These 3 things will decide the 2021 WS

November 2nd, 2021

HOUSTON -- The World Series is going back to Minute Maid Park, where the Braves and Astros will empty what’s left of their respective tanks in Game 6 on Tuesday night and, potentially, Game 7 on Wednesday night. The Braves have a 3-2 lead and will try again to close out the Series, but the Astros will have a full house behind them as they look to play another day.

Here are the three things that will decide this World Series:

1. Braves’ rested starters vs. Astros’ all hands on deck
Charlie Morton’s fractured right fibula in Game 1 forced Braves manager Brian Snitker and pitching coach Rick Kranitz to navigate back-to-back bullpen games in Games 4 and 5. It worked the first night, but the Astros stormed back in the second from a four-run first-inning deficit to avoid elimination. Now, that script has flipped.

For Atlanta, it’s fully rested left-hander Max Fried starting Game 6. If the Astros win again to force a Game 7, the Braves could turn to a fully rested Ian Anderson, the right-hander with postseason experience beyond his 23 years.

The Astros, meanwhile, are in scramble mode. They used José Urquidy for 14 pitches out of the bullpen in Game 5, so they are starting Game 6 with rookie right-hander Luis Garcia on three days’ rest. Garcia has made one of his 34 career starts, regular season and postseason, on short rest. He pitched five innings of one-run ball against the Mariners on April 29 this season, four days after throwing 26 pitches for five outs in relief against the Angels.

Astros manager Dusty Baker said Garcia would be somewhat limited, so he’ll face decisions in the middle of Game 6 and again, he hopes, in Game 7. Jake Odorizzi is an option to pitch in relief in either game. In Game 7, it could also be Urquidy on two days’ rest from his relief outing, or Zack Greinke on three days’ rest from his four scoreless innings as Houston’s starter in Game 4. All of those options carry some risk, but as Baker put it after pulling out all the stops to cover nine innings of a must-win game on Sunday, “If a guy's tired, it really doesn't matter, because your next step is home, and we weren't ready to go home.”

For the Braves, the question going into Game 6 is how much Fried has left. He was one of baseball’s hottest starting pitchers down the stretch, with a 1.56 ERA and a .185 opponents’ average over his final 12 regular-season starts before carving up the Brewers for six scoreless innings of three-hit ball in Game 2 of the National League Division Series. But Fried has yielded 23 hits and 13 earned runs in 15 2/3 innings in three starts since then against the Dodgers and Astros.

“I'm glad we split it,” Snitker said of those back-to-back bullpen days. “I knew it was going to be a rough spot having to do that, but it is what it is. We hated losing Charlie, obviously, but we survived the two bullpen games. Now after [Sunday], the day off today, we're in good shape now going forward.”

2. Can Houston’s right-handed hitters do damage?
Going into Game 2, the matchup to watch was Fried, who is at his best when he is pounding right-handed hitters inside, against the Astros’ stable of right-handed hitters, many of whom happen to thrive on pitches inside.

Here are some visualizations of Fried against right-handed hitters this season:

Those hitters will get more looks at Fried in Game 6 after he was charged with six earned runs on seven hits in five-plus tough-luck innings of a 7-2 loss in Game 2, including four runs in a “weird” second inning that hinged on one of those tough righties, Yuli Gurriel, beating the Braves’ infield shift.

Gurriel has had a productive postseason (.333/.387/.404) and World Series (6-for-18), as has Carlos Correa (.286/.375/.411 in the postseason, 5-for-19 with four RBIs in the World Series). But it has been a quieter playoffs for the Astros’ other two top-of-the-order righties, Jose Altuve (.206/.301/.492 in the postseason) and Alex Bregman (.228/.318/.316 in the postseason). Combined, Altuve and Bregman are 7-for-41 against the Braves, though Bregman delivered a huge double to spark a comeback in Game 5 after being dropped to seventh in the order, and Altuve has popped a pair of home runs.

They are Houston’s only two home runs in the series, which is uncharacteristic for a powerful offense.

“These guys are due,” Baker said, pointing to the cold, rainy weather in Atlanta which washed out batting practice on the field prior to Games 3 and 4.

Now, back home in climate-controlled Houston and with Braves left-handers Fried, A.J. Minter, Tyler Matzek and Will Smith lined up to pitch a significant chunk of the remaining innings in the Series, it’s an opportunity for the Astros' right-handers to make an impact. Baker said Monday that he’ll sleep on whether to keep Bregman in the bottom third of the order for Game 6.

“He looked better, but you just don't come out of something overnight, generally,” Baker said. “He got the biggest hit of the night to me -- up to that point, at least -- to get us back in the game. … But one day doesn't mean that you're out of the woods yet.”

3. Which bullpen will hold up?
Both relief corps have been worked a lot and performed with remarkable consistency. Houston’s relievers have covered 75 2/3 of the team’s 131 postseason innings, with a 2.85 ERA, a 29.1 percent strikeout rate and a 1.10 WHIP. Atlanta's relievers have pitched 72 1/3 of a possible 131 postseason innings, with a 3.24 ERA, a 26.9 strikeout rate and a 1.23 WHIP.

Those WHIPs rank the 2021 Astros 11th and the 2021 Braves 23rd all time among relief corps who have worked at least 50 innings in a single postseason.

And it’s been a heavy workload for many of the teams’ key arms. The Braves’ Matzek and Astros’ Ryne Stanek have each pitched in 12 of their team’s 15 postseason games. Atlanta's Luke Jackson and Houston’s Phil Maton have pitched 11 times each. Smith, the Braves' closer, has pitched 10 times.

“Everybody that's in the World Series right now is gassed. Everybody,” Snitker said. “Both teams, all the players. It's been a long year, but I feel really good with where our club is. I feel really good with where the bullpen guys are. Some of these guys have had two days off and, at the most, two more games to play. I think they're in good shape.

“I admire the heck out of our bullpen because of what these guys have done. And it seems pretty much they've all gotten better since they've been used.”

Game 5 finally saw Minter wilt a bit near the end of what has been a sensational postseason for a player who was demoted to the Minors in July. Minter, Jackson, Matzek and Smith have all pitched in three of the first five games of the Series, including multiple appearances in the middle games at Truist Park.

For the Astros, Maton and Kendall Graveman each threw two innings in Game 5 on Sunday -- 29 and 37 pitches, respectively. But the Astros scored a series of critical insurance runs and got away without using closer Ryan Pressly after he threw 33 pitches for four outs the night before in Game 4, his first work since Game 2. Considering Houston needs to win two games in two days, that rest was huge.

“There could be full bullpen,” Baker said, “and then we're worried about Game 7 on Wednesday.”