It will be a World Series in the most modern sense.
After all, the Philadelphia Phillies gained entry to this postseason thanks to a playoff berth that did not exist a year ago. And while the Phillies and Houston Astros have a postseason history, it dates to the 1980 National League Championship Series — some 32 years before the Astros would be booted to the American League, tear down their operation and build back a dynasty.
So come Friday, when the No. 6 seed from the NL — purists, close this tab now — and the four-times-in-six-years AL pennant-winning Astros clash in Game 1 at Minute Maid Park, it will truly be a postmodern Fall Classic.
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Here are four things to know as we head toward Justin Verlander’s first pitch in Game 1:
It’s hard to find two more boisterous venues for a World Series than Minute Maid and Philadelphia’s Citizens Bank Park, which has resembled a South Philly bacchanalia the past two playoff rounds.
But don’t worry about the principal actors getting unnerved on this massive stage. They’ve seen much worse.
The Astros, of course, are now three seasons into their role as baseball’s chief villains, with one season without attendance restrictions since their sign-stealing scandal was revealed. They were thoroughly unaffected by a return to New York for the ALCS, thumping the Yankees in two games as the boos for scandal protagonists Jose Altuve and Alex Bregman lost steam as the Yankees lost ground.
“Obviously, the Yankees’ fans are really, you know, fans. And they get in the game a lot,” Altuve said, diplomatically as possible. “They, you know, really love the game. How can I say it? They love the game. It’s a little different here than other places.”
Meanwhile, NLCS MVP and $330 million man Bryce Harper has been the subject of boos since he was a teenager, simply because … well … we’re not entirely sure, actually.
Harper had the chutzpah to submit to a Sports Illustrated cover story at age 16, essentially calling his shot that he would not only make the major leagues but be a dominant player.
By 23, he was the NL MVP.
Somehow, this has made him a target of boos everywhere he’s gone. That now includes Washington, where he played perhaps the biggest role in elevating a middling franchise to relevance. Rather than thank you, he’s reminded that he should have accepted a below-market offer from the team that already harvested seven years of his career.
Now, after batting .400, hitting a pair of home runs – including the series-clinching two-run shot in Game 5 – he’s NLCS MVP, and finally facing an opponent that gets more shade than him.
Dusty Baker has been doing this since 1993. Rob Thomson has been doing this since June.
OK, that’s a little unfair. Thomson, who rightfully had the interim tag removed from his managerial title after the Phillies advanced out of the wild-card round against the St. Louis Cardinals, is a consummate baseball lifer, spending three decades in the Yankees organization, including 10 seasons as their bench coach. He left for a similar opportunity in Philly, survived the Gabe Kapler firing and continued on when Joe Girardi took over the Phillies dugout.
Now, Girardi’s firing and Thomson’s elevation to the manager’s chair is undeniably a turning point in their season.
The Phillies were 22-29 under Girardi, 65-46 under Thomson and now 9-2 in the postseason. Certainly, it’s never as simple as switching out the manager’s chair, especially when so many Philly sluggers were slumping badly when Girardi was canned. Yet the subsequent resurgence of Kyle Schwarber and Nick Castellanos and the grander role assumed by youngsters like shortstop Bryson Stott and outfielder Matt Vierling probably aren’t so pronounced without the more relaxed air under Thomson.
As for Dusty?
He’s headed to back-to-back World Series, his third in a 25-year managerial career in which he hasn’t been fully appreciated until the twilight. Much will be made about the win-it-for-Dusty narrative, and Astros players will dutifully answer, even if they know the chance to win a ring themselves can be just as fleeting.
But there is genuine love for their 73-year-old manager, whose 2,093 career wins ranks ninth all time. The “Dusty! Dusty! Dusty!” chant that broke out on the victory podium following Sunday’s ALCS clincher and the insistence his retro dance moves be included in their clubhouse celebrations reflect an appreciation that he is the final piece of an organizational ethos that empower the player.
If this is it, a title would be one heck of a way to go out. As for Thomson, he’ll ascend the 100-win mark next year — at worst, at the helm of the defending NL champions.
Oh, this series will have aces: While Philadelphia is known for its slugging, Games 1-2 starters Aaron Nola and Zack Wheeler are probably the biggest single reason why the Phillies stayed in the race — and gained the upper hand on the Cardinals, Atlanta Braves and San Diego Padres in the playoffs.
And Verlander, at 38 and with a rebuilt elbow, is the favorite to win the AL Cy Young Award, backed by oft-dominant lefty Framber Valdez and fearless veteran Lance McCullers Jr.
But most games will be won or lost by the bullpens. And the Astros’ is bordering on the absurd.
Absurdly dominant, that is.
In 33 postseason innings, Houston’s bullpen has yielded three earned runs and posted a 0.82 ERA, with 52 strikeouts and just 10 walks. Right-hander Bryan Abreu has been particularly filthy, with six scoreless outings and 10 strikeouts in 6 1/3 innings while finding himself in increasingly higher-leverage roles.
The power arms are so abundant that Ryne Stanek, who had an outstanding regular season (1.15 ERA, 62 strike outs in 54 2/3 innings) has been invisible much of the postseason, not appearing in a game until the 11th inning of ALDS Game 3. He’s thrown just two innings (and struck out four of six batters faced) but realizes Houston’s arms edge won’t depreciate with each passing round because, well, they’re so stacked.
“The starters make our jobs way easier by not overexposing us, by their ability to go deep into games and keeping games close,” says Stanek. “ All the guys in the bullpen passing the baton and keeping it where it’s at, it’s incredible.
“It makes a tremendous difference having the depth we have. We can throw out anybody in the bullpen in any situation and feel comfortable they’re going to get the job done because they’ve been battle-tested, they’ve executed in big spots all year.
“Once you get in these situations, you have to roll deep. Because if you don’t, and you only ride a handful of guys, that tax wears on people eventually. But having the ability to roll six, seven guys deep, of very effective arms that can throw leverage, that can throw multis, that can do all the things, is tremendous.”
The Phillies? They’re, um, not quite so fortunate.
The bullpen has been a sticking point for years in Philadelphia, probably the No. 1 unit keeping the club from realizing its postseason potential over several years of 80-ish wins promise. Yet the crew fell into place rather serendipitously in recent weeks.
Starter Zach Eflin became a part-time ninth-inning guy because he didn’t have enough time to recover from a knee injury to rejoin the rotation late in the year. Fireballing lefty Jose Alvarado was optioned to the minors shortly before Girardi was fired; he’s now a threat to take down batters over multiple innings. David Robertson hurt his calf celebrating the club’s NL wild-card triumph in St. Louis. He’s recovered just in time to cover late innings as needed.
And when Robertson couldn’t close the ninth in Game 5 of the NLCS, Ranger Suarez — who threw five innings and was the winning pitcher in Game 2 — came in on one day of rest to record the final two outs, including the clincher.
The Phillies’ ad hoc relief plan will leave them at a significant disadvantage. But that doesn’t mean they can’t find their way to 27 outs.
Here’s your semi-annual reminder that the true “winners” at the trade deadline are often not those who make the splashiest headlines.
Little was made when the Phillies shipped one of their best prospects, catcher Logan O’Hoppe, to the Los Angeles Angels for center fielder Brandon Marsh. Their acquisition of utility infielder Edmundo Sosa barely registered outside of Philadelphia.
But both players significantly improved the team’s defensive profile and Marsh’s three-run home run in Game 4 of the NLDS might have been the biggest blow to help knock out the defending champion Braves.
Similarly, DH Trey Mancini and catcher Christian Vazquez weren’t viewed as difference-makers when Houston added them, and Mancini struggled mightily after his trade from the Baltimore Orioles. But both pitched in significantly in toppling Yankees ace Gerrit Cole in the pivotal Game 3 of the ALCS, and Vazquez, teamed with fellow veteran catcher Martin Maldonado, brings a 2018 championship ring and significant dog mentality to the squad.