As World Series accounting goes, Houston Astros ledger starting to add up
The Astros lead the World Series 1-1. Not literally obviously, but with the best-of-seven reduced to a best-of the next-five, even with the scene shifting to Philadelphia’s raucous Citizens Bank Park for three games the Astros reclaimed the role of favorites to win it. Game two was not a must win for the Astros but without it the lifting needed to take the series would have gotten a heck of a lot heavier.
Thank you Framber Valdez. He excelled where Justin Verlander faltered. Framber’s curveball laid waste to the Phillies’ lineup as he gave back just one run of a 5-0 lead in spinning six and a third tremendous innings. The Astros can be hopeful that Jose Altuve has awoken from his offensive coma and stays so. After an undisciplined and feeble first eight postseason games (four hits in 37 at bats, .108 batting average, 12 strikeouts) with 12 strikeouts, Altuve’s three hit game two seems revitalizing. Of note, after his first pitch of the bottom of the first double to left, Altuve’s second hit was up the middle and his third a two strike line drive lashed to right. When Altuve is at his very best he avoids being extremely pull-happy. Yordan Alvarez rediscovering his thump would further boost the Astro cause. Since the first two games of the Seattle series Yordan is four for 28 (.143) without a home run.
It’s now that the starting pitching matchups really tilt in Houston’s favor. Justin Verlander vs. Aaron Nola was no mismatch. Zack Wheeler was at least as good as Framber this season. Now while the Astros have Lance McCullers (though it’s road Lance…) and Cristian Javier cued up for games three and four, the Phillies line up Noah Syndergaard and Ranger Suarez. Advantage Astros in each game. Of course, that’s on paper.
As opposed to the TV-dictated schedule nonsense of the LDS and LCS, the traditional best-of-seven series format remains for the World Series. That means after Sunday’s off day games three, four, and five are set for Monday, Tuesday, Wednesday with an off day Thursday before if necessary game six Friday and game seven Saturday back at Minute Maid Park. That means only four different starting pitchers are necessary. The Astros have a legitimate fifth starter option in Luis Garcia should they prefer to give Justin Verlander a fifth day of rest and hold him back for a prospective game six which would move Framber Valdez back from game six to game seven. As I noted last week, only once since July 1 has Verlander pitched on only four days rest.
About the only thing missing on Verlander’s resume is winning a World Series game. If we think of Verlander’s big league career as a beautiful face, his World Series track record is a gross, oozing zit. After blowing the 5-0 lead he was given Friday night, Verlander is now 0-6 with a 6.07 earned run average in eight World Series starts. No other pitcher in history without a World Series win has more than four losses. In the past home runs killed him, nine of them allowed in 38 innings before game one. As frame of reference, in the entire regular season this year over 175 innings of work Verlander gave up only 12 homers. This time, after retiring the first 10 Phillies in order Verlander just lost his command. No homers, but six hits and two walks over the fourth and fifth innings wrecked his outing.
Getting shelled in two of his three postseason starts sure ramps up the pressure on Verlander presuming he has one more start to make. Should he flop for a third time, it’s a complicating factor for the Astros’ decision making as Verlander almost certainly opts out of the 25 million player option he has for 2023 to enter free agency before turning 40 years old in February.
Dusty Baker did not blow game one, Verlander did. Second guessing is easy and comes with the territory but when you break down the game situations there was no obvious spot demanding a hook before the game was tied. The Phils striking for three runs in the top of the fourth was not going to chase the ace. The Phils never considered hooking Aaron Nola after Kyle Tucker’s second homer ballooned the Astros’ lead to 5-0 in the third. In the fifth, Verlander gave up a double and a walk, but then induced a pop up for the first out. J.T. Realmuto then laced the game-tying double to the gap in left-center. There it was reasonable to say “Take him out!” but Verlander then retired the next two batters to end the inning. In real time, going to Luis Garcia in the top of the tenth ahead of Ryne Stanek was a questionable choice, but certainly not plainly stupid. Also, five runs should be enough to win, but the Astro offense produced zero over the last eight innings.
The Astros are supposed to be the much better defensive team. They haven't been thus far. In game one while the Philly D was sharp, Jeremy Pena was not charged with an error but failed to make a play he should have made and Verlander had a shot at a double play but didn’t cleanly field a comebacker. In game two the Phillies gifted the Astros an unearned run, but the Astros again weren’t up to their standards. Jose Altuve egregiously went to sleep on a play that cost Pena an error, and Yuli Gurriel very uncharacteristically botched a routine grounder that cost a run. Tightening up the defense is one element that would boost the Astros’ chances of World Series title number two.
Major League Baseball has had eight different franchises win the last eight World Series. The Phillies have made perfectly clear their intentions to make it nine in nine. As the series moves to the laughably nicknamed City of Brotherly Love, it is worth noting that the Phillies are undefeated at home this postseason, having taken two from the Braves and then swept three from the Padres. That will faze the Astros as much as the Astros having been 7-0 in the playoffs entering the World Series fazed the Phils.