'Bit players' making the difference in Astros' run

October 29th, 2019

HOUSTON -- Typically, the two teams left standing when the World Series rolls around have more than a couple of traits in common. This doesn't necessarily mean they are perfect mirror images of each other in terms of raw talent, but some similarities, for the most part, are inevitable.

That is the case with the Astros and Nationals. The top of each lineup is stacked. They both have a scary 1-2 punch at the top of the rotation, with a third that would be an ace on any number of second-tier teams. And they each have lock-down relievers anchoring the back end of the bullpen.

What often makes the difference between a team winning or losing a World Series is that next level of talent -- the players who had decent but under-the-radar regular seasons and are not exactly striking fear in their opponents, not because they can't do damage, but because, who's really paying attention to them?

This time of year, that's when those players often become the most dangerous. It's made a difference for the Astros through the World Series, especially in the past three games, and it's why they're one win away from capturing the title, while their opponent will simply be fighting to stay alive when Game 6 commences at Minute Maid Park on Tuesday.

Sure, José Altuve is a superstar many times over, with an unimaginable 1.059 OPS this postseason. And Michael Brantley is right behind him, logging 19 hits in 62 at-bats through October.

But the story today, in addition to contributions from the usual suspects, is just as much about the players we weren't necessarily talking about four days ago.

"Yeah, we know," Smith said, chuckling. "We know who the superstars are, and we need them or else we wouldn't be here. But it's pretty cool when you see guys stepping up when they get their opportunity to."

And that's where the differences are the most glaring between the Astros and Nationals, heading into the most crucial game (or two games) of the World Series. Washington has long considered its top half of the roster as strong as Houston's, and justifiably so. But the next layer has been an issue.

The Nats' bottom of the order, its bench and most relievers not named Daniel Hudson and Sean Doolittle have been serviceable, but short of great. Save for Kurt Suzuki's game-tying homer off Justin Verlander in Game 2, heroic singular moments have been scarce.

The Astros' script is flipped.

Raise your hand if you penciled in Urquidy, who started the year at Double-A and has far exceeded his now-kaput post-Tommy John surgery innings limit, for five scoreless in the Astros' runaway 8-1 win in Game 4.

And who saw foresaw Smith, who didn't even start his season until mid-July after suffering a major Achilles tear, getting World Series work as a nearly flawless setup man? Who picked Chirinos as the player most likely to homer in consecutive games and help his team climb out of a 2-0 series hole?

There's an unpredictability that comes along with playing in the postseason, and as manager AJ Hinch pointed out, it's impossible to plan for every scenario.

"And I kind of love it," Hinch said. "We've talked a lot about the depth of our roster and how you're going to need all 25. And now I see all 50 players have now played in the World Series for both teams. No matter how much you map it out and plan it out, Joe Smith is getting these eighth innings when everybody assumed was going to get those eighth innings. Robinson Chirinos and Martín Maldonado, two catchers, have both homered for us and it's incredible to have that kind of production behind the plate."

World Series contributions by so-called "bit players" is not a new thing. It's how Steve Pearce, who played 50 games in the regular season in 2018, ended up as World Series MVP in the Red Sox's toppling of the Dodgers. Same goes for Pablo Sandoval in '12 -- he hit 12 homers in 108 regular-season games and wound up the hero of the Fall Classic, batting .500 (8-for-16) with three homers in a Giants sweep of the Tigers.

That's not to say anyone is going to surpass Altuve, who has reached base safely in 25 consecutive postseason games, for MVP, should the Astros win the whole thing. But the second baseman did identify all 25 players as MVP candidates in an interview following Houston's Game 5 win in Washington.

Maybe he's on to something.

"To do this, you need everybody," Smith said. "It's been a fun year. And it's even more fun now. And it gets so special when you see everybody coming together to do it."