If you have yearned for playoff baseball from the not-so-distant past, when the best teams in the major leagues rode premier starting pitchers through the end of October before relievers were relentlessly swapped in and out to slow games to a crawl, this year’s World Series promises to be, for the most part, a welcomed throwback.
Notwithstanding the use of seven pitchers by each team in the Houston Astros’ 6-4 win over the New York Yankees in Game 6 of the American League Championship Series, the Astros and Washington Nationals are within four wins of a championship primarily because of starting pitching.
The Nationals have depended on Max Scherzer, Stephen Strasburg, Patrick Corbin and Anibal Sanchez to reach the first World Series in franchise history after falling 12 games under .500 on May 24.
On the other side, the Astros, a season-long juggernaut with a major league-leading 107 wins, are vying for their second title in three years with Gerrit Cole, Justin Verlander and Zack Greinke fronting the charge.
How the pitchers will be deployed beginning with Tuesday’s Game 1 at Minute Maid Park in Houston remains unclear.
The Nationals, after ousting the Dodgers in the National League Division Series, completed a four-game thrashing of the St. Louis Cardinals in National League Championship Series on Oct. 15, giving them six days off to line up their pitching before Game 1. Scherzer would pitch on nine days’ rest after logging seven scoreless innings in Game 2 of the NLCS. Washington could follow Scherzer with Strasburg on eight days’ rest in Game 2 and Corbin on 10 days’ rest in Game 3. Sanchez will almost certainly start Game 4.
Houston will give the ball to Cole, a favorite to win the American League Cy Young Award, in Game 1 on six days’ rest. The Astros could then have Greinke, acquired at the trade deadline from the Arizona Diamondbacks, start Game 2 on nine days rest or Verlander on regular rest after he pitched against the Yankees on Friday. The other choice will start Game 3.
The Astros’ rotation depth drops off from there. They could opt for a bullpen game in Game 4 — as they did in their Game 6 win over the Yankees on Saturday — or have Jose Urquidy or Brad Peacock log a conventional start. Wade Miley, who was 14-6 in 33 starts during the regular season, was left off the ALCS roster after fading in September.
Offensively, the Astros boast the deeper lineup with American League MVP candidate Alex Bregman, ALCS MVP Jose Altuve, Carlos Correa, George Springer and Michael Brantley among the dangerous cogs.
The Nationals counter with Houston native Anthony Rendon and 20-year-old wunderkind Juan Soto supplying perhaps the best one-two, middle-of-the-order punch in baseball with a capable cast around them. Trea Turner and Adam Eaton are the table setters atop the lineup while 14-year veteran Howie Kendrick, the NLCS MVP, is on a torrid stretch and 15-year veteran Ryan Zimmerman, the first draft pick in Nationals history, is another player producing in his mid-30s.
The series could come down to the team’s common weakness: the bullpen. While the Astros’ relief corps has been trusted to carry its weight, the Nationals utilized starting pitchers out of the bullpen when necessary in the first two rounds to mask their deficiencies. To win the World Series, they’ll likely need to rely on relievers beyond just Sean Doolittle and Daniel Hudson. The Astros are too good to topple with six pitchers in a seven-game series.