For a portion of the season, especially in late June and early July, the Los Angeles Dodgers and the Houston Astros vied daily for the best record in the game and to be called the best team in the game. On the first day after the All-Star break, the Astros were 61-29 and the Dodgers were 62-29, two teams that seemed destined for something special. Both teams, especially the Dodgers, detoured along the way, but both teams are now back, two 100-win teams playing in the World Series. One team hasn't won it all since 1988; the other has never won it all. Great stuff ahead.
The World Series begins on Tuesday night. Here are five questions.
What are we to make of Jose Altuve and the Astros' offense?
It was, without question, the best in baseball this year in every way: most runs scored, highest OPS, highest batting average, slugging percentage, on-base percentage, most productive outs, etc. But for the first five games in the American League Championship Series, that offense was completely stifled by the Yankees, who allowed just nine runs. Yankee Stadium had something to do with that, but once the Astros returned home they stopped chasing pitches outside the strike zone and started hitting again.
There has to be some concern about the subpar performance on offense in the LCS from several Astros, but when they needed a big hit, it was often Jose Altuve who got it. He has hit five homers in the postseason, three in the first game of the AL Division Series against the Red Sox, then one each in Games 6 and 7 of the LCS. It will be fascinating to see what the Houston offense does with L.A.'s pitching.
What are we to make of Justin Turner?
He is a former utility guy, one who was designated for assignment by the Mets. Then he changed his swing, and now he hits third for a Dodgers team that has advanced to the World Series for the first time since 1988. In Turner's postseason career, he is 14-for-20 with runners in scoring position, the best mark in postseason history. His OPS in the postseason is 1.113, trailing just Babe Ruth and Lou Gehrig. Turner's walk-off homer in Game 2 of the National League Championship Series was only the second in Dodgers history, and the first since Kirk Gibson's in 1988.
Turner should get more help in the lineup with the hopeful return of shortstop Corey Seager, who missed the NLCS with a back injury. The development of Yasiel Puig, especially his patience at the plate, gives the mix-and-match Dodgers another consistent weapon. Puig had a multihit game from four different spots in the batting order in this postseason, and he could become the first player to have one in five.
In Justin Verlander, what are we watching?
We are watching the resurgence of one of the game's best pitchers, perhaps a future Hall of Famer at his best. Once his velocity left several years ago, some believed he was done as a great pitcher and as a power pitcher, but he is back. Since being acquired by the Astros minutes before the Sept. 1 deadline for postseason eligibility, Verlander has gone (including the postseason) 8-0 with a 1.39 ERA, and 59 strikeouts in 51⅔ innings. In his past 10 postseason starts, he has a 1.77 ERA. He saved the Astros' season with seven brilliant innings in Game 6, running his scoreless innings streak in elimination games to 24, tying the major league record for such things with Madison Bumgarner.
Verlander is expected to start Game 2 of the World Series on full rest. Dallas Keuchel appears to be all the way back from neck and shoulder injuries earlier this season and is expected to start Game 1. Charlie Morton, who threw five scoreless innings in the clincher in Game 7, and Lance McCullers are the third and fourth starters, in some order. McCullers was terrific in his one start in the LCS and was a sensational curveball machine in a four-inning relief stint in Game 7. That rotation is solid, but it had better be, because the Astros' bullpen -- other than closer Ken Giles (and then McCullers in Game 7) -- has been shaky in the postseason.
How good is the Dodgers' bullpen?
The Dodgers had the lowest bullpen ERA in the regular season; in the postseason it has been fabulous: 0.94 ERA, two walks and 32 strikeouts in 28⅔ innings. In the LCS, the Cubs had a 0-for-29 stretch against the Dodgers' pen, the longest streak of hitless at-bats by a bullpen in postseason history. The Dodgers' pen will enter the World Series with a 23-inning scoreless streak. Brandon Morrow has been terrific in middle to late relief, as has starter Kenta Maeda, who gives the Dodgers another weapon against right-handed hitters. The best reliever in this postseason, if not all season, has been Dodgers closer Kenley Jansen, whose cutter is unhittable.
Which team has more momentum?
The Dodgers are playing like the team that went 50-10 at one point this year, getting them to 55 games over .500. The amazing collapse that followed -- absorbing 11 losses in a row, and losing 16 out of 17 -- eventually got them focused on the goals ahead. No team has ever won a World Series losing 11 in a row (the champion 1953 Yankees lost nine in a row) or 16 out of 17, but those trying days are long gone for L.A. The Dodgers are playing on a different level now, with more and more signs that something exceptional is going on, most recently Enrique Hernandez's unprecedented night in postseason history: three homers and seven RBIs in the clinching Game 5 of the LCS against the Cubs.
Meanwhile, the Astros came back from a 3-2 deficit to win the pennant. They are being driven by many forces, including having never won the World Series. They are also playing for a community that was so badly affected by Hurricane Harvey, followed by deadly flooding. They are also playing for today's new approach to the game, one steeped in advanced metrics, yet their strongest element is the human element, the joy with which they play the game.
The Dodgers are the National League's version of the Astros when it comes to advanced metrics. They, too, are having great fun, winning seven out of eight in October. This series is a toss-up, but the Dodgers have home-field advantage, and they went 57-24 at Dodger Stadium.
Prediction: Dodgers in seven.