We now have the two divisional winners, the two team that start the World Series tonight. Their routes to this point have been total contrasts. The odds-makers in the US believe this will be one of the most one-sided World Series in history but paradoxically it is the team that swept their best of seven championship series, the Washington Nationals who are the underdogs.
By Wednesday of last week the Nationals had wrapped up their 4-0 series win over St Louis, the lowest ranked team in the National League final four who had had to come through the sudden death brutality of the Wild Card game. History is against Washington, a franchise who was last in the “Fall Classic” 86 years ago. Only 1 of the last 11 teams to sweep their LCS has gone on to win the Series.
Because of the scheduling, with the American League play-offs scheduled the day behind the national league throughout. Washington would have anticipated an extra days rest to allow them to travel to either houston or New York. At this time of the season long lay-offs (and in baseball 4 days is a long lay off let alone 6) are not a good thing. The pitchers stew through their practice regime while the batters struggle to retain their timing which can only be truly retained in game play.
But it is not only these factors that mitigate against the Nationals. Their opponents, the Houston Astros have the best regular season record, are looking for a second win in three years and have just eliminated the behemoth that is the (hated) New York Yankees in pretty convincing fashion.
The Yankees has the temerity to win game 1 of the ALCS in Houston but lost the next three, including two in Yankee Stadium and eventually lost to a Jose Altuve walk-off homer in Houston on Saturday evening. In truth the Yankees didn’t deserve anything more having far inferior starting pitching, a line up that didn’t perform anywhere near their potential and committed far to many errors in the field at crucial times.
The irony was that it was just as the Yankees were threatening to swing momentum their way, having tied the game 4-4 in the top of the 9th with a 2 run homer, Altuve, one of the elite hitters in baseball, clubbed a slider (a notoriously difficult pitch to drive out of the park) from the Yankees closer to seal a 6-4 win.
The World Series is being billed as a pitching duel with both teams having three starting pitchers who are among the top 20 in all of baseball. The Astros trio of Cole, verlander and Greinke have been outstanding all season but none have been at their absolute best in the play-offs. Their Washington counterparts, Scherzer, Strasbourg and Corbin have got better as the season has gone on and, for the last two weeks, been stellar.
But for me it is the Astros hitters that will decide the destiny of the series. Not only is the Houston line up the stronger, deeper and more experienced, it has yet to perform anywhere near its potential in October. It is hard to believe that they will not catch fire, and if they do, Washington’s pitching, now matter how good it has been will be unable to hold them in check.
I have been rooting for the Astros ever since my beloved Boston’s Red Sox were eliminated. That bias became ever more acute when they faced the Yankees in the ALCS. The Yankees should always be detested and opposed by every true Boston fan. And now that bias towards the Texans will continue especially I was lucky enough to, thanks to friends who now live in Houston, get to see a game at Minute Maid Park earlier in the season and even more lucky to have seats in the hugely coveted Crawford Box.
Washington were at the end of May out of contention with a 19-31 won-loss record. Only two teams have ever made the play-offs with a start as bad as that. From the start of June the Nationals have been, alongside the Astros, the two best teams in baseball but their dreadful start left them with a mountain to climb. That they have got to the World Series is an amazing effort. Whether they can sustain this astonishing run remains to be seen.
One final cautionary word though for Astros fans. Last season I saw one of the two World Series teams during the regular season, the LA Dodgers. They lost the World Series convincingly, I hope that record doesn’t come back to bite the Astros this year.