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World Series Preview: Will Houston Have a Problem?

Alex Bregman and the Astros enter the 2019 World Series as solid favorites against the Nationals.

Okay, we’ve finally made it. The Fall Classic is here, and while it may not feature the big market, usual suspects, we’ve got a refreshing matchup headlined by star-studded pitching. No Red Sox. No Yankees. No Dodgers. No Cubs. But guess what? This Astros-Nationals series could be memorable. Even if it doesn’t go the distance, the quality of starting arms is one we haven’t seen in a World Series in quite some time. In an era of endless home runs and all-or-nothing offense, runs will be at much more of a premium than they’ve been in recent Fall Classics.

Let’s look a little closer at how the ‘Stros and Nats match up:

Offense

Washington led the Majors in two-out runs this year, a stat that should not be lost on fans. The “clutch” gene is more critical than ever in October, and Washington has had no shortage of it. But as a whole, this Astros lineup is the superior one. Even at the positions where the Nats’ top hitters play, they only have a slight advantage there at best. I mean, can you distinctively say that Anthony Rendon is better than Alex Bregman, that Juan Soto is above Michael Brantley, or that Washington has an edge at shortstop with Trea Turner over Carlos Correa? No, you can’t. Houston’s offense was marginally better than New York’s in the ALCS despite almost nothing (except one big, three-run homer) from Yuli Gurriel, and even less from likely AL Rookie of the Year Yordan Alvarez. Obviously, the pitching will have a chance to slow down the offenses, but I still give the nod to Houston because of the depth and the continued October brilliance of Jose Altuve in particular. Edge: Astros.

Starting Pitching

This is a comparison for the ages. Is there any duo more feared right now than Gerrit Cole and Justin Verlander? If there is, it is in the other dugout with Max Scherzer and Stephen Strasburg, the latter boasting the 10th-best ERA in MLB postseason history. Where Washington may have a slight edge is the overall rotation depth. Zack Greinke is one heck of a third starter, but Anibal Sanchez has a filthy postseason resume of his own, and Patrick Corbin has shut-down stuff. The Astros do not have a defined fourth starter right now, even though a potential one, Brad Peacock, is pretty solid. But give the Nats the nod here, if only because of what Strasburg has done in his playoff career and the fourth viable arm the Nats have. Edge: Nationals.

Bullpen

This one is a little bit more lopsided. While Washington’s big guns – Daniel Hudson, Sean Doolittle, and Tanner Rainey – have been outstanding, the Astros have more depth in this department. Will Harris is nearly unhittable right now. Josh James has lights out stuff. Joe Smith has emerged as a shutdown, late-inning arm. Roberto Osuna blew a save in Game 6 of the ALCS, but is normally very trustworthy. Even Hector Rondon isn’t a bad “secondary” option. And I’ve yet to mention Ryan Pressly, only because his health is still uncertain after limping off in Game 6 with knee discomfort. But earlier this year, Pressly was making history with his scoreless streak before the Red Sox finally got to him. The Astros have more weapons out of the pen, which gives them the edge against a Nats club that has yet to need to rely on anyone outside the big three. If Fernando Rodney gets into any high-leverage type of situation, the Nats are in serious trouble. Edge: Astros.

Defense

If you weren’t sure about this area of the Astros’ ballclub, Game 6 should’ve given you confirmation. Houston’s defense is elite, with seemingly everyone coming up with a big play at some point against a Yankees club that was much shakier on defense in the ALCS. Washington can flash some leather too, which was on display against St. Louis in the NLCS, but Houston’s defense may be the best in baseball, or at least close to it. Edge: Astros.

Coaching

This is another toss-up. AJ Hinch is building a very impressive postseason resume, managing in his second Fall Classic in three years and in his fourth postseason overall in his five-year tenure. Hinch pressed just about all the right buttons with his bullpen against New York and knows the push-pull balance as well as any skipper when it comes to his players. On the flip side, Davey Martinez has been nearly flawless in his tactics, as well, whether it’s managing his bench deftly (think NL Wild Card game) or knowing exactly when to utilize his back-end bullpen weapons. Martinez deserves serious credit for finally getting this long-underachieving bunch over the not-winning-a-playoff-series hump. Edge: Even.

Intangibles

This is where I finally mention the dreaded “layoff” the Nationals have experienced. It will be six full days between their NLCS clincher and Game 1 in Houston, and it’s fair to wonder if Washington will be rusty the way a few teams have in the past. In the divisional playoff era (since 1995), teams with 6+ days of rest prior to the World Series are actually 3-3, but two of those wins came very early on (1995 Braves, 1996 Yankees). More fresh are the memories of the 2007 Rockies (eight days off before a four-game shellacking at the hands of Boston) and two World Series clunkers by the Tigers in 2006 and 2012 coming off of ALCS sweeps. Teams sweeping the LCS have all lost since the 1995 Braves, with the 2015 Mets being the most recent victims against Kansas City. Still, could the rest actually be a good thing for the Nationals? After all, they are expected to continue to ride the same big guns as they have all October, and it’s probably beneficial to have those guys extra fresh before a potentially-long series against the best team in baseball. On the Houston side, there is, of course, the experience factor. The majority of this Astros core, with the notable exception of Gerrit Cole, have been to a World Series recently. The Nationals are the oldest team in baseball but this is uncharted territory for the franchise. Houston can set its rotation the way it wants to since it was able to avoid using Cole in a Game 7 against New York. And, of course, there is that little thing called homefield advantage. Houston won 60 games at home in the regular season and is 5-1 at Minute Maid Park this October. There are many factors to consider here, but I give the slight edge to Houston based on the experience and potential rust factor for Washington. Edge: Astros.

Final Word

I live in DC and sentimentally would love the see the Nationals win, if only because I always lean towards the underdog when I have no true rooting interest. There is always that sense of a budding dynasty with Houston, but in no way is this Astros team truly hatable, even if you don’t like seeing teams win multiple titles in a short timeframe (I personally don’t). Just think back a half-decade, when Astros games had minimal attendance and the team was mired in years of bad losing. The ‘Stros are the favorite here, but this isn’t even a Golden State Warriors-type deal where the underdog has risen to the top and made everyone a hater. It’s hard to pick against a team that won 107 games and has won 100+ three striaght years. Of course, this has been a rare off-postseason for me picking series, so needless to say I wouldn’t mind being wrong one more time. Pick: Astros in 7. (Bonus pick – World Series MVP: Alex Bregman).

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