The Astros have quite a history with their 2021 World Series opponents, the Atlanta Braves, and so does this writer.
In my case, I was born in Milwaukee one year (season) before the Braves won their one and only championship in their 13 seasons in Brew-Town. My parents taught me the greatness of Warren Spahn and Eddie Matthews, but especially the absolute awesomeness of Hank Aaron. Willie Mays and Mickey Mantle were terrific outfielders over in that little town to the east (until Mays moved to the City by the Bay), but the greatest player in the game was Hammerin’ Hank, and he resided in the middle of the United States.
But my parents moved away from Milwaukee and then from Chicago and then from Dallas to Houston. And their arrival in Houston was just after their former favorite baseball team moved to another rising city in the New South in Atlanta. It was funny. After moving to the south my parents, still adored the Green Bay Packers, who stayed in Wisconsin, but not the Braves, who abandoned ship.
This is a match between two old National League foes, who once shared the National League West as assigned by the geographically challenged MLB.
Playoff History. The Astros have played more playoff series (five) against the Braves than any other team in the majors. The Braves knocked some terrific Astro teams out in the first round in 1997 (3-0), 1999 (3-1) and 2001 (3-0) and helped to escort manager Larry Dierker back off the field in the process. When the Astros finally won a playoff series in 2004, it was a 3-2 nudging of the Braves. And when the Astros made their way to their first World Series appearance in 2005, it was only after a first-round knockout of the Braves, highlighted by 18 insane innings and a Chris Burke walk-off in a 3-1 NLDS win.
Recent History. Maybe it is a sign, like Dusty Baker having to beat his friend and idol, Hank Aaron’s team to win his first World Series. But the Astros and Braves have not met in the regular season, since the Astros went 4-0 against them in their last WS run in 2017. And children, how many games do the Astros need to win, to earn another World Series? Yep, four.
General View. Like the Astros’ last opponent, the Red Sox, the Braves were not supposed to get this far. The Red Sox knocked off the Yanks in the Wild Card and then took out the AL regular season-best Tampa Bay Rays to get to the ALCS. The Braves had the worst record of all the playoff teams at 88-73 (6-1/2 games worse than the Astros), but they still won the AL East. They then easily took care of the 95-67 Brewers (same record as the Astros) and the 106-56 Dodgers to reach the World Series for the first time since they got swept by the Yanks in 1999. But as always, the regular season does not mean near as much as who is hot at the right time in the playoffs.
Health. Lance McCullers is out for the World Series and that is a significant, but not necessarily fatal loss for the Astros. The Braves have been without one of the transcendent talents in the game, OF Ronald Acuna Jr. since he blew his ACL back in July. Both blows are big, but McCullers loss is bigger at playoff time. As this is written, it is not a sure thing if Jake Meyers will be on the Astros’ WS roster as he had an injury setback during the ALCS and never appeared in a game. If the Astros don’t see him playing in the WS they could always choose to pull back someone else (third catcher Garrett Stubbs?) or perhaps roster an extra pitcher for a bullpen that had to carry the team at times in the round against the Red Sox.
Managers. Dusty Baker had a very good ALCS especially in guiding the team through a crucial bullpen game in Game 4 of the series. While Dusty has both played and managed with a swath of teams in his baseball life, the team that drafted him and for whom he played first in the majors…were the Braves. Brian Snitker does not have the resume that Baker has, having spent both his minor league playing career and his coaching career with the Braves before taking over the Braves as his first major league management job in 2018. Now at 66 years old he has his first shot at the golden ring.
Hitting. The Astros led the majors with 5.33 runs/game, while the Braves were a solid 4.91 runs/game playing in the DH-less National league. The Astros team slash of .267 BA/ .339 OBP/ .783 OPS was a giant step ahead of the Braves at .244 BA/ .319 OBP/ .754 OPS. While Yordan Alvarez was tremendous in the ALCS, there are no dearth of hitting heroes in this lineup with Jose Altuve, Michael Brantley, Alex Bregman, Carlos Correa, Kyle Tucker and Yuli Gurriel wrapped around Alvarez. If a couple of them are slumping, it feels like three or four are in the groove.
On the Braves side, Eddie Rosario, who is a good player, just came off a series where he was Kike Hernandez hot. Their infield of 1B Freddie Freeman (31 HR, 83 RBIs), 2B Ozzie Albies (30 HR, 106 RBIs), SS Dansby Swanson (27 HR, 88 RBIs) and 3B Austin Riley (33 HR, 107 RBIs) are an offensive match with or better than the Astros fine infield. Even before Acuna was injured, the Braves outfield was not a match for the Astros until Rosario started hitting like Aaron. Both teams have light hitting catchers, but Martin Maldonado is a much better defensive catcher than Travis d’Arnaud.
Starting Pitching. The Astros had one of the top starting staffs in the AL in 2021. They had the most wins (63) and the second-best ERA (3.63) and WHIP (1.19) in the AL. The Braves’ starting staff was not far behind that statistically with 57 wins, 3.84 ERA and 1.19 WHIP, though it did come in the less offensive National League. But as was shown in the ALCS, the Astros starting staff was a big question mark without Lance McCullers Jr. until…..Framber Valdez and Luis Garcia redeemed themselves in Game 5 and Game 6 wins. Can Jose Urquidy and Zack Greinke find enough footing to give performances that don’t give their games away? That is a critical question.
The Braves will start off the World Series with former Astro Charlie Morton on the mound and will probably follow up with lefty Max Fried and Ian Anderson in the rotation and then (this space for rent) in the fourth spot. The pitching matchups will be a huge focal point throughout this series. The Astros propensity to struggle when facing new pitchers will be tested in this series, except for a few exceptions like Morton, who they saw a bit when he was with the Rays and close-up on the same team.
Relief Pitching. The Braves and Astros bullpens have similar regular season numbers (3.97 ERA for the Braves vs. 4.06 ERA for the Astros and 1.32 WHIP vs. 1.30 WHIP for Houston). Both bullpens have performed better than that in the postseason.
In the postseason Ryan Pressly, Kendall Graveman, and Ryne Stanek have been taking care of the late-inning situations for the Astros, while Phil Maton, Cristian Javier and Brooks Raley have formed a bridge to get the game to them late. In the postseason, the Braves have been throwing the whole bullpen, especially Jesse Chavez and A.J. Mintner at the opposition to get to the almost unhittable lefty duo of Will Smith and Tyler Matzek. Whether those two can sustain the workload that has come their way is a huge question, but the answer to that may be critical to the Astros’ success.
Prediction. Astros in 6. The Astros have shown this writer they know how to win when it matters and they have a cheating chip on their shoulder bigger than Jose Altuve that they want to use as motivation to prove their abilities to the rest of the world.