by Dan M | Posted on Tuesday, October 22nd, 2019

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BY:  Dic Humphrey

When the playoffs began, it was generally thought that there were three really good playoff teams – New York and Houston in the American League and Los Angeles in the National.  The Dodgers looked like a shoo-in in the NL.  They had three great pitchers in Walker Buehler, Hun-Jin Ryu, and Clayton Kershaw.  They also had a terrific offense.  They won 106 games during the regular season.  No National League team appeared capable of matching up.  

Well surprise!  The Washington Nationals are going to the World Series, not the Dodgers.  The Nationals franchise is in its 51st season after being the expansion Montreal Expos in 1969.  It was written on these pages before the playoffs began that the Nationals were a very dangerous team in the playoff format.  With Max Scherzer and Stephen Strasburg atop their rotation, they could beat anybody.  

They entered as a Wild Card team and trailed by two runs in the eighth inning of the play-in game.  They came back to win that game, and again they trailed by two runs in the eighth inning of game five, the elimination game in the Division Series, but they won to send the Dodgers home.  They then swept the Cardinals in four games to reach the World Series.  They’re the best story in the playoffs.

The American League went according to form.  The Yankees had no trouble thumping the Minnesota Twins in the Division Series.  Houston had a bit more difficulty handling Tampa Bay as their Division Series went all the way to a fifth game.  That set up the expected and greatly anticipated matchup with the Yankees in the AL Championship series.

The Yankees and Astros both came into the League Championship Series with pristine offenses, two of the most powerful offensive units in the history of baseball.  Houston had a significant edge in starting pitching, but the Yankees had a slight, but clear edge in the bullpen.  

The Yankees jumped on Zach Greinke in game one to take away the Astros’ home field advantage.  The Astros held serve in game two winning 3-2 in 11 innings on a walk-off home run from Carlos Correa.

For sure the Astros would have been doomed had they lost game two.  Had the series moved to New York with the Yankees leading 2-0, it would have been extremely unlikely that the Astros would have won the series.  

Gerrit Cole was actually not in top form as game three’s Astros’ starting pitcher.  He showed what a battler he is by whitewashing the Yanks over seven innings.  The Astros got solo home runs from Jose Altuve and Josh Reddick in the first and second innings to give Cole an early lead.  They then added two more on a wild pitch and sacrifice fly in the seventh inning.  The Astros won 4-1 to take back home field advantage.

Houston then almost broke the Yankees’ backs by taking game three handily 8-3 to go up 3-1 in the series.  The Yanks arrived at the ballpark with packed bags for game five, bags they hoped they would need.  They did as the Astros pushed across a run in the first inning, and the Yanks followed with a pair of home runs – a solo shot and a three run shot – in their half of the inning.  Neither team scored again, so the Yankees needed those packed bags for a trip to Houston.

The series ended dramatically in game six.  Yuli Gurriel hit a three-run home run in the first inning to give Houston the early lead.  The Yankees pushed across a single run in the second and Gio Urshela homered in the fourth inning to cut the lead to 3-2.  The Astros got one of those two runs back in the fifth inning.  

That was all the scoring until the ninth.  Houston closer Roberto Osuna came on for the save.  It wasn’t to be.  D. J. LeMahieu hit a two run home run to tie the game at four.  Yankee closer Aroldis Chapman then took the mound assigned to blank the Astros in the ninth to send the game into extra innings.  That didn’t happen either.  After Chapman struck out the first two batters, George Springer walked and Altuve homered for the walk-off 6-4 win.

What this portends is a very solid World Series matchup.  The Nationals may not have won their division, but with Strasburg and Scherzer at the top of the rotation, they are a dangerous.  Patrick Corbin was the top free agent starter this past off season, and Annibal Sanchez may be the best starter for the Nationals so far in these playoffs, so the Nats have four solid starters.  They also have a balanced ball club with a solid offense to go along with those starters.  

Their Achilles heel this season has been their bullpen, but that is looking less and less of a problem.  Daniel Hudson has become a top closer, and Sean Doolittle has regained his once terrific form.  They may lack depth in the pen, but they have two good ones to close out games with a lead.

Houston is clearly the favorite.  The core of this team is very much the same as it was two years ago when they won the World Series.  This is the first time in franchise history including the years in Montreal that the Nationals have won a playoff series.  The experience factor goes to Houston.

Managing playoff games is different from managing during the regular season.  A. J. Hinch has managed playoff games for years with Houston.  This is Dave Martinez’s first time.  Another advantage for the Astros. 

Houston also has Cole and Verlander at the top of their rotation.  They are as good, if not better, than any two-some in baseball.  Cole is starting game one well rested and Verlander is slated to start game two on regular rest.  The Nationals will go with Scherzer in game one and Strasburg in game two.  Zach Greinke is slated to start game three for Houston, but Washington hasn’t announced their game three starter.

With the early sweep of the Cardinals in the LCS, the Nationals have had eight days between games.  There is a fear that the time off will dull their sharpness.  However, the Nats are the oldest team in baseball, so the rest was welcomed and will likely prove to be a positive.

For Houston, two factors went a long way to beating the Yankees – base running and defense.  Those factors will likely serve the Astros well in this series.

Houston also has the home field advantage.  They are the likely winner, but the Nats aren’t going away easily.  This shapes up to be a very good series.         



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