In the 118th edition of the World Series, the improbable will meet the undeniable.
The Philadelphia Phillies hovered around .500 for much of the summer, finished in third place in the National League East, and entered the postseason as the No. 6 and final seed in their bracket. October, it should be remembered, does not reward the best teams. It rewards the teams that play best. And who has been better than the Phillies? With a lightning strike home run from Bryce Harper, Philadelphia completed a rousing, five-game victory over San Diego in the National League Championship Series on Sunday to return to the Fall Classic for the first time since 2009.
The Houston Astros have been there much more recently. In finishing a four-game demolition of the Yankees in the American League Championship Series, the Astros earned their fourth appearance in the World Series in the past six seasons. The first led to the tainted title of 2017. In 2019 and 2021, the Astros entered as the heavy favorite, only to fall to an upstart team from the NL East.
Like the Nationals in 2019 and the Braves in 2021, the Phillies picked an optimal time to play their best baseball. The starting duo of Zack Wheeler and Aaron Nola is impressive. The lineup features slugging threats like Harper, Kyle Schwarber, Rhys Hoskins and JT Realmuto. Harper has been a nightmare for opposing pitchers this postseason: five homers, 10 runs and a 1.351 OPS in 11 games.
When it comes to star power, Philadelphia can hold its own. What the roster lacks is depth. The Astros offer both. Houston won 106 games in 2022. The team has not yet lost a game in the postseason. Some rival executives believe this is the best Astros pitching staff assembled during the club’s recent renaissance. The top-line talent includes Justin Verlander, the likely American League Cy Young Award winner. The depth is just as noticeable: The Astros have fellows buried in their bullpen hierarchy who might close on other clubs. Manager Dusty Baker has demonstrated a steady hand at the switch, trusting his pitchers at a time when other clubs overcomplicate the process of securing 27 outs.
The Yankees had no answer for Houston’s relentlessness. The offense features several fixtures from the championship team: Jose Altuve bats leadoff, Alex Bregman hits cleanup and Yuli Gurriel slices singles behind them. The Astros’ most formidable bat is slugger Yordan Alvarez, who kept the club afloat with a pair of series-shifting home runs during a tight Division Series against Seattle.
When a club catches fire at this time of year, as the Phillies have done, the march to a title takes on a storybook quality. Philadelphia was disappointed for much of the season. The team fired manager Joe Girardi in June. His replacement, first-time skipper Rob Thomson, has pressed the right buttons and recognized the urgency of the moment in these playoffs. In Houston, the overlords of the American League for so many years now, Thomson’s team will face its biggest challenge yet. The improbable potency of Philadelphia will get its crack at the undeniable ability of Houston. It is a matchup that few predicted. It is a matchup even fewer can complain about. — Andy McCullough
Game 1: Phillies at Astros, Friday at 8:03 pm ET, FOX
Game 2: Phillies at Astros, Saturday at 8:03 pm ET, FOX
Game 3: Astros at Phillies, Monday at 8:03 pm ET, FOX
Game 4: Astros at Phillies, Tuesday at 8:03 pm ET, FOX
Game 5: Astros at Phillies, Nov. 2 at 8:03 p.m. ET, FOX (if necessary)
Game 6: Phillies at Astros, Nov. 4 at 8:03 p.m. ET, FOX (if necessary)
Game 7: Phillies at Astros, Nov. 5 at 8:03 p.m. ET, FOX (if necessary)
Will depth matter?
Part of why the Astros pitched their way to the best pitching staff in baseball is depth. Yes, they have top-end talent in Verlander and Framber Valdez and Lance McCullers Jr. and Ryan Pressly and Rafael Montero. But they also had the guys behind those guys, and the guys behind the guys behind those guys.
Consider José Urquidy and Ryne Stanek. Armed with four pitches that rate as above-average by Stuff+, and four that rate as above-average by Location+, Urquidy ate up 164 innings with an above-average ERA this season for the Astros a year after starting World Series games for them. Stanek throws 98 mph with a devastating splitter — he just set the Astros’ single-season ERA record for a qualified reliever. They’ve thrown a combined two innings this postseason because the rest of the staff is so good.
At the top of these two staffs, it gets tighter. Nola may not have been the best pitcher in baseball this past season, but he was probably a top-10 guy, and so was Wheeler. Verlander may win the AL Cy Young Award, and Valdez is great, but it is not impossible to see a split in the first two games.
In games not started by Wheeler or Nola, though, the needle swings squarely towards the Astros. Remember Game 4 against the Yankees, where McCullers struggled to find it? In the World Series, in a different situation, games-wise, the Astros would probably have gone to excellent safety blankets Cristian Javier (top-15 Stuff+ among starters this year) and Luis Garcia (who started two games for them in the 2021 World Series) earlier in the game. When the Phillies reach for their third-best reliever, they’re reaching for Zach Eflin, who has been better as a reliever; but when the Astros reach for their third-best reliever, they’re going to Bryan Abreu, who had a top-20 strikeout-minus-walk rate, a couple of decimal points better than Emmanuel Clase.
Depth probably matters in those middle games, which is why the Astros have the overall pitching advantage. The only asterisk? Madison Bumgarner and Max Scherzer.
Bumgarner threw 21 innings with a 0.43 ERA when the Giants won against the Royals in 2014, good for two wins, one shutout and a five-inning save. He pitched a third of the Giants’ innings that series and set a slew of postseason records.
Scherzer didn’t do quite as much by himself when the Nationals beat the Astros in 2019, throwing 10 innings of four-run ball in two Nationals victories. But a team that had excellent pitching at the top (Scherzer, Stephen Strasburg, Patrick Corbin, Daniel Hudson and Sean Doolittle) managed to get as much as they could from those guys — 41 1/3 innings, almost two-thirds of their total innings thrown, and a 3.48 ERA that was just enough to win the series.
That’s the road map for the Phillies. Get 40 innings from Nola, Wheeler, Ranger Suárez, José Alvarado and Seranthony Domínguez, and they’ll have a chance, especially given the quality of their lineup. It’s been done before. – Eno Sarris
Why the Astros will win
The Astros are 7-0 in the postseason. Losing a series would require losing 4-of-7. The math just doesn’t add up for any team in the sport to be able to handle this Houston team over that long a stretch. The Astros have the ability to win in so many ways. It doesn’t matter if Altuve, Kyle Tucker and Alvarez all struggle, like they did in the ALCS. There will be another phase of this team that can fill in the blanks.
In the ALDS, the starting pitching wasn’t superb in Game 1 or Game 2. It didn’t matter. The Astros will always find a way. The Phillies and their incredible run will surely make for a fun competition. But it’s hard to imagine that they’ll be able to win, especially with Houston owning home-field advantage.
The Astros are a dynasty at this point. And a statement like that probably won’t even be controversial if they end up winning it all. Houston has lost its last two World Series to teams in the NL East. But this might actually be the most complete Houston team. Or at least the team playing the best at the right time. — Sam Blum
Why the Phillies will win
At this point, it’s best not to ask what is happening. No, the Phillies do not have as robust a roster as the Astros do. But they were underdogs in the previous three series, and all they did was win nine of 11 games. They never faced elimination. It hasn’t always looked easy but, in reality, the Phillies have advanced to the World Series without major adversity. They have time – just like Houston does – to rest and align their pitchers as they want. Are the Astros deeper? Yes. Does depth win the World Series? Not always.
If they steal one at Minute Maid Park with Nola and Wheeler on the mound, it’s a series. That was the Phillies’ formula to beat the Braves and Padres. Why not again? They are undefeated at Citizens Bank Park this postseason. There is a real home advantage in South Philly.
This will be a challenge for the star hitters that power this Phillies lineup. They have not faced the caliber of pitching that Houston boasts. But Harper is right now in a stratosphere reached by few others in the history of postseason baseball. Hoskins is streaky, but he’s on one of those hot stretches. Add in Schwarber or Realmuto, plus a good at-bat or two from the bottom of the lineup, and it’s not hard to see enough offense every night.
This is so ridiculous. Lean into it. Can the Phillies win the World Series? Of course they can. — Matt Gelb
Why the Astros will lose
There are only two other teams to sweep through the LDS and the LCS. The Rockies in 2007 and the Royals in 2014. Both teams lost in the World Series. Yes, both teams will have the same amount of rest between the LCS and the World Series, but the copious off days for the Astros this month might not be advantageous.
They had time off after the regular season. Time off after the Division Series. And time off after the Championship Series. At some point, it could affect the positive momentum of the group.
The Phillies will probably need the Astros to be off their game in some way. Houston has won a lot of close games. Maybe Pressly coughs up a late lead. Maybe a starting pitcher puts the Astros in a deep hole. Maybe the mayhem at Citizens Bank Park proves to be too tough a home-field advantage.
That’s what it will take to give the Phillies some leeway in this series. – Blum
Why the Phillies will lose
It’s the Astros — not the Cardinals, Braves or Padres. The Astros can exploit the weakest parts of an opponent. Mistakes in the postseason are compromising; mistakes in the postseason against the Astros are back-breaking. The Phillies did enough in the NLDS and NLCS to mask their fielding deficiencies. It will be much harder to hide misplays in the World Series. Houston had the second-lowest strikeout rate in MLB during the season. The Astros put the ball in play. They will test the Phillies’ defense.
The Phillies will have to win by outslugging the Astros at least once in this series, and that is easier said than done. Although the Phillies found advantageous matchups with their relievers against the Braves and Padres, it will be difficult to do that in this round.
Alvarado and Domínguez have shouldered huge workloads this month. The Phillies won’t win the World Series without those two continuing to pitch well and pitch often. Alvarado, in particular, looked less sharp later in the NLCS. Perhaps it was a sign of fatigue; maybe the break between the rounds will help. Maybe not.
After Eflin, the bullpen depth chart is murky. David Robertson and Brad Hand struggled in the NLCS. Someone will have to step into a setup role during the World Series. It’s a glaring issue.
If Nola or Wheeler falters, the path to a Phillies series win is arduous. – Gelb
Astros’ road to the World Series
• As Astros reach World Series again, Dusty Baker looks forward: ‘I stay hungry’
• Astros’ Jeremy Peña ends a long game with a long ball: 18 innings and worth the wait
• How Astros’ Framber Valdez grew from unwanted prospect to dependable starter
• True stories of Dusty Baker: ‘I’m the second-most-interesting man in the world’
• The new Justin Verlander – Those closest to Astros ace have seen him evolve
Phillies’ road to the World Series
• Inside the Phillies’ win that sent them to the World Series, and the moments that will live forever
• The evolution of Bryce Harper is ‘something to remember’ as the Phillies march to the World Series
• How the star — and the stars — lined up to lead the Phillies to the World Series
• NLCS-bound Phillies are confident, dangerous and riding a high they can’t explain
• How Seranthony Domínguez, Phillies rose to the moment, shut out the Cardinals and rolled into the NLDS
(Top photo of Bryce Harper: Michael Reaves/Getty Images)