The matchup for the 118th World Series is set. With their League Championship Series victories Sunday, the Astros and Phillies will face off in the Fall Classic, which opens Friday at Minute Maid Park. For Philadelphia, this is unfamiliar territory -- the Phils haven’t played in the World Series in 13 years. For the Astros, who are looking to become the first team of the Wild Card era to run the table in the postseason (and the first since the 1976 Reds), the territory is very familiar.
The Phillies won a thriller, 4-3, over the Padres in Game 5 of the NLCS thanks to a dramatic eighth-inning homer by series MVP Bryce Harper at Citizens Bank Park. A few hours later, the Astros polished off a sweep of the Yankees with a 6-5 win in the Bronx to reach the World Series for the fourth time in the last six seasons.
Here are seven key storylines as we look ahead to World Series Game 1:
Will Harper’s heroics continue?
Harper has been in the spotlight since he made the cover of Sports Illustrated as a 16-year-old phenom. In the years since, he’s lived up to the hype in every way except that his teams hadn’t found success in the postseason. That changed this month, and the two-time NL MVP is a huge reason why.
Harper’s iconic go-ahead homer in Sunday’s pennant clincher capped an NLCS in which he hit .400 (8-for-20) with three doubles, two homers and five RBIs. He’s hitting .419 (18-for-43) with six doubles, five homers and 11 RBIs this postseason.
It’s hard to believe that the man just turned 30 years old last week. On Sunday, Harper hit the biggest homer of his life, half of which has been spent under the collective watchful eye of the baseball world. Will he continue to fuel the Phillies’ Cinderella run all the way to a World Series championship?
Which Kyle Schwarber will we see in the World Series?
Through the first two rounds of the postseason, Schwarber was 1-for-20 with eight strikeouts. But his bat came alive in the NLCS, when he went 6-for-15 (.400) with three homers -- including a mammoth 488-foot blast in Game 1, the longest at Petco Park -- and six walks.
Schwarber will be playing in his second World Series after winning it all with the Cubs in 2016. He hit .412 in that Fall Classic against Cleveland, and the Phillies hope they’ll see something more akin to that performance this time around, which would mean a continuation of what he did in the NLCS.
Can Zack Wheeler and Aaron Nola get the Phils off to a fast start?
We know that the Astros’ pitching staff is deeper than deep, as Houston has demonstrated throughout these playoffs. The Phillies’ lineup -- even with the hot bats of Harper, Schwarber and Rhys Hoskins -- will have its work cut out for it.
But on the other side of the ledger, could Wheeler and Nola put Philadelphia in a great spot by the time the World Series returns to Citizens Bank Park for Game 3 on Monday night?
The old adage is that if you start a playoff series with two games on the road, you’ll be content with a split. But the way Wheeler and Nola have pitched this postseason, aside from Nola’s rough outing in NLCS Game 2, it’s not a big stretch to imagine the Phils stealing two games in Houston.
Wheeler has a 1.78 ERA in four starts this postseason, while Nola didn’t surrender an earned run in two starts (12 2/3 innings) between the NL Wild Card Series and the NLDS before getting hit for six runs in NLCS Game 2.
Is there any stage too big for Jeremy Peña?
The 25-year-old rookie has delivered some of Houston’s biggest hits in these playoffs, including the go-ahead solo homer that proved to be the difference in an 18-inning ALDS Game 3 victory to complete a sweep of the Mariners.
Add in two more homers, including a big three-run blast in ALCS Game 4 at Yankee Stadium, three doubles and some sparkling defense at shortstop, and you have the makings of one of the great rookie postseasons in history. Peña, who’s hitting .303 so far in the playoffs, was named ALCS MVP and appears to be as relaxed as someone who is in his third or fourth postseason, let alone his first.
With the confidence he exudes on the field and what he’s shown so far this month, it will be very interesting to follow Peña in his first Fall Classic.
Will Jose Altuve snap out of his postseason funk?
Altuve is a huge component of the Astros’ success, and the fact that Houston is 7-0 this postseason while he has gone 2-for-31 at the plate is remarkable. It helps, of course, that Peña and others have stepped up, but even a club as good as this one will be hard-pressed to win it all with virtually no offensive contributions from Altuve.
The Astros hope to see the return of the Altuve who had hit .286/.361/.547 with 23 home runs in his postseason career before this year. Meanwhile, they’d also like to see Kyle Tucker get going at the plate -- he’s hitting just .214 this postseason. Yordan Alvarez, following his great start to the playoffs with two homers, including a walk-off in Game 1 of the ALDS against the Mariners, proceeded to go 2-for-19 before a delivering a game-tying single late in ALCS Game 4. Houston would love to see him heat up again.
Can Houston’s bullpen, as great as it is, really keep this up?
We knew the Astros’ bullpen was deep and very good. But what Houston’s relievers have done this postseason is simply extraordinary -- in 33 innings between the ALDS and the ALCS, they gave up only three runs (0.82 ERA). To have that kind of dominance from your bullpen behind the likes of Justin Verlander, Framber Valdez and Co. in the starting rotation makes you tough to beat no matter how great the opposing lineup is.
Can the Astros’ ’pen continue to be lights-out against the Phillies in the World Series? If the answer is yes, it’s going to spell major trouble for Philadelphia.
Something’s gotta give: Will it be Baker or Harper who finally wins that elusive World Series?
Harper and Astros manager Dusty Baker were together with the Nationals for two seasons from 2016-17, and in both years, Washington was unable to get past the NLDS, losing to the Dodgers and the Cubs. And both enter the 2022 World Series without a ring.
Baker, in his 25th season as a Major League manager, has led five clubs to the postseason -- the Giants, Cubs, Reds, Nationals and Astros. He had reached the World Series twice prior to this year -- with the Astros in 2021, when Houston lost to the Braves in six games, and in '02 with San Francisco, a seven-game loss to the Angels.
Harper, meanwhile, also is one of the greatest superstars of this generation, but he's going to play in the Fall Classic for the first time.
Someone’s going to get that first World Series ring. Who’s it going to be?