and start winning again. And we did,” he said.

Texas Rangers ink free-agent ace Jacob deGrom to 5-year deal

Jacob deGrom
USA Today
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ARLINGTON, Texas — Jacob deGrom is headed to the free-spending Texas Rangers, who believe the health risk is worth the potential reward in trying to end a six-year run of losing.

The two-time Cy Young Award winner agreed to a $185 million, five-year contract Friday, leaving the New York Mets after nine seasons – the past two shortened substantially by injuries.

“We acknowledge the risk, but we also acknowledge that in order to get great players, there is a risk and a cost associated with that,” Rangers general manager Chris Young said. “And one we feel like is worth taking with a player of Jacob’s caliber.”

Texas announced the signing after the 34-year-old deGrom passed his physical. A person with direct knowledge of the deal disclosed the financial terms to The Associated Press. The person spoke on condition of anonymity because the club did not announce those details.

The Rangers were also big spenders in free agency last offseason, signing shortstop Corey Seager ($325 million, 10 years) and second baseman Marcus Semien ($175 million, seven years).

The team said deGrom will be introduced in a news conference at Globe Life Field next week following the winter meetings in San Diego.

“It fits in so many ways in terms of what we need,” Young said. “He’s a tremendous person. I have a number of close friends and teammates who played with Jacob and love him. I think he’s going to be just a perfect fit for our clubhouse and our fans.”

Texas had modest expectations after adding Seager, Semien and starter Jon Gray ($56 million, four years) last offseason but still fell short of them.

The Rangers went 68-94, firing manager Chris Woodward during the season, and then hired Bruce Bochy, a three-time World Series champion with San Francisco. Texas’ six straight losing seasons are its worst skid since the franchise moved from Washington in 1972.

Rangers owner Ray Davis said the club wouldn’t hesitate to keep adding payroll. Including the $19.65 million qualifying offer accepted by Martin Perez, the team’s best pitcher last season, the Rangers have spent nearly $761 million in free agency over the past year.

“I hate losing, but I think there’s one person in our organization who hates losing worse than me, and I think it’s Ray Davis,” Young said. “He’s tired of losing. I’m tired of losing. Our organization is tired of losing.”

After making his first start in early August last season, deGrom went 5-4 with a 3.08 ERA in 11 outings. He helped the Mets reach the playoffs, then passed up a $30.5 million salary for 2023 and opted out of his contract to become a free agent for the first time.

That ended his deal with the Mets at $107 million over four years, and deGrom rejected their $19.65 million qualifying offer in November. New York will receive draft-pick compensation for losing him.

The fan favorite becomes the latest in a long line of ace pitchers to leave the Mets for one reason or another, including Nolan Ryan, Tom Seaver, Dwight Gooden and David Cone.

The Rangers visit Citi Field from Aug. 28-30.

When healthy, deGrom is perhaps baseball’s most dominant pitcher. His 2.52 career ERA ranks third in the expansion era (since 1961) behind Los Angeles Dodgers lefty Clayton Kershaw (2.48) and Hall of Famer Sandy Koufax (2.19) among those with at least 200 starts.

The right-hander is 4-1 with a 2.90 ERA in five career postseason starts, including a win over San Diego in the wild-card round this year that extended the Mets’ season. New York was eliminated the next night.

A four-time All-Star and the 2014 NL Rookie of the Year, deGrom was a ninth-round draft pick by the Mets in 2010 out of Stetson, where he played shortstop before moving to the mound. He was slowed by Tommy John surgery early in his career and didn’t reach the majors until age 26.

Once he arrived, though, he blossomed. He helped the Mets reach the 2015 World Series and earn a 2016 playoff berth before winning consecutive NL Cy Young Awards in 2018 and 2019.

But injuries to his elbow, forearm and shoulder blade have limited him to 26 starts over the past two seasons. He compiled a career-low 1.08 ERA over 92 innings in 2021, but did not pitch after July 7 that year because of arm trouble.

DeGrom is 82-57 with 1,607 strikeouts in 1,326 innings over nine big league seasons. He gets $30 million next year, $40 million in 2024 and 2025, $38 million in 2026 and $37 million in 2027. The deal includes a conditional option for 2028 with no guaranteed money.

The addition of deGrom gives the Rangers three proven starters along with Gray and Perez, who went 12-8 with a career-best 2.89 ERA in his return to the team that signed him as a teenager out of Venezuela. Young didn’t rule out the addition of another starter.

With several holes on their starting staff, the Mets have shown interest in free agents Justin Verlander and Carlos Rodon to pair with 38-year-old Max Scherzer atop the rotation.

Now, with deGrom gone, signing one of those two could become a much bigger priority.