MLB playoffs 2021: Who's going to the World Series? Answering the big questions left for Astros-Red Sox and Braves-Dodgers

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The 2021 World Series matchup will be decided this weekend.

The Houston Astros have pushed the Boston Red Sox to the brink in the American League Championship Series, while the Los Angeles Dodgers have managed to stay alive in the National League against the Atlanta Braves.

The Red Sox (down 3-2) meet the Astros in Houston tonight, while the Dodgers (also down 3-2) battle the Braves in Atlanta on Saturday.

Will we see an epic comeback or two? Or will a pair of Game 6 clinchers wrap things up? Joon Lee, Jesse Rogers and David Schoenfield weigh in on the ALCS, while Bradford Doolittle, Alden Gonzalez and Tim Keown break down the NLCS.

ALCS: Red Sox at Astros

Game 6: 8:08 p.m. ET on FS1
Game 7 (if necessary): Saturday, 8:08 p.m. ET on FOX

The Red Sox are down 3-2 and facing elimination on the road. How would you rate their chances for a series comeback?

Lee: Boston led baseball in comeback wins in the regular season, and this would be the most impressive one of the 2021 campaign. When the Red Sox play well, they look like one of the best teams in the sport -- as they did at the beginning of the playoffs against the Yankees, Rays and the early part of this ALCS. When the offense struggles, so goes the team's chances of winning. The relentless optimism of manager Alex Cora often rallies this Red Sox team and gives Boston a decent chance to take two in Houston, despite how tall the task appears.

Rogers: There are some years where you would look at the series as it's situated now and say "no way" to the road team winning two in a row, but this isn't one of those moments. First off, the Astros' Game 6 starter, Luis Garcia, has given Houston nothing this postseason, so there's plenty of reason to believe the Red Sox offense will rebound after two subpar performances. Then, as the saying goes, anything can happen in Game 7. Astros manager Dusty Baker knows all too well -- he brought it up the other night -- that this is no sure thing for the home team this weekend. He was up 3-2 with the Cubs in 2003 against the Marlins, and coming home with two aces for Games 6 -- and lost both of them. I give the Red Sox a 25% chance.

Schoenfield: Not only was Dusty up 3-2 in the 2003 NLCS, he was up 3-2 with the Giants in the 2002 World Series. And 2-0 in the 2012 NLDS for the Reds against the Giants. And 2-1 in the 2016 NLDS for the Nationals against the Dodgers. And he lost Game 5 of the 2017 NLDS and Game 7 of the 2020 ALCS. I'm not saying the man is jinxed or anything -- he did win two Game 5s in the NLDS in 2002 and 2003 -- but Astros fans better hope they wrap it up in six. The Astros are slight favorites playing at home with the series lead, but the Red Sox have the edge in starting pitching in the two games, with Nathan Eovaldi facing Garcia and then, presumably, Eduardo Rodriguez against Jose Urquidy if there's a Game 7. A big key to watch: The Red Sox were a much inferior offensive team in the regular season away from Fenway Park. We've seen a lot of offense from the winning teams in this series, but I wonder if the Red Sox will need to win a low-scoring game.

Have the Astros found a way to cool Boston's bats, or were Games 4 and 5 an aberration?

Lee: Credit to Cristian Javier and Framber Valdez for holding down the Boston lineup, but the Red Sox find themselves with an unusual number of players struggling. Outfielder Hunter Renfroe came through regularly in clutch situations throughout the regular season but has not made much of an impact this postseason. Beyond the core bats -- like Xander Bogaerts, Rafael Devers, J.D. Martinez and Kiké Hernández -- Boston needs players to work their way out of slumps. Otherwise, Houston's pitchers will punch the Astros a World Series ticket.

Rogers: They've pitched more and more ahead in the count over the last two games but things could easily revert back to earlier in the series. There is no magic potion here. If Garcia picks up where Valdez left off -- and learns from his start -- then Boston is in trouble. He's got great stuff. But he's a rookie, so there are no guarantees. I don't think they've figured anything out but they have pitched with a different mindset.

Schoenfield: Yeah, give Valdez credit for a terrific performance in Game 5, inducing 14 ground ball outs. Hernández went an absurd 17-for-29 from Game 2 of the ALDS through Game 3 of the ALCS. He's 1-for-9 the past two losses, but he was due for a couple tough games. And he's probably due for a couple more, so that means others will have to pick up the slack -- and by "others," I mean Renfroe, who has just one RBI in the postseason. It will be interesting to see what adjustments Garcia makes. Going back to his last start of the regular season, he's allowed 16 runs in 8.2 innings. The rookie had a great season with a 3.30 ERA, but he may have hit the wall, so a quick hook may be in order. At the same time, Baker doesn't necessarily want to burn through his entire bullpen with Game 7 in his back pocket.

What will be the biggest X-factor in Houston -- a player, a matchup, the fans, the umpires, Carlos Correa's wristwatch, mysterious lights in center field, etc.?

Lee: The bullpens. Boston's lack of depth forced Cora to rely on Eovaldi on a throw day, which helped fuel Houston's comeback in Game 4. The Red Sox really miss having a dependable closer in Matt Barnes, who struggled toward the end of the season after putting together an All-Star first half. With the Astros relievers rested following the eight-inning start from Valdez in Game 5, Houston has the edge here.

Rogers: The managers. As the series gets to its end, those pitching decisions loom larger and larger. Some in the baseball world were shocked at perceived mistakes by Cora in Games 4 and 5 -- everyone can be their own judge -- and it's bound to pop up again considering the possibility of short starts. Baker has been there before with tough decisions that backfired. They'll be more for both sides.

Schoenfield: How about the Crawford Boxes in left field? Astros fans will remember the 4-1 loss to the Red Sox in the 2018 ALCS, the difference being a Devers three-run home run off Justin Verlander that would have been a home run in just one park in the majors: the one it was it hit at. Minute Maid actually isn't the great hitter's park everyone believes, but you can hit some cheap home runs into the Boxes.

Let's say the Red Sox tie it up tonight. Which team should the NL champs be rooting for in Game 7?

Lee: The Red Sox. As they showed in this series, their offense can disappear on a dime. Houston brings more consistency to the table than Boston, and while the Red Sox may be more dangerous when they're on a hot streak, you're never quite confident on what version of the team could show up in a seven-game series.

Rogers: I'll go with the Astros. It's amazing what they've done to get this far with inconsistent pitching, at least until lately, but it doesn't look like Lance McCullers will be available next round. I say it catches up to them. Plus, does Atlanta's first taste of cold-weather hitting really want to be at Fenway Park next week?

Schoenfield: I'd say the Red Sox, even with McCullers out. The Houston lineup has a little more depth than Boston's (assuming Hernández has indeed cooled off!) and the back of the bullpen is a little better with Ryan Pressly and Kendall Graveman, plus Phil Maton and Ryne Stanek have been solid with just two runs over 12 combined innings this postseason.

Who wins this series -- and who is the MVP?

Lee: The Red Sox make a comeback, riding a strong start from Eovaldi, and Hernández raises the MVP trophy.

Rogers: Taking Boston now would be a gutsy call. I'd take them if they needed just one of two, but Houston has plenty of ways to win a game, and heck, might have Valdez available in Game 7 out of the pen. I suppose he could sneak in as the MVP (despite his Game 1 performance) if he wins that game, but Yordan Alvarez already single handedly won one for Houston. He's your MVP.

Schoenfield: Eovaldi pitches the Red Sox to a Game 6 win as Garcia struggles again, but the Astros will refuse to lose Game 7 at home: With Valdez, Javier and those four other right-handed relievers, Dusty's pen will be in good shape. Let's go with AL batting champ Yuli Gurriel, who is hitting .474 with six RBIs in the series and gets a couple big hits off the lefty Rodriguez in Game 7.

NLCS: Dodgers at Braves

Game 6: Saturday, 5:08 p.m. ET on TBS
Game 7 (if necessary): Sunday, 7:38 p.m. ET on TBS

Like the Red Sox, the Dodgers are down 3-2 and facing elimination on the road. How would you rate their chances for a series comeback?

Doolittle: They still face a long, uphill slog. There's a lot of differences to last year, but a big one is that the Dodgers won't be trying to overcome this deficit before a largely neutral crowd. They'll be doing it before a rabid, sold-out throng at Truist Park. Both teams have two of their big three starters going: Likely Max Scherzer against Ian Anderson in Game 6, with Walker Buehler against Charlie Morton in a Game 7. It really may come down to which of those pitchers has the most left to give. For me, it's the Braves' duo. So to put a subjectively-chosen number on it, I'd say the Dodgers' chances are at about 45%.

Gonzalez: Better than one would usually think for a team having to win back-to-back elimination games on the road, for two very specific reasons -- Scherzer and Buehler. They're lined up to start Games 6 and 7, respectively, and there's a strong case to be made that these are the two best big-game pitchers in the sport at the moment. Still, though, the Dodgers' chances are not great. Yes, they did it last year. But this year they'd have to do it while traveling, and with a lineup that no longer includes Max Muncy or Justin Turner. The Braves, on the other hand, only got stronger with Thursday's activation of Jorge Soler. It's hard for me to see them giving up a lead like this again.

Keown: Somewhere between not great and poor. The Dodgers, as they should, will rally around the Game 5 win and the prospect of having Scherzer and Buehler lined up to start the next two games. No more bullpen games, no more jockeying through six or seven pitchers to duct-tape their way through nine innings. The problem, though, is that neither starter has been good enough lately to expect seven innings and one or two runs. But if they get a win in Game 6, factors other than starting pitchers -- things like experience and confidence -- could determine who wins Game 7.

Cody Bellinger's home run in Game 3 had a series-saving feel, but the Dodgers still fell flat in Game 4. What's the vibe coming out of L.A.'s Game 5 win?

Doolittle: Kind of a "it can't happen again ... right?" Maybe that's me projecting. But look, the Dodgers looked beaten, broken and battered. Freddie Freeman's two-run homer early had the feel of the start of an avalanche. And it didn't happen. That's mostly because Max Fried kept finding the middle of the plate, but momentum in this series has just not meant very much. No one is panicking on the Braves, and I'm sure they are looking forward to the home crowd support. Still, it's only human for a little bit of doubt to creep in given the Braves' time in Los Angeles. Don't forget: They should have been finishing off a sweep on Wednesday, if not for that stunning, nearly-impossible three-run homer Bellinger hit in Game 3.

Gonzalez: They have Scherzer and Buehler lined up, their key relievers will be rested, they're coming off one of the most encouraging offensive nights of this postseason, and they have the experience of continually coming through with their backs against the wall, so the Dodgers' belief is probably as strong as can be under these circumstances. The Dodgers have won seven consecutive elimination games, representing the third-longest streak in postseason history.

Keown: Top of the world. They've got to be wondering how they could have played as poorly as they did in all but two innings of the first four games and still have a fighting chance. They won Game 3 with a comeback nobody saw coming, and then they won Game 5 by beating the Braves' ace after falling behind 2-0 after three hitters. They're playing with house money at this point.

Who is the one player you'll be watching most closely on either club?

Doolittle: The starting pitcher. Whether it's Anderson, Scherzer, Morton or Buehler, if any of that quartet can put up something resembling a gem, the pitching labyrinth both managers have had to navigate all series would straighten out considerably.

Gonzalez: Soler has inserted himself into this series, and it'll be fascinating to see how Braves manager Brian Snitker integrates him into his lineup. Soler, who cleared COVID-19 protocol before Game 5, had an .890 OPS in 54 regular-season games with the Braves and seemed to really take to the leadoff spot down the stretch. But Eddie Rosario has taken to that spot during the postseason, and Adam Duvall and Joc Pederson have made enough offensive contributions to warrant starts.

Keown: Mookie Betts. The eye is drawn to him no matter what, and that ramps up this weekend. He is the one position player on either side who can alter a game in every possible way. His uniqueness, especially the ability to jump-start the Dodgers with his speed, is the X factor.

​​Let's say the Dodgers tie it up Saturday night. Which team should the AL champs be rooting for in Game 7?

Doolittle: It's actually a tough choice. The Dodgers, even at less than full strength, are baseball's best on-paper team. But what about being a whole lot less than full strength? They really miss Muncy in this series, and now they know they aren't getting Justin Turner back. Nothing against Andy Burns, but who could have thought that he'd be getting an at-bat in the NLCS? The Braves have been playing right at the level of the Dodgers and Giants since the beginning of August, and they are healthier. So wild as it seems, I'm saying the AL champ should be rooting for the Dodgers.

Gonzalez: For as good as the Braves have been -- and as hard as they have pushed an opponent many considered superior -- I don't think anybody wants to play the Dodgers ever, even though their pitching would be heavily taxed and their lineup is nowhere near whole. This team led the majors in run differential for a reason. And though their offense has been prone to its fair share of lulls, especially during this postseason, there are also nights when it comes alive like it did in Game 5. And there's no telling what might spark it.

Keown: I say the AL team should be rooting for the Dodgers, simply because winning three straight elimination games could have a hangover effect heading into the World Series. We saw what happened when the Dodgers were forced to win two elimination games in the NLDS: Their pitching got all out of whack and they lost the first two in Atlanta. But regardless of who wins the NLCS, the AL winner should be rooting for this series to last seven games.

Who wins this series -- and who is the MVP?

Doolittle: Braves in six, with Rosario taking MVP honors.

Gonzalez: I still think the Braves hold on, and amazingly, despite seven strikeouts through eight at-bats in the first two games, I think Freeman finds a way to be named the LCS MVP.

Keown: Braves in seven, simply because if this series is going back to Atlanta it deserves a Game 7. (This is my fourth or fifth prediction for this series, all different.) And if that happens, Rosario's body of work will make him the MVP.