Here we go, the Houston Astros versus the Atlanta Braves for World Series glory. While this matchup would have been a reasonable prediction back in spring training, it was an unlikely scenario at the trade deadline on July 30, when the Braves had a 2% chance to represent the National League and superstar outfielder Ronald Acuna Jr. had been lost for the season with a torn ACL.
The Astros are in the World Series thanks to an offense that has scored 67 runs in 10 playoff games, with six of their seven wins coming by at least five runs. Forty-five of those 67 runs have come with two outs, a testament to a lineup that had the lowest strikeout rate in the majors in the regular season. The Braves are here after knocking off the powerful defending champion Dodgers in the National League Championship Series. Their 88 wins were the fewest of the 10 playoff teams -- not including 2020, this is the first World Series without at least one 100-win team since 2015 (and the Rays and Dodgers were both on a 100-win pace last season) -- but Atlanta has been a roll since early August.
Here's your guide to the 2021 World Series, which starts Tuesday at Minute Maid Field in Houston:
What the Astros have on the line: Can a villain atone for previous sins? It happens in the movies, but this is baseball. It will take a long time before the Astros are viewed as anything but the sport's outlaws, so instead of redemption they'll seek history. After reaching their fifth straight league championship series -- just the third franchise to do that -- they now appear in their third World Series in five seasons. Along the way, they had seasons of 101, 103 and 107 wins. With a second championship in this run, one without an asterisk, they will cement a legacy as one of the best teams of all time. Carlos Correa, Jose Altuve, Alex Bregman and Yuli Gurriel are the core four who have been there all along. Altuve has won an MVP award, Altuve and Gurriel have won batting titles, Bregman has finished second in the MVP voting. With Correa heading into free agency, these could be their final games together -- a final opportunity to secure their place as one of the greatest infields ever.
What the Braves have on the line: The opportunity to erase years of playoff failure. Greg Maddux, Tom Glavine and John Smoltz helped win the only World Series title in the franchise's Atlanta era in 1995. The Braves have made 16 trips to the postseason since then without a championship. That includes 12 appearances since their last World Series berth in 1999. This is hardly the best Atlanta team in that stretch, but it has been clicking the past two-plus months. Remember, the Braves didn't have a winning record until Aug. 6. Since then, including the playoffs, they're 40-21, becoming just the fourth team to reach the World Series despite having a losing record at the All-Star break (joining the 1991 Braves, 1973 Mets and 1964 Cardinals). The 88 wins aren't an impressive season total, but they dispatched the 95-win Brewers and 106-win Dodgers to get here.
What Dusty Baker has on the line: The Hall of Fame. The 72-year-old Astros manager is back in the World Series for the first time since his 2002 Giants lost to the Angels in seven games. It's the longest span between World Series appearances since Bucky Harris was the player-manager for the Washington Senators in 1925 and then the manager for the Yankees in 1947. Baker is 12th in regular-season wins. The 11 managers ahead of him have all won a World Series and all except Bruce Bochy are in the Hall of Fame. Dusty's managerial career has been filled with heartbreaking losses, mostly notably his Game 6 defeats with the Giants in that 2002 World Series and the Cubs in the 2003 NLCS. As the Astros wrapped up the ALCS with a 5-0 win in Game 6, he thought of those games. "Game 6 has been my nemesis in most playoffs and that's what I was thinking," Baker said after the victory. "I mean, you got to get past your nemesis. I was afraid of electricity when I was a kid, so now I'm an owner of an energy company. You try to get past things in your life."
Except the Astros still need four more wins. If they can do it -- and for Dusty's sake, maybe they better do it in five games -- Baker should start preparing his Cooperstown speech, a final reward for a remarkable professional baseball adventure that began in 1967. If that day arrives, let's hope he gives the speech with a toothpick in his mouth while wearing his wristbands to wipe away the tears.
What Brian Snitker has on the line: The 66-year-old Atlanta manager hasn't lived most of his baseball life in the headlines like Baker, but his story honors all those baseball lifers out there. He has been a member of the Braves organization since 1977. As a player, he reached Triple-A for two games. He began managing in the minors in 1982 and had been a loyal organization member for 40 years when the Braves first named him interim manager in 2016. They kept him in the job after he went 72-90 in his first full season in 2017, and he has since managed the club to four straight NL East titles.
When the Braves made the final out to eliminate the Dodgers, he thought of his wife, Ronnie, and his two kids. "I know that she's been real emotional through a lot of this, and rightly so," he said afterward. "She's the one that drug our kids all over the Southeast and I would leave in February and come home in September and she would hold a job and cheerleading and baseball and all that and it was a lot of that stuff." He also pointed out that the Snitker family is now guaranteed a World Series trophy: Son Troy is an assistant hitting coach for the Astros.
Neither Baker nor Snitker was hired for his analytics acumen and both hires went against the managerial trend of younger, recently retired players. Both, however, might be described best as baseball people, and were the right person for the job at the right time -- Baker to help bring stability to the Astros after the cheating scandal rocked the organization, Snitker to help guide a young team out of a minor rebuilding project and into contention.
Don't overlook what they've done this postseason, however. Both have adapted to the times. Baker has had quick hooks with his starters as needed and understands the importance of relying on a bullpen. Snitker used a bullpen game to win Game 4 of the NLCS, and his decision to hit for starter Ian Anderson in the bottom of the fourth in Game 6 proved to be one of the key moves of the postseason when Ehire Adrianza singled to set the stage for Eddie Rosario's game-deciding three-run home run.
Last call for Carlos Correa and Freddie Freeman? You can argue the Astros' turnaround began when they drafted Correa with the first pick in the 2012 draft. He reached the majors in 2015 and the Astros made the playoffs that season, the first of six postseasons in Correa's seven seasons with the team. Freeman is the face of the Atlanta franchise, one of the most popular players in the majors. Like Correa, he reached the majors when he was just 20 years old. He has been a five-time All-Star and won the 2020 NL MVP before finally reaching his first World Series.
After all the playoff disappointments through the years, Freeman described beating the Dodgers as "pure joy. It really is. ... Usually we're sitting in our locker, you know, and just like just thinking about the whole season and getting ready for next year, and we actually did it."
Since Correa reached the majors, the two have been among the best players in the majors, Correa ranking sixth in Baseball-Reference WAR among position players, Freeman ninth.
Both players are set to become free agents after this World Series. It's hard to imagine Freeman playing for another team given his stature with the Braves and his still high level of production at 32 years old, but any time a star player reaches free agency there is the risk of seeing him leave. Correa, on the other hand, is viewed as likely to leave the Astros -- with perhaps the Yankees and Tigers leading the pursuit to sign him.
Relievers, relievers and more relievers: Heading into the World Series, relievers have thrown 54% of postseason innings. For the Astros, it's been 57%, and for the Braves, 49%. So if you haven't watched much postseason baseball this year, don't be surprised to see the churn of relievers starting early in the game.
For Baker, the heavy relief usage was born out of necessity when Astros starters pitched a combined 6.2 innings in the first four games of the ALCS. It was a minor miracle the Astros were able to split those four games before Framber Valdez bounced back with eight dominant innings in Game 5 (the longest stint of any starter this postseason) and Luis Garcia tossed 5.2 scoreless innings in Game 6. Still, with Lance McCullers Jr. likely to miss the World Series after not pitching since leaving Game 4 of the ALDS with forearm discomfort, Baker will have to rely on his bullpen.
The Braves have used just three traditional starters in their playoff run, starting Charlie Morton on short rest in Game 4 against the Brewers and going with a bullpen game against the Dodgers in Game 4 of the NLCS (with Drew Smyly pitching 3.1 innings in relief as the long man).
Some of the key relievers to watch:
A.J. Minter, Tyler Matzek and Will Smith, Braves: The three lefties have allowed just two runs in 24.2 innings in the postseason with 35 strikeouts, no home runs and nine hits. They can get righties out as well as lefties and Snitker will use Minter and Matzek for more than three outs (Minter went two innings in Games 4 and 6 against the Dodgers). Matzek has appeared in nine of the Braves' 10 postseason games and blew away the Dodgers in his two-inning stint in Game 6.
Matzek is a great story. He's a former first-round pick of the Rockies in 2009, but he developed such a bad case of the yips that he was out of baseball in 2017. He was then released by the White Sox, Mariners and Diamondbacks before the Braves signed him in 2019 and he found the strike zone. Since the All-Star break he has allowed runs in just four of 43 appearances, and he keeps telling Snitker that he wants the ball every game. Minter had to return to Triple-A for a short spell in late July when he was struggling with his control, but he has a 1.37 ERA in 26.1 innings since returning to the majors.
Even Smith struggled early this season, going 1-5 with a 4.74 ERA through June 9. A concern most of the season, the Atlanta bullpen now looks like a strength and the lefties will help the Braves match up against Astros left-handed hitters Michael Brantley, Yordan Alvarez and Kyle Tucker in a way the Red Sox could not.
"I felt like I've let this team down so many different times in the past few years and I let the fans down and I felt like I just went out there and I just wanted to give it all for them," Minter said after Game 6. "We all have our story and I've been through failure and I felt like I wouldn't be in this spot tonight if I hadn't gone through that failure. It just made me prepare for this moment and that's what life is all about. Nothing's supposed to be easy, it's not supposed to be given to you and you have to earn it."
Cristian Javier, Astros: Javier started the year in the Houston rotation, but pitched out of the bullpen since late May. His ability to go multiple innings gives Baker the comfort that he can have a quick hook with his starters. Javier has had three scoreless appearances in the postseason of 2.2, 2 and 3 innings, striking out 13 over those 7.2 innings.
Blake Taylor and Brooks Raley, Astros: Ryan Pressly has been one of the best closers in the majors. Kendall Graveman and Ryne Stanek are the primary setup guys and have combined to allow two runs in 13.2 innings in the postseason. But it could get a little interesting if Baker has to bridge the gap from the starters and Javier to the late-game crew. Taylor and Raley are the two lefties Baker has at his disposal, but neither is on the level of the Braves' lefties. It will be interesting to see if Baker uses them against the Eddie Rosario/Freeman part of the order to get the matchup advantage or forgoes that and sticks with his righties.
Yordan Alvarez and Eddie Rosario: Speaking of Rosario, he and Alvarez are the hot hitters coming off LCS MVP honors. Rosario had 14 hits against the Dodgers, tying the postseason record for hits in one series with four others players (but they all did it in seven games while Rosario did it in six). Alvarez is hitting .441/.535/.794 in the postseason and went 9-for-13 in the final three games of the ALCS. In fact, he outhit the entire Red Sox lineup over the final two games of the series.
Rosario was one of the outfield pickups Alex Anthopoulos made to help cover for the injured Acuna, along with Adam Duvall, Joc Pederson and Jorge Soler. Rosario hadn't hit that well for Cleveland and was actually injured when the Braves acquired him, but including the postseason he has hit .331/.388/.639 with Atlanta. Soler had solidified the leadoff spot in September, but when he missed the first four games of NLCS after testing positive for COVID-19, Rosario took over and crushed it. Given the right-handed nature of the Houston pitching staff -- other than Valdez -- look for Snitker to keep the Rosario/Freeman one-two punch at the top of the lineup, almost daring Baker to bring in Taylor or Raley. (The Braves will also be able to deploy Soler as the DH in the games in Houston, keeping Joc Pederson in right field. As we saw in the NLCS, Atlanta's strong bench can be a big bonus.)
Baker will have to make a decision when the series moves to Atlanta for the middle three games. Who plays left field, Brantley or Alvarez? Alvarez did start 39 games there in the regular season and two so far in the postseason, so the way he's hitting, you have to think he'll get the starts, even if he is a defensive liability.
How the rotations line up: Hey, starting pitchers are still important! The Atlanta rotation should go as follows:
Game 1: Charlie Morton (six days of rest)
Game 2: Max Fried (five days of rest)
Game 3: Ian Anderson (five days of rest)
Game 4: Bullpen game
Assuming McCullers is out, the Astros might go like this:
Game 1: Framber Valdez (five days of rest)
Game 2: Luis Garcia (four days of rest)
Game 3: Jose Urquidy (10 days of rest)
Game 4: Zack Greinke/bullpen game
Baker has a couple of options. He could go with Urquidy in Game 2 in order to give the rookie Garcia more rest (his second dominant start against the Red Sox came on five days of rest), but Baker might not want two potential Urquidy-Fried matchups given Urquidy pitched poorly in his one postseason start so far (six runs in 1.2 innings). Greinke also didn't look good against the Red Sox, so Jake Odorizzi or one of the relievers could get the start.
Garcia feels like the key guy here. He apparently made a slight mechanical tweak before his Game 6 start against the Red Sox and his average four-seam fastball velocity was 96.0 mph, up from his season average of 93.3. He threw 26 pitches of 96-plus mph -- after reaching 96 just 18 times all season prior to that. Maybe it was the adrenaline of the moment, but if Garcia can bring that velocity -- and control -- against the Braves, that's a huge, huge bonus for the Astros.
The favorite: Caesars Sportsbook opened with the Astros as -150 favorites, with the price since dropping to -145 with the Braves listed at +125. Home-field advantage is a small factor, but don't forget the Astros lost all four games at home to the Nationals in the 2019 World Series.
The Braves did run into some good fortune in the playoffs so far, not having to play the Giants or Dodgers in the division series and then catching a Dodgers team that was already down Max Muncy and Clayton Kershaw before Justin Turner got injured during the series and Max Scherzer missed his Game 6 start. Eddie Rosario had the best week of his life and a shaky bullpen got hot at the right time. This isn't to knock the Braves for their accomplishment, but the Dodgers were running on fumes by the NLCS.
The Astros have that chip, to prove something to the haters and doubters. "Ever since the news came out, the bad news that we've had to deal with about what happened in 2017, I think we've all wanted to prove what kind of class of players that we are and team that we are," Alvarez said after beating the Red Sox. "I wasn't here with the team in 2017, but I've gotten booed just as equal as anybody else. So I think we all have the same mentality that we really want to win a World Series to demonstrate that we are just a great team."
Does that matter in a seven-game series? Probably not. The Braves want to win, too. Back in the days when the Braves were on TBS, they were the self-proclaimed "America's Team." In this series, that is truer than ever.