PLENTY TO PLAY FOR

3 important factors to watch for as Astros take on Braves in World Series rematch

The Astros are headed back to Atlanta. Photo by Elsa/Getty Images.

In most sports, when the calendar provides a rematch of the two teams that squared off against each other for the championship in the previous season, you circle those dates. This weekend's matchup between the Astros and Braves in Atlanta is one of those times.

Typically, these types of rematches give both teams something to rise to the occasion; there's a revenge factor for the team that came up short the previous year, while the defending champions can show that they're still the team to beat. When the 2022 schedule was initially released, there was no guarantee that the three-game series kicking off Friday night would be one featuring two of the league's best teams.

Luckily for us, it is a playoff-caliber set of games, with the Houston sitting on top of the AL at 77-43 while the Braves sit third in the NL at 73-47 behind the 76-43 Mets and the league's best 81-36 Dodgers. Both teams are virtually guaranteed to be in the 2022 postseason at this point, but there's still plenty to prove.

Is McCullers Jr. all the way back?

In the series opener, we'll get an intriguing pitching battle when the Astros send Lance McCullers Jr. to the mound opposite Kyle Wright, who is 14-5 with a 3.14 ERA. Both of these teams are benefitting from solid pitching this season, with Houston's second-best team ERA of 3.05 and Atlanta's sixth-best 3.61.

McCullers made his 2022 debut on August 13th, and it was a good one. He made it through six shutout innings against the A's on just 81 pitches, nabbing his first win of the year as Houston would go on to win 8-0. While quality starts, especially shutouts, are never easy in the MLB, there is a big difference between the 41-73 A's and this Braves team.

One thing that could have bitten him in that first start was walks. He issued four over the six-inning outing, with some timely double plays helping erase them. He otherwise looked sharp, getting five strikeouts and allowing just two hits. If he can make the next step in his progression to complete form, replicating the success of his first start against a more potent offense, that will be a huge confidence boost for the rest of the season.

Are the bats finally peaking?

In the recent six-game homestand against the Rangers and A's, the Astros put up 39 runs, averaging 6.5 per game. Three low-scoring affairs followed that against the White Sox, where they managed just eight and dropped two of those three to Chicago. Then the lineup exploded in the series finale, demolishing the ball en route to a 21-5 clubbing to hang their hats on heading into this weekend.

As I've mentioned earlier this season, with Houston's pitching being mostly consistent with their strong performance, the offense has been the deciding factor in games more often than not. One key component of the top of Houston's order is Alex Bregman, who is having a hot August so far.

Bregman's first half of the season was not up to his typical standards, finishing with a .238 average, 11 homers, and .764 OPS. That has quickly turned around in July and August, where he's slashing .343/.404/.667 and an impressive 1.070 OPS. So far this month, he has the third-best average in the league, is tied for the most RBI, and has the second-best OPS with 1.246 behind Paul Goldschmidt's 1.276.

While the rest of the lineup got in on the action in the blowout win in Chicago, Bregman was the most impressive, getting two homers and driving in six runs. If he can maintain this surge the rest of the way and be the spark for Houston's lineup, they could enter the postseason as one of the most well-rounded teams, which remains necessary for playoff success.

An exciting weekend in store

After the opener on Friday night with McCullers Jr. vs. Wright, the two teams will take to primetime on Saturday night as they'll play on FOX. That game will have Cristian Javier (7-8, 2.96 ERA) facing off with Spencer Strider (7-4, 3.04 ERA) at 6:15 PM Central. Then, the series finale will be at 12:35 PM on Sunday with the pitching matchup of Jose Urquidy (11-4, 3.69 ERA) and former Astro Charlie Morton (6-5, 4.04 ERA).

A World Series rematch. A potential preview of this year's as well. It'll be fun to watch and shapes up to be one of the final premier matchups the Astros have as we near the last month of regular-season play.

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