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Column: Starting pitching makes Astros the World Series favorites, but Dodgers are close

Astros ace Justin Verlander could win his second Cy Young Award this season.
Astros ace Justin Verlander could win his second Cy Young Award this season.
(Mark J. Terrill / Associated Press)

October starts Tuesday, and so does the postseason. We could just tell you which teams are in, or we could tell you which team is going to win.

The Houston Astros, right?

We would like to tell you the Dodgers will win, and the grainy Kirk Gibson videos finally can be retired, and 30-year-olds all over the Southland can say they have seen the Dodgers win the World Series within their lifetime. It could happen, and it is long past time.

But pitching wins in October, and the Astros start with Justin Verlander, Gerrit Cole and Zack Greinke. Verlander or Cole will win the American League Cy Young Award; the other will finish second.

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Cole led the league in earned-run average, Verlander ranked second, and Greinke would have been third had he pitched the entire season in the AL.

Hold onto your betting slip for a second. In 2014, the Detroit Tigers roared into the playoffs with this rotation: Verlander, Max Scherzer and David Price. Those pitchers have combined to win five Cy Young awards.

The Tigers were swept in the first round.

They lost two one-run games. Their bullpen was abominable. They scored 10 runs in three games.

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“I just don’t believe any team is unbeatable in a five- or seven-game series,” said Brad Ausmus, then the Tigers manager and now the Angels manager.

The Dodgers scored five runs in the first inning and breezed to their record win over the San Francisco Giants. Clayton Kershaw pitched one inning in relief.

“Even if you have recognizable names on the mound, too much can happen. Too many things can go wrong — or right for the other team. You can have an ace on the mound, and he can give up four hits, but it’s three flares and a homer.”

The Astros led the majors with 107 victories, but the Dodgers put up 106, and their top three is formidable too: Clayton Kershaw, Walker Buehler and Hyun-Jin Ryu.

The Washington Nationals never have gotten out of the first round, and what a story it would be if they finally did it in the first year A.B. (After Bryce), and they also feature three aces: Scherzer, Stephen Strasburg and Patrick Corbin.

Their wild-card opponent, the Milwaukee Brewers, sprinted to a 20-7 September, finishing with 35 home runs from Mike Moustakas, 28 from ex-Dodger Yasmani Grandal, surviving the loss of reigning most valuable player Christian Yelich to a season-ending knee injury. The winner gets the Dodgers.

The Atlanta Braves and St. Louis Cardinals, playing in a Division Series almost certainly bound for afternoon obscurity, showcase two of baseball’s overlooked stars. The Braves’ Mike Soroka and the Cardinals’ Jack Flaherty finished third and fourth in the NL earned-run average race, respectively. Since the All-Star break, Flaherty has a 0.91 ERA.

The year of the home run will be celebrated in the AL Division Series between the Minnesota Twins and New York Yankees. The Twins set a major league record with 307 home runs, with the Yankees at 306. Each team lost a key starting pitcher to postseason suspension: the Twins’ Michael Pineda (performance-enhancing substance) and the Yankees’ Domingo German (domestic violence).

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The Astros draw the winner of Wednesday’s wild-card game between the Oakland Athletics and Tampa Bay Rays. The A’s won 97 games, the Rays 96, but they will be disrespected by the repetitive use of the word “payroll” on the national broadcast. In a season in which five of the top 10 teams with the highest payroll did not reach the playoffs, the Rays made it with the lowest payroll.

“Once you get into the dance, a lot of unpredictable things happen,” Astros manager A.J. Hinch said Sunday at Angel Stadium. “You can get a team that gets really hot.

“Oakland and Tampa are two of the most creative organizations in baseball. I have no idea what they’re going to do.”

The Dodgers had the most victories in the majors two years ago, then lost in the World Series.

The Dodgers did not have the most victories last year, then lost in the World Series to the team that did.

“There’s no foregone conclusions in our sport, no matter how many people try to be experts,” Hinch said.

“We’ve won in different ways. We’ve won with me answering questions about a medium-quality starting rotation and a good bullpen. This year, I’m hearing we’ve got such a good rotation that we’re not going to need any relievers in the postseason. Both are false.”

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The Angels fired manager Brad Ausmus after one season. Joe Maddon, a longtime Angels coach who took the Cubs to a World Series title, is interested.

The Astros are talented beyond their three aces. Alex Bregman hit .296 with 41 home runs, played shortstop when Carlos Correa was injured and third base when Correa was healthy, and is a deserving AL MVP candidate. (So is Mike Trout, obviously). George Springer hit 39 home runs, Jose Altuve and Yuli Gurriel hit 31 each, and rookie Yordan Alvarez hit 27.

None of those five players batted below .290.

It turns out the adage “pitching wins in October” might be too simplistic. According to research from Mike Petriello of Statcast and Eno Sarris of the Athletic, pitchers throw harder in October, no surprise given the additional rest built into the postseason schedule. So the variables that might matter most: the teams that tend to do well in October strike out the most batters, and strike out the least at bat.

The Astros led the majors in both categories, a first in major league history. Shouldn’t we pick the Astros?

“Depends what you like,” Hinch said. “I think there’s a lot of people, maybe, baseball has turned a little philosophical, [saying] this is how everybody has to do it. If Justin Verlander is not punching out 10, we’re going to have to find a different way to win. We’re not just going to concede the game.”

They’re not, but the way they’re going about winning is decidedly old school. Verlander and Cole each won 20 games, the only major leaguers to do so this season. Verlander, Cole and Greinke each pitched 200 innings, and they were three of the eight major leaguers to pitch at least 208 innings.

“We don’t have to be old school,” Hinch said. “We just have really good players. It’s not new school or old school. It’s our team.”

It’s the team to beat. Isn’t it?


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