In their 51st season of existence, the Washington Nationals franchise has reached the World Series. They will face-off against the Houston Astros, who have been to the Fall Classic twice previously (2005, 2017) and just two years ago captured their first world championship.
This should be a fascinating match-up, featuring perhaps the best teams in both the National and American Leagues by the time the 2019 regular season came to an end.
Strong starting pitching. Deep bullpens. Exciting stars. Future Hall of Famers. It will all be on display over the next week or so in Houston, Texas and the nation’s capital of Washington, D.C.
Over the course of this exciting October of 2019 MLB Postseason play, I provided previews and predictions for all four Division Series, and each League Championship Series after going 1-1 in the Wildcard games. If you followed my advice, you are doing pretty well, as my predictions have gone 6-2 to this point.
Also, prior to the season in my 2019 MLB preview, I gave you the Nationals as my National League champions. A pretty bold prediction, given that many saw the defection of Bryce Harper in free agency as signaling their franchise decline.
While I would like to say that I was also prescient enough to have picked Houston in the American League, I did not. Close, however. I had the Astros eliminated by the New York Yankees in the playoffs. Instead, the reverse happened.
HEAD TO HEAD RESULTS
These two ball clubs have met just twice in Interleague play. During the 2017 MLB regular season go-around, the Nationals captured the first and third games of a three-game set at Minute Maid Park in Houston, winning each by a single run by scores of 4-3 and 5-4. The host Astros won the middle affair by a 6-1 score.
Back in 2014, Washington swept a four game series between the two teams at Nationals Park, taking three of the four by a single run each.
From the inception of the Nationals franchise in 1969 as the old Montreal Expos through their move to Washington in 2005, and then on through the 2012 season, the two teams were each part of the National League. So for 44 years, they met frequently.
The Nationals/Expos franchise holds a 244-207 all-time regular season record over the Astros, for a .541 win percentage. The two clubs have never previously met in postseason play.
HOW NATIONALS GOT HERE
The Nationals got off to a horrendous start. Sitting at just 19-31 on May 23, they were in fourth place in the NL East Division. With rumors swirling that manager Dave Martinez‘ job was in jeopardy, their odds of reaching the World Series were less than 1%.
From that point onward, Washington was a completely different ball club. The Nats went 74-38 over the balance of the regular season, finishing in second place and easily claiming an NL Wildcard playoff berth.
In that National League Wildcard Game, the Nationals trailed the Milwaukee Brewers by 3-1 with two outs in the bottom of the 8th inning.
With their season on the brink, the Nats loaded the bases. Juan Soto then delivered a base hit which skipped past Brewers rookie right fielder Trent Grisham for an error and a scoreboard-changing three-run play. When the dust settled, Washington had an improbable 4-3 victory.
Advancing on to a National League Division Series, the Nationals were matched up against the Los Angeles Dodgers, winners of seven straight NL West crowns and back-to-back National League pennants.
The Dodgers captured two of the first three games and appeared on the verge of a third straight trip to the NLCS.
However, the resilient Nationals rallied once again, tying the series up with a win at Nationals Park, and then getting a 10th inning grand slam home run from Howie Kendrick to win the decisive Game 5 at Dodger Stadium.
Four times the Nationals had reached the playoffs in this decade. All four times they had lost in the Division Series, three of those in excruciating fashion.
But now they had advanced to the National League Championship Series for the first time in franchise history. Waiting for them were the Saint Louis Cardinals, whose 11 World Series crowns are the most in National League history.
This one was never really a contest. The Nationals got tremendous pitching over the first three games, their offense exploded in the final two, and in the end they swept out the Cardinals in four straight, out-scoring Saint Louis by 20-6 over the four games.
HOW ASTROS GOT HERE
The Astros were one of the favorites to win the World Series when the season opened. They struggled over the season’s first week, dropping five of their first seven games.
But then Houston rolled off 10 straight victories to take over the AL West Division lead. On April 28, they moved back into first place in the division and never relinquished that perch, capturing their third consecutive division title.
In their American League Division Series, the Astros were matched up with the always tough Tampa Bay Rays ball club. Houston took a quick 2-0 lead in the series and appeared ready for a sweep.
However, anyone who underestimates the Rays is asking for trouble. Tampa roared back with two big wins in front of their home fans at Tropicana Field to even up the series.
The Astros restored sanity back in front of their own home fans in the decisive Game 5 at Minute Maid Park. They scored four times in the 1st inning and then coasted to a 6-1 victory, advancing to the ALCS for the second time in three years.
In that American League Championship Series, the Astros were matched up with the powerful New York Yankees, champions of the AL East Division.
On their way to the 2017 World Series championship, the Astros had edged out the Yankees in ALCS, rallying to win the final two contests and taking the series in a full seven games.
This one nearly went the same full distance. The Bronx Bombers took the opener in Houston, but then the Astros rolled to three straight wins and a commanding lead.
The Yanks fought back, winning Game 5 and then rallying for a pair of runs in the top of the 9th inning to tie up Game 6.
Then in the bottom of the 9th, the smallest player on the field delivered the biggest hit of the entire American League season. Jose Altuve ripped a two-out, two-run home run to walkoff the series in front of the delirious Houston home crowd.
SCHEDULE (all games televised on the FOX Network with 8:07 PM first pitch)
Games 1 & 2: Tuesday-Wednesday 10/22-23, Minute Maid Park in Houston, Texas
Games 3 & 4 (and Game 5 if needed): Friday-Saturday (possibly Sunday as well), Nationals Park in Washington, D.C.
Games 6 & 7 (if either/both needed): 10/22-23, Minute Maid Park in Houston, Texas
STARTING PITCHING PROBABLES
Games 5-7: if needed, expect the Games 1-3 match-ups to repeat
STARTERS POSITION BY POSITION EDGE
I gave the Astros the advantage at three of the usual eight starting positions, with four rated as an even push. In that regard, this would seem a pretty tight match-up.
However, a healthy Springer joining Altuve, Bregman, Correa, and Gurriel gives Houston five major impact bats for the talented Nationals pitching staff to contend with each night.
Rendon, Turner, and Soto must produce for the Nationals to have any chance. And they’re likely going to need at least one surprise run-producer, perhaps some like their top bench option below.
OFF THE BENCH
Howie Kendrick, whose dramatic grand slam won the Division Series, appeared in 121 games this season for the Nationals and made starts at first, second, and third base. The 35-year-old veteran is a dangerous pinch-hit bat and a versatile infield substitute.
The Nationals other top bench options are usually whichever catcher, Gomes or Suzuki, and center fielder, Robles or Taylor, is not starting. Also look for a trio of veterans in outfielder Gerardo Parra and infielders Matt Adams and Asdrubal Cabrera to make contributions.
For the Astros, rookie slugger Yordan Alvarez will be the Designated Hitter for the games in Houston. He’ll be a pinch-hitter in the games played in Washington.
While much of the talk entering this series is justifiably centered on the talented starting pitching for each club, the fact remains that both bullpens are going to have to produce in significant, pressure-filled spots to ensure individual game victories.
The Astros will try to get to controversial closer Roberto Osuna with an all-righty bullpen of Joe Smith, Will Harris, Josh James, Jose Urquidy, Ryan Pressly, Hector Rondon, and long man Brad Peacock.
In his 13th big-league season, Smith has appeared in 782 games. That is the most by any relief pitcher in MLB history who has never appeared in a World Series, a streak likely to end this week.
For Washington, you could see lefty Sean Doolittle or either of a pair of right-handers, Daniel Hudson or Fernando Rodney, on the mound trying to close out a game. Righty Tanner Rainey and lefty Mike Grace are most likely to get any other innings.
Dave Martinez, Washington: Turning 55 years of age just a month ago, Martinez has guided the Nationals to an overall 175-149 record over two seasons at the helm, finishing in second place in the NL East Division each season.
Back in mid-September, Martinez suffered a health scare when he was forced to leave a game after he began to experience chest pains. He was hospitalized and underwent a cardiac catheterization, and was eventually cleared to return after missing a series in Saint Louis.
A native New Yorker, Martinez was the third round pick of the Chicago Cubs in the 1983 MLB Draft. He played in 16 big-league seasons with nine different clubs, including a four-year stint 1988-91 with the Nationals predecessors, the Montreal Expos.
AJ Hinch, Houston: At just 45 years of age, Hinch has gone 481-329 as the Astros skipper. His clubs have taken three straight AL West Division crowns, winning 101, 103, and 107 games in those seasons. He also led the club to the only World Series championship in franchise history back in 2017.
Hinch was previously the manager of the Arizona Diamondbacks over parts of two seasons 2009-10, fashioning an 89-123 mark in the desert.
An Iowa native, Hinch was the Oakland A’s pick in the third round of the 1996 MLB Draft out of Stanford University. He appeared in seven big-league seasons, mostly as a platoon or backup catcher, from 1998-2004.
The Houston Astros are battle-tested after a five-game ALDS with Tampa and a tough six-game ALCS with the Yankees. They have everything talent-wise that a championship team needs. They won 107 games during the regular season, most in Major League Baseball. And they have now had a couple of days to rest prior to the World Series.
The Washington Nationals have enjoyed, if that is the right world, a week-long rest after capturing the first National League pennant in franchise history. They have not lost a game since Game 3 of the NLDS back on October 6.
The Nationals biggest strength is the big three at the front of their starting rotation. For me, the Nats best chance would come from at least two of the three turning in dominating, winning performances.
My head is telling me to pick the Astros. But my gut is telling me to go with the Nationals. Back in the preseason, I picked Washington to win it all. Why not just stick with that since they’ve gotten this far?
Let’s make it Washington in seven games. Sure, it will be hard for many of my fellow Phillies fans to swallow a Nationals victory parade. But hey, they are one of just six current MLB teams to have never enjoyed the thrill of a World Series championship. It’s time.