The Astros should go farther in 2019 than in 2018

Why the Astros are the team to beat this postseason

Photo by Ezra Shaw/Getty Images

Going into October in 2018, it appeared that the Astros were poised to be repeat champions. They cruised past the Indians in the ALDS, sweeping them in three games to indicate that the team that won the World Series in 2017 had gotten even better. They continued that momentum into the ALCS against the Red Sox, stealing Game 1 on the road in Boston. Then, the Astros met a disappointing fate by dropping the next four games, including the Game 5 loss at home in Houston which sent Boston on to their eventual World Series win.

While losing in the ALCS and not being able to defend their crown in the World Series was a disappointing result to 2018's season considering the high expectations, it was not completely a result of underperformance. There were several components to last year's playoff run that the Astros have improved on, making them once again the team to beat going into October:

They're more healthy this go-around

Probably the most significant difference between this year's team and last: their core players are mostly healthy. One of the disappointments of last year was Jose Altuve unable to perform to his usual level due to lingering injuries. This year, he appears to be at 100 percent, along with most of Houston's roster. The biggest question mark in regards to the team's health going into Friday's ALDS Game 1 is Carlos Correa. While the current report is that he could be ready to play, until he's in the lineup and looks to be at his best, his track record of injuries and re-injury will leave concern with many heading into October.

They've got the best pitchers

I do not envy Cy Young voters. Picking between Justin Verlander and Gerrit Cole is going to be such a hair-splitting task that it very well could end in a tie. While that will be interesting to see come November when it's announced, in October the duo will lead the Astros as the best two starters of the bunch. Sure, the fourth spot in the playoff rotation will be interesting, but when you have Verlander and Cole starting the first two games of the series, the Astros have as good a chance of anyone of starting each series 2-0 with two more starts from them in the seven-game sets. Add to them the freshly acquired Zack Greinke, and any offense going up against the Astros in the postseason should know they have an uphill battle in front of them at the plate.

The bullpen is also shaping up to be successful for the Astros. As was on display this past weekend in the series with the Angels, the trio of Will Harris, Ryan Pressly, and Roberto Osuna could be lights out against anyone in the final three innings of a game. While we await the playoff roster to see who else will join them, they should be able to pick the best few arms to add to the before-mentioned trio to close out these tightly contested games.

Their offense is better than ever

Yordan Alvarez. That's it, that's all I need to say. Seriously, though, the potent offense that Houston's fans have become accustomed to over the last two years has gotten even better in 2019. One piece of that is the rookie phenom Alvarez who has shattered records and been a force to reckon with, but it's also potential MVP winner Alex Bregman who took another step forward in his career this year. Then, there's Michael Brantley, new to the team for 2019, who despite a down September has been the epitome of consistency in Houston's lineup.

You also have to consider George Springer, who had an even better season at the plate than he did before going on to win the 2017 World Series MVP. If he takes things up another notch in the playoffs, as he's been able to do the last two years, then we could be in for a lot of dingers. You add to them a healthy Jose Altuve and possibly Carlos Correa and Yuli Gurriel who broke through with a 31 home run 104 RBI season, and the cliche of "there's no easy out in this lineup" becomes as accurate as ever for this team.

They're seasoned and experienced

The core of this team has tasted success and defeat in the playoffs. With that, they also realize that the key to them finishing the playoffs on top is the same as the one they used to finish the regular season with the best record: be themselves and play their brand of baseball. Don't expect them to get overly aggressive at the plate or on the mound for the sake of having a personal highlight, because they should know that's not what led them to 107 victories this year.

Instead, I would expect the veteran leadership of this team, much like Carlos Beltran did for the younger squad in 2017, to help keep the clubhouse loose and upbeat. With a team this stacked, the only ones that should be able to beat them is themselves, so they have to avoid getting in their own heads.

Having said all this, when the playoffs get underway this week, regular-season success (other than home-field advantage, which the Astros will have all the way) is no longer significant. All that matters is winning the game ahead of you, and I think that this Astros team's makeup puts them in position to beat anyone in that scenario.

Photo by Mike Ehrmann/Getty Images

In what was expected to be a fierce pitcher's duel, Game 1 of the 2019 World Series saw some big offensive moments in the early innings as the Nationals erased an early 2-0 deficit with five unanswered runs to take a 5-2 lead against Gerrit Cole. They would hold on to that lead and take Game 1 against the Astros, 5-4. Washington's star of the night was Juan Soto, who went 3-for-4 with three RBIs, including a solo home run to fuel the Nationals to a 1-0 series lead. Here is a recap of the game:

Final Score: Nationals 5, Astros 4.

Series: Nationals lead 1-0.

Winning Pitcher: Max Scherzer.

Losing Pitcher: Gerrit Cole.

Astros take an early lead

Although the Nationals would record the first hit of the night on a leadoff single in the top of the inning, it would be the Astros who would get the first runs of the night in the bottom of the first inning. George Springer worked a leadoff walk to start the frame, followed by Jose Altuve, who drilled a single to put two on base. Both would advance a base after a wild pitch to move Springer to third, followed by a steal by Altuve, then Yuli Gurriel drove them in on a two-RBI double off the left-center field wall to give Houston the quick 2-0 lead.

The Nationals immediately cut the lead in half in the top of the second, getting a solo home run by Ryan Zimmerman off of Gerrit Cole to straightaway center-field to make it a 2-1 game. The Astros threatened to extend their lead in the bottom of the third after getting runners on second and third with two outs on a bloop single that fell in by Gurriel, but a strikeout by Carlos Correa would end the inning.

Nationals roar back with five unanswered runs

The Nationals were able to fully erase the 2-0 deficit in the top of the fourth. It came on the second solo home run allowed by Gerrit Cole on the night, this one a leadoff homer to Juan Soto to tie the game. Yordan Alvarez recorded a much-needed hit considering his playoff slump to lead off the bottom of the fourth and should have moved to second after a missed catcher's interference against Josh Reddick instead resulted in Reddick recording the second out of the inning.

George Springer worked a walk next as Houston continued to work Max Scherzer into lengthy at-bats, but both runners would be left stranded as Scherzer got out of another jam. Cole encountered jam of his own in the top of the fifth, issuing his first walk to start the inning followed by a single to put two runners on. After getting an out, Cole would allow an RBI-single as Washington took their first lead at 3-2. With two outs in the inning, Juan Soto would strike again, this time a two-RBI double to extend the Nationals' lead to 5-2 before the inning was over.

Washington goes to their bullpen in the sixth while Cole finishes seven

After a scoreless top of the sixth by Cole, the Nationals moved to another pitcher, bringing in Patrick Corbin to try and hold on to Washington's lead. Corbin was as a potential Game 3 starter, but with the Nationals bullpen having notable struggles, they opted instead to go to his strong arm to try and hold on to get a Game 1 road win, potentially keeping him available for a Game 4 start. He would record a scoreless frame, erasing a one-out single by Yordan Alvarez to keep it a 5-2 deficit for Houston heading to the seventh.

Gerrit Cole would throw one more inning before he was done for the night, getting a 1-2-3 top of the seventh. His final line was not what many expected would it would be, recording his worst start of the postseason: 7.0 IP, 8 H, 5 R, 5 ER, 1 BB, 6 K, 2 HR.

Nationals hold on for Game 1 win

Tanner Rainey was the next reliever for the Nationals, but George Springer welcomed him with a solo home run to lead off the bottom of the seventh to trim the lead to 5-3. Rainey would then allow back-to-back one-out walks, prompting the move to another reliever for Washington. It would be Daniel Hudson who would come in and get the second out before an infield single loaded the bases for Yordan Alvarez, who would strikeout to end the threat.

First out of Houston's bullpen was Will Harris in the top of the eighth, and he would erase a one-out single by Soto to keep it a two-run game. Kyle Tucker led off the bottom of the eighth with a pinch-hit single against Hudson, who remained in the game for Washington. Tucker would move to second by tagging on a long flyout, then score on an RBI-double by Springer that was mere feet from being a game-tying home run, but instead left the tying run on second base with one out and the score now 5-4. After a flyout by Altuve, the Nationals moved to Sean Doolittle to face Michael Brantley, and Doolittle would win that battle to keep it a one-run game.

Joe Smith would come in for the top of the ninth to try and keep it a one-run game and give Houston a chance to tie or walk it off in the bottom half of the inning. Smith did his job, keeping the Nationals off the board. Doolittle would face the middle of Houston's order in the bottom of the ninth and retired the Astros in order to finish off Houston's Game 1 loss.

Up Next: Game 2 of the 2019 World Series will start at 7:07 PM Central on Wednesday from Minute Maid Park in Houston. It offers another terrific pitching matchup on paper with Justin Verlander for the Astros going up against Stephen Strasburg for the Nationals.

The Astros playoff report is presented by APG&E.

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