HOUSTON -- Welcome to a World Series featuring teams that are mirror images of one another in some important ways. You want Fall Classic storylines? We’ve got ‘em.
There are Cy Young winners and MVP finalists and dominant starting pitchers on both sides. There are also bullpen questions on both sides. There’s a manager who has been here and one who hasn’t. To get the fun started, here are seven storylines to keep on eye on:
1) If the Astros win again, it’ll start to have the feel of a dynasty.
The Astros are as close to a dynasty as MLB has at the moment, and winning the World Series twice in three years would put them at the forefront of that kind of conversation. Their +752 run differential the last three seasons is 150 more than the 1998-2000 Yankees, and their core group has stayed largely intact. While winning three straight American League West titles and making the playoffs four times in five seasons, the only thing people really remember are the World Series championships. The Astros are four wins from another.
2) Who is going to win the starting-pitching matchup?
That would be the fans watching MLB’s two best rotations go at it. This World Series has two teams with starters who pride themselves on setting a tone for their clubs and getting deep into games. They’ve also combined for 29 All-Star Games, five Cy Young Awards and five ERA titles. Justin Verlander and Max Scherzer already have punched their tickets to the Hall of Fame, and Zack Greinke, Stephen Strasburg and Gerrit Cole are headed in that direction. Baseball’s use of relievers as openers has changed the game, but great starting pitching is as valued as ever. So sit back and enjoy Scherzer vs. Cole in Game 1 and Strasburg vs. Verlander in Game 2.
3) Does it matter that one manager has been in the World Series and one hasn’t?
Maybe not. It’s true that Astros manager AJ Hinch is the prototype of the modern manager. He checks every box, from building relationships with his players to coordinating the mountains of information from a data-driven front office to running a game. He has distinguished himself in the postseason with his aggressive bullpen management and doing his part in his team maintaining an edge. But Washington’s Dave Martinez should not be underestimated. His easygoing manner and relentless positive nature play well over a long season. He remained consistent and confident through a 19-31 start and has handled his pitching staff beautifully through the postseason. He was also the Cubs' bench coach when they won the 2016 World Series.
4) Is the Astros' offense a cause for concern?
Not as long as José Altuve comes up with the game on the line. To get past the Yankees while hitting .179 may say plenty about just how good the Astros are. They scored just 22 runs in six games, but what hits they did get were big ones. George Springer had four hits, two of them homers, Carlos Correa had four hits, two of them homers. Yuli Gurriel had three hits, one of them a home run. Those home runs powered the Astros in their four victories. So while it’s one thing to be really good, it’s even more critical to be good at the right time.
5) Will the long layoff impact the Nationals' magic?
Will the Nationals lose their seemingly magical edge after six days off? Teams winning the pennant first have lost nine of the last 10 World Series, and this may be the biggest question of this postseason. The Nationals rallied from three runs down against the Brewers in the National League Wild Card Game and three down against the Dodgers in the deciding Game 5 of the NL Division Series. Since sweeping the Cardinals in the NL Championship Series, the Nationals have had about six times more rest than teams usually get between games. Baseball players love the rhythm of a season. How quickly they get their edge back will be interesting to watch.
6) Is the Nationals' bullpen strategy sustainable?
Probably not. The Nationals have gotten 81 of their 90 postseason innings from four starters and two relievers. Starters Scherzer, Strasburg and Patrick Corbin were used as relievers in five of the club's eight postseason victories. That does not seem to be workable over a seven-game series, but days off after Games 2 and 5 offer some relief. Also, right-handed reliever Tanner Rainey has emerged as a third reliable late-inning option (joining Sean Doolittle and Daniel Hudson), having made four consecutive scoreless postseason appearances, including Games 3 and 4 of the NLCS sweep of the Cardinals.
7) The World Series as a marketing campaign for Rendon and Cole, this offseason’s top two free agents.
This is an interesting subplot, but probably not a major one. These two have more than established their worth in recent seasons, especially this one, when Cole will finish first or second in AL Cy Young Award voting and Anthony Rendon will finish top three in balloting for the NL Most Valuable Player Award. To see them excel on baseball’s biggest stage could enhance interest in where they land, but neither of them has anything to prove. What is certain is that MLB -- and baseball fans all over -- want nothing more than to see it's biggest stars perform on its biggest stage. And on that score, this wish has been granted.