This will be a two for the price of one post as we will reflect on a terrific triumph by the Astros in the ALCS over the Yanks and then take a look at the upcoming matchup with the Washington Nationals in the World Series. (I can’t type the words Astros and World Series in the same sentence enough….)
Carlos Correa turned the ALCS on a dime when he tied it up 1-1 with his walk-off homer in Game 2. His double play mate, Jose Altuve drove a stake through the heart of the Yankee monster (and their monstrous fans) with his series-winning walk-off homer in the ninth inning of Game 6.
There were two things running through the minds of most Astro fans during that final at-bat. First, why in heck were the Yankees pitching to Altuve after George Springer‘s 2 out walk against premier closer Aroldis Chapman, especially behind in the count? Yes, a walk to Altuve would move Springer within a Jake Marisnick single of a walk-off, but that would seem like a less likely conclusion than Altuve coming through with Springer on first. The second thing running through Astro fans minds a millisecond after bat met ball was “Gone”. We have seen Jose square up on balls up in the zone so many times, that as soon as he connected with Chapman’s hanging slider, our hearts leapt with anticipation of the ball sailing out of the park.
Looking back at the ALCS, the Astros were lucky to win with such a poor offense (.179 BA/ .281 OBP/ .600 OPS). For perspective, Jon Singleton circa 2014 put up a .168 BA/ .285 OBP/ .620 OPS that season, so this was like facing the vaunted Yankees with 13 Jon Singletons as your position players. The Astros barely outscored the Yankees 22-21 in the series, but importantly outscored them 21-10 in their 4 wins (we will ignore getting outscored 11-1 in their 2 losses).
The only Astro to hit better than his norm in the ALCS was the MVP Altuve (.348/.444/ 1.097 – 6 runs, 2 HRs, 3 RBIs). OK – Marisnick hit .333 (one single and 2 Ks) and Brantley hit .304 (7 singles and 1 RBI). When you look at Yordan Alvarez, Alex Bregman, Robinson Chirinos, Aledmys Diaz, Yuli Gurriel, Martin Maldonado, Jake Marisnick, Josh Reddick and Kyle Tucker – they combined for a .120 BA/ .219 OBP/ .413 OPS with 8 runs scored, 2 HRs and 6 RBIs in 108 at bats. This is like throwing 9 guys out there hitting worse than Max Stassi (.167/ .235/.446) did this season. Yuck!
A quick look at that old school stat (ERA) shows the Yankees (3.13) outpitched the Astros (3.44). But that does not take into account that the Yanks gave up 3 unearned runs, while the Astros gave up none. The Yanks had 5 errors to the Astros 2 in the series and their pitchers had 6 wild pitches and Gary Sanchez had 2 passed balls (plus not blocking some of those wild pitches) while the Astros only had one wild pitch in the series.
For the series, the Astros’ superior fielding was a difference-maker. In game 6 alone, Josh Reddick’s diving catch, Michael Brantley‘s brilliant dive and throw for a double play and another terrific double play by Altuve, Correa and Gurriel allowed the Astros to be tied heading into the bottom of the 9th inning.
One of the biggest differences between the pitching in the ALCS was the bullpen usage. The Astros got 32.2 IP out of their starters and their bullpen pitched 22.1 IP, while the Yanks received only 24.2 IP from their starters while their bullpen pitched 30 innings. The threesome of Chad Green, Adam Ottavino and Aroldis Chapman pitched in 12 games combined and gave up 11 of the 22 runs the Yanks allowed during the series. Gerrit Cole bent but did not break in his one start, Justin Verlander had one bad inning in two starts and Zack Greinke pitched good enough in both his starts to keep the team in the games. Will Harris has taken over the high leverage spot that Ryan Pressly‘s injury has taken away from him and Joe Smith, Jose Urquidy and Brad Peacock pitched the best behind him. Roberto Osuna had his 6th game meltdown, but had three other scoreless appearances.
In the end, the Astros and Yanks were a pretty even match with the Astros doing what great teams do. They won the two critical games (Games 2 and 6) with out-of-the-blue walk-offs and sent the Yanks home to pack for the off-season.
World Series Look Ahead
There are a lot of parallels between the Houston Astros and their upcoming opponents the Washington Nationals (nee Montreal Expos), especially between the 2019 Nats and the 2005 Astros.
- Both teams are/were expansion teams with a poor history of success
- Both teams entered the 2019 and 2005 seasons respectively having won just one playoff series in their history – the Astros beating the Braves in the 2004 division series, the 1981 Expos beating the Phillies in that odd-wad division series brought on by an in-season strike
- Both teams had to come back from terrible starts. On May 23rd this season, the Nats were 19-31 and in 4th place in the NL East 10 games back of the Phillies. They were 14th out of 15 teams in the NL and 8.5 games back of the 2nd Wild Card. In 2005, the Astros were 15-30 on May 24th, the day the Houston (spit!!!) Chronicle ran the tombstone headline burying their season. They were in 5th place in the NL Central, 14 games back of the Cards, 15th out of 16 teams and 11.5 games back of the only wild card spot. Both teams turned their seasons around and earned wild card spots and rolled to World Series berths.
- Both teams had one of their best seasons wiped out by the strike in 1994 with the Expos sporting the best record in the majors when it went down the drain
- Both teams are/were headed to their first World Series appearance
Beyond that, Astro ace Justin Verlander and Nats ace Max Scherzer were teammates in Detroit from 2010 thru 2014 until Scherzer left for Washington as a free agent. Third men in the rotation the Nats Patrick Corbin and the Astros Zack Greinke pitched together in Arizona from 2016 thru 2018 until Corbin also signed as a free agent with Washington.
(By the way – the Nats and Astros share a Spring Training home at West Palm Beach and played each other 6 times with the Nats taking 5 of those contests in the pre-season).
With the Astros struggling to fill in the 4th spot in the rotation after Wade Miley‘s crash and burn, the Nationals are the one team around that appears to be better on paper. Scherzer (11-7, 2.92 ERA), Stephen Strasburg (18-6, 3.32 ERA) and Corbin (14-7, 3.25 ERA) would seem to off-set the Astros Big 3 of Cole, Verlander and Greinke. The Nats edge would seem to come from 4th starter Anibal Sanchez (11-8, 3.85 ERA), who has given up 1 run in 12.2 IP of 2019 playoff pitching. Sanchez appears to be a better choice than either a bullpen game or a Jose Urquidy / Brad Peacock tandem game. The Astros do have a hitting advantage with Zack Greinke hitting like a positional player and likely starting game 3 at Washington.
Advantage – Nats
The Astros have an advantage at 1B (Yuli Gurriel over Ryan Zimmerman), 2B (Jose Altuve over Brian Dozier), SS (Carlos Correa over Trea Turner), and CF (George Springer over Victor Robles). The Nats have a small advantage at LF (Juan Soto over Michael Brantley). It is a bit of a toss-up at Catcher (Chirinos/ Maldonado vs. Kurt Suzuki/Jan Gomes), 3B (MVP candidates Alex Bregman vs. Anthony Rendon – out of Rice University) and RF (Josh Reddick vs. Adam Eaton). The Astros would seem to have an advantage at DH with Yordan Alvarez, but not if he continues to be a lost boy in the desert at bat.
The Nationals bullpen is their biggest question mark heading into the World Series. They had an NL worse 5.66 ERA this season. In the playoffs they have taken all sorts of actions to work around their problems as they had Strasburg throw 3 relief innings in the wild card game against the Brewers, had Corbin pitch a couple times in relief against the Dodgers and only used 4 relievers – Sean Doolittle (6-5, 29 saves, 4.05 ERA), Daniel Hudson (3-0, 6 saves, 1.00 ERA), Tanner Rainey (2-3, 3.91 ERA) and Fernando Rodney (0-3, 2 saves, 4.05 ERA) in the sweep of the Cards in the NLCS. The Astros have had good appearances from Will Harris, Joe Smith, Jose Urquidy, Brad Peacock and closer Roberto Osuna (with one exception) through two rounds. Josh James was so-so, Hector Rondon was used for one out, and Bryan Abreu looked like a rookie in one appearance. This is an area that an Astro team that works the starters early can take advantage of.
Advantage – Astros
The Astros are one of the best fielding teams around – the Nats are slightly above average. The Astros have the second least errors (71) in the majors, the Nats are 8th (87). The Astros have the best defensive efficiency (calculation of number of balls in play converted to outs) at .717, while the Nats are 13th at .689. The Astros are 2nd in Rtot (a calculation of preventing runs) at 54, while the Nats are 18th at 1.
Advantage – Astros
Dave Martinez in his second season has done a great job in keeping the Nats from cratering with their early problems and working around a suspect bullpen. A.J. Hinch has led the Astros to three consecutive 100+ win seasons, one World Series title and 2 wins in three ALCS attempts.
Advantage – Astros
The Nats are on a roll after a game 5 comeback against the Dodgers and a sweep of the Cards. As a wild card, they may feel less pressure vs expectations. This will be a tough matchup for the Astros, but they seem to have the answers when they need them.
Prediction – Astros in Six