Every year we hope that the World Series will bring the baseball season to an exciting close.
After the Chicago Cubs and Cleveland Indians served up a seven-game stunner one year ago, the Houston Astros and Los Angeles Dodgers will look to follow suit this time around and produce a classic contest that will live long in the memory.
The omens are good as, alongside the vanquished Cleveland, the two teams involved were the best in the Majors this season. That may sound like an obvious thing to say, but the short-format post-season can – and often does – throw up a surprise or two.
This time around we have two teams that put together incredible regular season campaigns. Only one can claim the ultimate prize at the end of the post-season though.
Both are due
It’s the first time that the Los Angeles Dodgers have made the World Series since 1988, whilst the Houston Astros were last there in 2005 but lost 4-0 to the Chicago White Sox in their only previous appearance in the Fall Classic.
The Dodgers have made lighter work of their play-off run so far, beating the Arizona Diamondbacks 3-0 in the Division Series and taking down the reigning champs, the Chicago Cubs, 4-1 in the Championship Series.
That’s allowed them to have a few days off and to get ready for Game One whilst the Astros were fighting like mad to get past the New York Yankees. They saw a 2-0 series lead turn to a 3-2 deficit before winning the final two games at home to book their place in the Fall Classic. They did that after beating the Boston Red Sox 3-1 in the Division Series.
The Houston Astros went through a mini-crisis in their NLCS against the Yankees when their hitherto unstoppable batting lineup suddenly started to misfire. The Astros scored 9 runs combined during the first 5 games of the ALCS, but then came back to life with 13 in the final 2 games. Given the depth of talent they have, the Dodgers will know containing the Astros bats will be a huge task.
Whilst you can pick out most of the Astros’ regulars as deserving a mention, it’s hard to look past Jose Altuve. The MVP candidate is the heartbeat of the team. At just 5 feet 6 inches tall, Altuve demonstrates better than most that baseball is a game for everyone.
The Dodgers don’t lack for impact bats at the plate either. Whether it’s Justin Turner, the rookie Cody Bellinger or the ball of energy that is Yasiel Puig, they keep on coming at opposing pitchers and offer plenty of threats.
The big unknown is Corey Seager, arguably their best position player. He’s been declared fit to play after he was surprisingly omitted from the NLCS roster due to a back injury. Quite how close he is to 100% remains to be seen.
Whilst the Astro’s bats returned in Games 6 and 7 of their ALCS, they also limited the Yankees to a single run combined across the two games. Justin Verlander pitched seven score-less innings in the former and the duo of Charlie Morton (5 innings pitched) and Lance McCullers (4) shut out the Bronx Bombers in the decider.
They jumped out to a 2-0 lead in the ALCS in large part due to Dallas Keuchel and Verlander’s starting pitching efforts. They’ll look to the same two pitchers to do the same in the World Series, although this time needing to do it on the road rather than the home comforts of Minute Maid Park.
That could be significant for Keuchel in particular, as he has a notable split between his career performances at home (2.94 ERA) and elsewhere (4.43). In 2017 he had a 2.26 ERA at home compared with 3.53 on the road, so he’s not exactly struggling when he leaves Houston, but considering how dominating he has been at Minute Maid Park the Dodgers will be keen to exploit any slight chink in his armour.
As for chinks in armour, the Dodgers’ Game One starter Clayton Kershaw doesn’t have many in his but there is one big one that some like to focus on.
The Kershaw play-off story truly began in 2013 (looking past his 5 appearances split across 2008 and 2009 early in his career) when he was lit-up for seven runs by the St Louis Cardinals in Game 6 of the NLCS, having also taken a hard-luck loss in Game 2. The fact that he was outstanding in his first play-off start that year against the Atlanta Braves in the NLDS (12K’s across 7 innings) was quickly forgotten. They say first impressions count, but in baseball it’s how things end that tend to define how the story is written.
The story got worse for Kershaw a year later when those same Cardinals torched him for 8 runs in Game 1 of the NLDS and then was handed another loss in Game 4 in a 3-2 defeat. He had a mixed experience in 2015 and 2016 with ups and downs, yet once again it ended with a negative as the Cubs knocked him out after five innings in Game 6 of their NLCS.
In short, Kershaw has been handed a loss in the decisive NLCS Game 6 in 2013, the decisive NLDS Game 4 in 2014 and the decisive NLCS Game 6 in 2016. The flip-side of this is that he was in the position to take those losses because he was the guy LA always wanted on the mound. Regardless of the past, that’s no different this time around.
Pick a team
There are so many good things to find with these two teams, perhaps one way to make your choice as a neutral is trying to find a reason to hope one of them doesn’t win.
For the Dodgers, that argument comes from their sky-high payroll ($241m on Opening Day). For the fourth year in a row they have led the Majors in spending and, much like Manchester City in football, whilst you can appreciate the team they have put together, you can equally look at them and shrug your shoulders. Given how much money they spend, they should be winning a World Series or two.
It gives them a significant advantage over many other teams, from being able to re-sign their experienced players when they hit free agency rather than losing them to rivals (as they did with Justin Turner, Kenley Jansen and Rich Hill over the 2016/17 off-season), to being able to absorb deals that don’t work out. They’ve spent just over $47m this year on payroll commitments to players not on their roster (highlighted by the $22m owed to Carl Crawford) and the fact that three of their top four earners (Adrian Gonzalez, Scott Kazmir and Andre Ethier – combined pay of $55.5m) have missed significant playing time has barely troubled them.
They’ve got a smart Front Office and do lots of things right, but being able to shrug off a good $100m of dead money makes life much easier (the Oakland A’s, for example, had an Opening Day 25-man payroll of $82m).
As for the Astros, their rise came about through a ruthless, calculated plan that stripped the team (and payroll) of virtually all assets so that they could save money and gobble up high amateur draft picks that have enriched their team with the likes of Carlos Correa, Alex Bregman and Lance McCullers. With no relegation threat to worry about, the rules make deliberately fielding a terrible team an eminently attractive approach to take. You might not blame the Astros for exploiting that as a result, but you equally might not like to see it rewarded so handsomely, especially after the Chicago Cubs won it all last year after taking a similar approach.
Every year a few baseball romantics throw out the idea of a World Series game being played during the day-time, harking back to years ago when the ‘Boys of Summer’ would play the Fall Classic under sunny skies. That would be great for us as it would mean a game or two taking place at a more convenient hour.
However TV rights deals and primetime viewing figures dictate that all of the games start at just gone 8.09 pm Eastern Time, making for early-hours starts for us in the UK. The first four games will begin at 1.09 am BST. We move out of Summer Time this coming Sunday, one week before they do in the States, so Games 5 to 7 (if needed) will start an hour earlier for us, at nine minutes past midnight.
The schedule for the best-of-seven series is as follows, with each game actually starting on the following day (Game One is the early hours of Wednesday etc).
Tuesday 24th – Game One at Dodger Stadium
Wednesday 25th – Game Two at Dodger Stadium
Friday 27th – Game Three at Minute Maid Park (Houston)
Saturday 28th – Game Four at Minute Maid Park (Houston)
Sunday 29th – Game Five at Minute Maid Park (Houston)*
Tuesday 31st – Game Six at Dodger Stadium*
Wednesday 1st – Game Seven at Dodger Stadium*
* If necessary.
The games are being shown live on BT Sport1, with late-afternoon re-runs the following day on BT Sport/ESPN. Alternatively MLB.TV subscribers can watch the games live or on-demand online.