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Sunday, May 9, 2021

World Series preview: Astros vs. Nationals

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Houston took it all the way to the World Series last year, losing to the Dodgers in a seven-game epic, but now the Houston Astros are back in the big game, facing a young Washington Nationals club buoyed by the dynamic duo of Bryce Harper and Daniel Murphy, respectively. This season may have featured one of the weakest October runs of the modern era, but the Astros returned to the Fall Classic against all odds — thanks in part to the stellar pitching of Justin Verlander. Here are some things to watch for in Game 1:

Dynamics: Most regard the Nationals as the No. 2 team in the National League behind the Philadelphia Phillies. They blew through the second half of the season en route to winning the NL East and compiling a 103-58 record. They had a solid offense and pitching staff and boasted one of the best pitching rotations in the sport, including Gio Gonzalez and Max Scherzer. But the offense had just three players with more than 20 home runs and 18 doubles, and the rest of the team was riddled with holes.

Over in the NL Central, the Cardinals fared a bit better, but they are still missing several key components. The only roster spot acquired in the off-season that produced any big-time returns was Francisco Pena, who joined a team reeling from a tense benching of manager Mike Matheny, its fifth different skipper in seven years. It all adds up to a young, expansion-style NL East.

“I’ve seen playoff baseball since I started playing in the minors,” Washington manager Dave Martinez said during his team’s conference call Monday. “The World Series is a great experience for us as a team and as an organization.”

Like Martinez, the Astros coaching staff underwent major changes as well, with bench coach Alex Cora joining the squad in the aftermath of the ALCS, replacing Perci Garner. Cora got his start as a rookie manager this year in the Triple-A International League, where he posted a remarkable .610 winning percentage and led New Hampshire to an International League championship. He is just the second manager in the nine-year history of the Double-A Eastern League’s Eastern Division to reach the playoffs in his first season as manager. (And there’s the other story that makes this World Series feel like something of a family reunion.)

Dumping Gio: Verlander left the Houston Astros last year in free agency, signed by the Detroit Tigers. A reliable starter with a strong work ethic, Verlander has returned to American League East country and thus becomes the headliner in what will likely be a low-scoring, pitching-by-committee series. Despite being 34, he is still as good as ever — his 2.70 ERA is far lower than what he’s posted in the past — and looks to extend his streak of postseason wins to five with the Astros. A 2-0 start in the Fall Classic would provide a nice boost for the reigning champions, and give rookie outfielder Derek Fisher one more shot to make an impression. Fisher was the two-run homer hitter — and big-time RBI-grabber — of the ALCS against the Yankees.

Relief: Washington’s staff keeps getting younger and cheaper by the day, and this October could be one of the best young rotations in the sport. They feature Gonzalez, Scherzer, Tanner Roark and Jefry Rodriguez — who did not start a game in 2018 but has made five relief appearances in his career — while Sammy Solis and Wander Suero could both pitch in these playoffs.

The “young, cheaper” tags can be dangerous. Don’t sleep on the now-31 Gonzalez, who had a 16-8 record and a 3.24 ERA in his last full year in the Majors in 2016. Scherzer is the ace, though his playoff experience is nothing to sneeze at. This is a division of voodoo experts, though, and some old hands may again be the difference-makers.

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