Football undoubtedly dominates the headlines of countless sports sections across North America this time of year. But this year’s Major League Baseball postseason has been more than worth paying attention to. An expanded field has produced plenty of epic games, unbelievable upsets and thrilling finishes.
Most importantly, it has dwindled down a field of 12 down to just two. The final four to seven games this season will decide which of the two teams is remembered forever. Both are looking to silence two very different groups of haters. One is hoping to put some agonizing close calls in recent postseason runs to bed. The other is hoping to make up for a decade devoid of them.
The Houston Astros have been a machine. The Philadelphia Phillies have been magical. 42 years after these teams played in one of the most epic series in postseason history, a second comes into the focus with greatness and the Commissioner’s Trophy at stake.
Philadelphia Phillies: 87-75, No. 3 NL East, 3rd NL Wild Card
NL Wild Card Series: Beat STL 2-0, NLDS: Beat ATL 3-1, NLCS: Beat SD 4-1
It has been 116 years since the Fall Classic featured as large of a disparity in regular season records between the two participants. Maybe it would not feel right if such a massive underdog role belonged to a team from anywhere else other than Philadelphia, a city that has a history of embracing them. The team was 21-29 through its first 50 games, 22nd in the league. Three days later, they fired their manager and everything’s changed since then.
Almost everyone has thrived under the relaxed, steady hand of Rob Thomson. He helped lead the Phillies to snap the National League’s longest active postseason drought this season. The Phillies have been playing with house money ever since they clinched, and they have hit jackpot after jackpot after jackpot.
The Phillies believed they had built a team uniquely suited for postseason baseball — a few elite pitchers in the rotation and bullpen and a deep lineup built to slug. The results have confirmed just that. Zack Wheeler and Aaron Nola, the team’s top two starters, have a 2.17 ERA in seven combined postseason starts. José Alvarado and Seranthony Domínguez (rain-induced control loss on Sunday aside) fire nearly untouchable triple-digit heaters and can bend the ball every which way.
It helps that they’ve received a boost from a relentless Phillies offense that leads the postseason with 16 home runs and generally does not wait to get going. The Phillies have scored in the first three innings of all but one of their nine postseason wins. The high-end talent present on the pitching side is still plenty prevalent here.
There is no one else to start with except Bryce Harper, who authored one of the franchise’s greatest moments with his NLCS-winning eighth-inning, go-ahead laser of a two-run shot on Sunday. The 2021 NL MVP added the NLCS MVP trophy to his hardware cabinet and is sporting an absurd 1.351 OPS in the postseason. The Phillies’ cleanup hitter is at the tail end of one of the most powerful quintets in the sport. NL home run leader Kyle Schwarber starts things out. A currently red-hot Rhys Hoskins, whose five postseason long balls are tied for the league lead, is behind him. And five-tool catcher J.T. Realmuto is the latest Philly to begin heating up.
But what makes the Phillies’ offense so special is their pension for clutch performances from the bottom of their order. Rookie shortstop Bryson Stott, the team’s youngest player in Brandon Marsh and high-octane veteran Jean Segura have delivered some signature moments in Philadelphia’s Cinderella run.
Perhaps the biggest thing on Philadelphia’s side is its resiliency. Four weeks ago, the Phillies weren’t even sure if they’d make the postseason field. They won Game 1 of the Wild Card Round despite being down to their final two outs and down 2-0. They bounced back after throwing away a 4-0 lead in Game 2, a 4-0 first-inning deficit in Game 4 and a seventh-inning implosion in Game 5 against the Padres.
It’s also worth noting the Phillies are 5-0 at home this postseason, launching 12 long balls in the process. In doing so, they have reminded everybody of just how raucous an atmosphere Citizens Bank Park can provide. If the Phillies can win at least one of the first two games in Houston, they’ll gladly take their chances back at the Bank. After all, they started their series against Atlanta and San Diego with road splits, and neither team made it out of Philly with their season alive.
Houston Astros: 106-56, No. 1 AL West
ALDS: Beat SEA 3-0, ALCS: Beat NYY 4-0
The Phillies punched their postseason ticket with a 3-0 win in Houston on Oct. 3 against an Astros team that had nothing to play for. The Astros have played nine games since then, and they have won all of them. No team has the postseason and World Series experience that Houston possesses. Incredibly, this is their fourth trip to the Fall Classic since 2017, although Houston has just one championship to show for it.
Simply put, the Astros are a near flawlessly constructed team, capable of matching Philadelphia’s star power and besting its pitching depth. Take out a rocky start from Justin Verlander in Game 1 of the ALDS and Houston’s starting pitching has been all but untouchable this postseason. Verlander is turning back the clock to his prime Detroit form. Lance McCullers Jr. has fantastic career postseason numbers and held the Phillies to one run in six innings in that Oct. 3 game. Framber Valdez and Cristian Javier have deadly curveballs and are great at limiting hard contact.
Houston’s pitching prowess extends to its bullpen, as well. Ryan Pressly is a perfect 4/4 in save opportunities this postseason after recording an impressive 0.89 regular season WHIP. Bryan Abreu, Luis García, Rafael Montero and more, including former Phillie Héctor Neris and former Irish pitcher Brandon Bielak, are tough to beat, as well. If there’s one potential weak point in Houston’s bullpen, however, it’s a lack of a lefty.
There are virtually no weaknesses in Houston’s offense. Yes, Kyle Tucker, Jose Altuve and former Notre Dame star Trey Mancini haven’t been up to their lofty standards recently. But both have outstanding pedigrees, and Altuve looks to be turning a corner with three hits in his last two games. Like Philadelphia, Houston boasts a hulking lefty slugger at DH in Yordan Alvarez. Only Aaron Judge had a better OPS than his astounding 1.019 mark.
Alex Bregman has been his usual elite self, especially as of late. 38-year-old Yuli Gurriel is hitting like he’s 28 so far in October. Rookie Jeremy Peña is looking like just as much as a seasoned veteran, leading the team in OPS in his first postseason trip. Second-year center fielder Chas McCormick has been stellar on both sides of the ball, too.
The Astros’ biggest advantage over the Phillies is their defense. Every Houston regular in the field except Alvarez in left field and Gurriel at first grades out above average — many by a wide margin — in Baseball Savant’s outs saved above average metric. The metric doesn’t account for catchers, but if it did, Martín Maldonado would surely earn stellar marks. Maldonado is in the 89th percentile for pop time on throws to second base. That bodes well for Houston’s chances of limiting an aggressive base-running team like the Phillies.
The Phillies have some good defenders on their bench, including a Domer of their own in Matt Vierling. But they need the lead to activate that boost, and earning that — let alone keeping it — is a tall task.
There’s a reason the Astros won 19 more games than the Phillies in the regular season. Quite a few, actually. While the Phillies have been being rewarded for becoming a much more sound organization this season, the Astros have been on this level for quite some time. There is a difference between the regular season and the postseason. And there is a difference between the first three rounds of the postseason and the World Series. Only three Phillies have played in the Fall Classic before. Most of Houston’s roster has at least once, if not multiple times over. That matters.
This series will likely come down to Philadelphia’s starting pitching. The longer this series goes, the harder it will be for the Phillies’ pitching depth to keep up with Houston’s. If Wheeler and Nola pitch deep into games, it lessens the burden on the bullpen and sets momentum in motion for the Phillies’ lineup to capitalize on.
The biggest advantage the Phillies have is their home-field advantage. I have been to over 70 baseball games in my life, including a pair in the postseason. I have never felt anything at a baseball game like what I experienced on Friday night in Game 3 of the NLCS at Citizens Bank Park. It felt more like I was in the student section of Notre Dame Stadium. Fans stood for most of the game and every time an opposing hitter had two strikes on them. Strangers and siblings embraced in almost identical fashion.
The Houston Astros are an unbelievably great baseball team. They are almost certainly the better team in this series. But there is a party going on right now in Philadelphia, and it just does not feel like it can be stopped. After a decade of dread, there is a new magic word in the City of Brotherly Love: belief.
It might be a good idea to start greasing the poles. Phillies in six.
Contact Andrew McGuinness at email@example.com