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Previewing the 2021 World Series: Astros/Braves

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It all comes down to this.

After a season that presented more than its share of obstacles, albeit nothing quite like the COVID-truncated year that preceded it, Major League Baseball has narrowed its World Series contenders to just two teams.

Months ago, back in March, 32 teams entered spring training with championship dreams (OK, maybe 31 … sorry Orioles fans). After six months of hard-fought action that put excellence both anticipated and unexpected on display, two remain.

On the one side, your American League Champion Houston Astros. On the other, National League pennant winners the Atlanta Braves. Seven games for all the marbles. So who will hoist the trophy amidst champagne showers in 2021?

Let’s break it down.

We’ll start with the Astros, the closest thing that MLB currently has to a wrestling heel. The organization – which is still living down the sign-stealing controversy that surrounded its 2017 championship run (as well as a number of other scandals) – got here by defeating the Chicago White Sox 3-1 in the ALDS before taking down the Boston Red Sox 4-2 in the ALCS.

Now, you can hate on the Astros all you want, but there’s no denying that this is an immensely talented team. They have a lineup that is stacked top to bottom with quality bats and a number of great arms, both starters and relievers (though pitching injuries are a factor). They have an analytically-minded front office that has done great work in maximizing their talent.

Seriously – look at those bats. We’ll start with young Yordan Alvarez, who has been absolutely scorching throughout the postseason; he’s 15-34, to the tune of a .441 postseason average. Kyle Tucker has seen a power surge, blasting four homers and driving in 15 Astros runs over these 10 games. Yuli Gurriel and Carlos Correa have been great, Michael Brantley is batting over .300 and even Jose Altuve’s .200 average is buoyed by three homers and 15 runs scored. These guys can rake.

The pitching isn’t quite to that level, largely due to some struggles from the rotation. Erstwhile ace Zack Greinke has been a non-factor in two games (one start). Luis Garcia got lit up in his three starts. Framber Valdez was at best so-so in his three. Lance McCullers is really the only starter to perform well, giving up just one run – a solo homer – in his two starts.

The bullpen’s another story, though. While there have been a couple of guys who have struggled, there are four Astros relievers – Ryne Stanek, Phil Maton, Kendall Graveman and closer Ryan Pressley – who have been just lights-out over this postseason. In over 26 combined innings, that quartet has given up just four total runs (one each). And when you’re looking at a 21st century postseason, where every manager is quick with a hook, a bunch of hot arms in the pen is key.

Speaking of managers, the Astros have Dusty Baker on their bench, arguably the best manager in MLB history to never win a World Series title, in case you’re looking for a reason to root for Houston.

On the National League side, we’ve got the Atlanta Braves, a team that was viewed by most as an absolute afterthought, a minor speedbump in the path of a team with much higher expectations. But Atlanta beat the favored Milwaukee Brewers in four games and the heavily favored Los Angeles Dodgers in six. No one thought they’d be here, but here they are.

They did it largely through quality pitching and timely hitting, though neither unit was considered the equal of the teams they faced. Still, the Braves stood up and refused to roll over for the perceived coronation of the Dodgers, who earned that distinction by defeating the regular season powerhouse San Francisco Giants. Are they the most talented team in the NL this year? Probably not – but they’re here.

As far as hitting, the Braves have relied more on timeliness and, to be frank, a lot of luck to get where they are. It doesn’t hurt that they have the one postseason hitter who is even more blazing hot than Houston’s Alvarez – Eddie Rosario’s postseason line is straight from a video game. He’s 18-38 for a .474 average in these playoffs. Personal favorite Freddie Freeman has looked good, slashing .294/.455/.618, and Joc Pederson has gone off in some ideal moments, but otherwise, the Braves offense has been meh.

On the mound, though? Different story. The starting pitcher trio of Charlie Morton, Max Fried and Ian Anderson performed at a high level throughout, with Anderson even sitting a notch above the other two. All three managed ERAs under four – solid work in today’s offensive environment – and handled opposing offenses for a total of 43 extremely important innings.

And that bullpen has just been exceptional. Sure, there have been a couple of isolated rough innings here and there, but come on – closer Will Smith, Jesse Chavez and A.J. Minter have combined to give up exactly zero runs over the course of their 19-plus collective innings. And they might not even be the most impressive – Tyler Matzek has given up just two runs in his 10-plus innings, striking out 17. Two runs … and two wins in his nine appearances.

On the managerial side, you might not hear much about Brian Snitker, but he is a baseball lifer and the kind of leader that can be fun to root for.

Where does that leave us?

Offense: Astros

Starting Pitching: Braves

Bullpen: Braves

Defense/Manager: Push

(Full disclosure: My up-and-down sports prognostication is a matter of public record. And I was particularly off when addressing this MLB postseason – in my “Road to the World Series” piece earlier this month, I had the Astros and Braves as fifth- and eighth-most likely to make the World Series, respectively. Basically, don’t place any bets on my say-so – you will likely regret it.)

I will say that I believe Houston’s offense to be better than Atlanta’s to a significantly greater extent than Atlanta’s pitching is better than Houston’s. Can the Braves staff tame the Astros bats? Can Houston keep Atlanta off the scoreboard? It’s all about strength-on-strength, and I have a pretty good ideas of which strength is stronger.

Prediction: Astros in six.

Last modified on Tuesday, 26 October 2021 22:55

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