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Wednesday, November 13, 2019

Sports

World Series Preview: Astros defense key to holding off Nationals


José Altuve, shown in Houston's American League Division Series Game 1 win over Tampa Bay, sent the Astros to the World Series with a 2-run walkoff home run in Game 6 of the AL Championship Series against the Yankees. | Courtesy of Houston Astros

José Altuve, shown in Houston’s American League Division Series Game 1 win over Tampa Bay, sent the Astros to the World Series with a two-run walk-off home run in Game 6 of the AL Championship Series against the Yankees. | Courtesy of Houston Astros

With the Astros heading into their second World Series berth in three seasons Tuesday night at Minute Maid Park, this time against the Nationals, there is just one way for them to lose — the long ball.

Homering against Astros pitchers has taken the team’s opponents the distance in the 2019 postseason.

Kevin Kiermaier and the Rays got close when they faced the Astros in the American League Division Series, where the AL Wild Card winners took the AL West champions the whole nine yards in an eventual five-game Houston win.

In a rough Game 3 start for Zack Greinke, Kiermaier and two other Rays hit home runs off the 36-year-old, sparking a series comeback that pushed the Astros to the brink of elimination.

The Yankees almost came back, too, in the AL Championship Series. New York almost forced a Game 7 thanks to a two-run, game-tying bomb in the ninth inning off DJ LeMahieu’s bat in Game 6.

Of course, LeMahieu’s Houston counterpart at second base, José Altuve, put a stop to the first-year Yankee’s late-game heroics with his own two-run homer a half inning later, clinching the AL pennant.

Beating the Houston Astros in October requires home runs. And lots of them.

Not even the Rays’ seven or the Yankees’ 10, both of which outnumbered the Astros in their respective series, were enough to take down baseball’s best regular-season team.

For the Astros, on both sides of the baseball, the strategy is simple: hit homers, or go home.

Super Smash ‘Stros

Houston may not have hit the most home runs in the majors — that distinction belongs to the Twins’ 307 regular-season homers — but the Astros’ batters have gone beyond the wall when it counts.

Most recently, it was Altuve’s homer Saturday night that sent the team to the World Series.

A week prior, it was Carlos Correa, who tied a then-1-0 Yankees ALCS lead with a walk-off home run in the 11th inning at Minute Maid Park.

Nationals pitching, however, will not be as kind to the Astros lineup.

Washington’s trifecta of Stephen Strasburg, Max Scherzer and Patrick Corbin has consistently been one of the better pitching trios at the major-league level.

The Nationals are the only team besides the already-eliminated Dodgers and World Series-bound Astros to have three pitchers rank in the top-20 in ERA. In the regular season, the three combined for a 3.16 ERA.

They’re winners, too. The two righties and lefty — only Corbin is the southpaw among them — combined for 43 wins in 2019, a category in which Strasburg and Corbin also ranked in the top-20 individually, at No. 18 and No. 14, respectively.

For the Astros to win it all for the second time in franchise history, hitters like Altuve, Correa and Alex Bregman must work their way around the Nationals’ elite pitching.

Bregman must return to the potential-MVP form that saw him smash 41 homers and 112 RBIs on a .296/.423/.592 slash line.

The two-time All-Star and Houston’s first round pick in the 2015 MLB draft has slashed .257/.435/.429 in the postseason as one of the Astros’ best defensive position players.

Defensive prowess

Houston’s offense is often lauded as one of the best of all time, but the Astros also have formidable defense behind the likes of Correa, Bregman and Michael Brantley.

Brantley, in the ALCS Game 6 win, laid out in left field to catch an Aaron Hicks fly ball, an impressive out in and of itself.

The former Indian launched a rocket to Yuli Gurriel at first base, forcing Aaron Judge out for a double play, a staple in the Astros’ defensive capabilities.

As a whole, Houston turned 96 double plays in 2019, and given the Nationals’ tendency to hit short balls, it can be useful.

Big Three

While strange, the ultimatum Houston’s pitching staff has employed of forcing opposing hitters to go yard or bust has been effective.

When you have one of the toughest rotations in baseball in Justin Verlander, Gerrit Cole and Greinke, how could it not be?

The trio has let up a combined 86 home runs in the regular season yet managed to go 59-16 together in 2019.

Cole, who started 33 games this season, struck out 326 batters and is in the midst of the greatest win streak of the last 107 years. The ace is fully rested heading into the Series, and he will need it against Washington’s hot bats.

So far in the postseason, the Nationals, coming off a National League Championship Series sweep of the Cardinals, have hit 43 RBIs and have struck out only 93 times.

Both are better than the Astros’ 36 and 103 in the respective statistics.

Luckily for Houston, Washington has not made a habit of hitting balls out of the park.

Instead, the Nationals play small ball: low efficiency, high production. Their goal has not been to put as many runs on the board with a single swing of the bat but to wear out pitchers with singles and doubles until runs start pouring in.

The Nationals have hit only eight dingers in October but lead the postseason with 79 hits, including 19 doubles.

Save for Howie Kendrick’s grand slam in the National League Division Series and a couple more from Juan Soto and Anthony Rendon, they have not made a habit of going long.

With Cole getting the Game 1 nod from manager A.J. Hinch and Verlander for Game 2, Houston has a chance to jump to a quick 2-0 lead against Washington at home before taking off to the nation’s capital for at least two games.

The results won’t be known until the righties take to the mound Tuesday and Wednesday night, but the pitching staff can find comfort in knowing it is one of the best the baseball world has to offer.

No one yet knows who will be the AL Cy Young winner, but Hinch and Houston are confident he’s an Astro.

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