Game 5 was the riveting, sweating-out-every-pitch madhouse spectacle this World Series had been waiting for, complete with clutch hits, superstars showing out and one of the greatest (and most important) defensive plays in recent World Series history. It all ended with the Astros taking a 3-2 series lead and heading back to Houston with a chance to win the second World Series in their history.
So yeah, Game 6 has plenty going on. It’s a potentially decisive, World Series-clinching game. Here are the biggest storylines:
1. Can the Phillies pick themselves up off the floor?
After Game 3, you’ve got to admit: You thought the Phillies were going to win this series. With that crowd, with those homers, with that vibe, the Phillies had the look of a team of destiny, a middling regular-season team that found itself at the right time and went on an all-time run. (Not dissimilar to what their division mates, the Braves, did last year.) But along came a Game 4 no-hitter and then, perhaps even more cruelly, a heartbreaker of a Game 5 loss. Close games are fun for fans watching at home, but they can be absolute crushers to the teams that drop them, particularly those that just lost two straight games at home and have to be feeling much decidedly less immortal than they were a few days ago.
That said, the Phillies and their fans can take solace in the fact that just three years ago their division rival, the Nationals, lost Games 3-5 at home to the Astros in the World Series (while being outscored 19-3), only to go back to Houston and win Games 6 and 7 to take home the title.
2. Is the Astros’ bullpen just unhittable now?
We all knew that the Astros’ bullpen was deep, and essentially their biggest advantage heading into this series. But this is getting ridiculous. The Astros have given up 16 earned runs this series, and only two of them have been by relievers. The current bullpen stats: 18 1/3 IP, 2 ER, 25 K, 8 BB, 8 H. That is an excellent way to win yourself a World Series. (Particularly when your starters, other than Lance McCullers Jr., have been solid themselves.) This ’pen is so talented and so skilled in so many different ways that there really isn’t a consistent way for the Phillies to attack them. Friday’s off-day has the unit fully rested, too. What’s the strategy when you want to avoid the other team pulling the starter and getting to the bullpen? The Astros seem to have the Phillies cornered from every angle right now.
3. Is Zack Wheeler OK?
“Time will tell.” That’s what Zack Wheeler said when asked if he had overcome his recent “arm fatigue” and if he will be able to pitch like he did for most of the season and the beginning of these playoffs. Time will tell! That’s not very reassuring! The Phillies’ plan for this World Series was to win the Aaron Nola and Wheeler starts: They’ve only won one of those so far, and that was a game in which Nola gave up five runs. The Phillies have never needed Wheeler more than they do right now, and he has been ineffective, his arm is tired and his fastball was down a couple of ticks in his last start. He says he is feeling better heading into Saturday night’s start. He better be!
4. Is it Dusty’s time?
Even people who have been cheering against the Astros all series -- and we’ll get to all of you in a moment -- have had to admit: If the Astros won a championship, they’d be happy for Baker. Every manager with more career wins than him is both in the Hall of Fame and has won a World Series. He has been an ambassador for the game for several decades, managing four signature franchises to considerable success. In many ways, he brought this Astros franchise back from the brink of their nearly destructive sign-stealing scandal. He is 73 years old and has been so close to winning a title in the past without ever breaking through. He’s funny and smart and cantankerous and the very definition of A Baseball Man. You could make an argument that Dusty Baker winning his first World Series as a manager would be the story of this World Series. And he’s only one win away from it.
5. Will an Astros title put all the haters in the rearview mirror?
OK, well, probably not: There are going to be people who are growling and snarling at the Astros, who will argue that their wins are illegitimate, who will be booing them at every stadium they will play at for the next few decades. That’s fine! You bought your ticket, do what you have to do, it’s your right: Boo away! But five years removed from the infamous “banging scheme,” an Astros title would make it hard for anyone to claim this title would somehow not be wholly and truly earned. (To say nothing of the World Series they made last year, or the ALCS they made the year before.)
The Astros are a machine, a seemingly endless resource of high-quality pitching surrounding a top-heavy offense playing in a stadium that sometimes seems perfectly designed for this roster. There aren’t many players left from that 2017 team -- though Jose Altuve is still here, and is just as good as he was then -- which makes this win feel a little separate from those harried times. You can claim all you want that the 2017 title was “tainted.” But you sure won’t be able to claim this one was. I can’t think of much more motivating than that.