World Series 2021: What's next for Braves-Astros? Answering the key questions after two games

The 2021 World Series between the Atlanta Braves and Houston Astros is knotted at a game apiece as it heads to Atlanta for Friday's Game 3.

What have we learned so far in the Series? What can we expect next? Has anything we've seen made us rethink our initial Fall Classic predictions?

We asked ESPN baseball experts Bradford Doolittle, Buster Olney, Jesse Rogers and David Schoenfield to answer some of the key questions.

What has surprised you most about this World Series through the first two games?

Doolittle: Charlie Morton's Bob Gibson imitation was pretty surprising. There's not been a lot of stuff that you'd consider totally off-script. The Astros have expanded the zone more than they usually do. Their chase rate over two games (39.1%) is way higher than their regular-season average and is way over the worst figure for any team during the regular season (Marlins, 31.0%). It's only two games, but it's worth watching, especially since it's not just Jose Siri's start driving up the number. Alex Bregman has a 50% chase rate and is still looking for his first hit, and Yuli Gurriel, Jose Altuve and Chase McCormick are also at 50% or higher. Nevertheless, a betting man would put his money on this not continuing.

Olney: Alex Bregman has always been one of the most confident players in baseball -- for example, his self-confidence has been so strong that he wears No. 2 because he thought he should've been the No. 1 overall pick over Dansby Swanson. But he seems completely lost at the plate, feeling for the ball. That Teflon confidence is dented.

Rogers: I'm going to add more than just the first two games to this discussion as I've covered the Astros the whole postseason. They've played exactly one game decided by one run out of their 12 playoff games this month. Just one. And even that one got close with a ninth-inning home run. In fact every other game they've played -- win or lose -- has been decided by four or more runs. The first two games of this Series haven't been compelling, and that's been a trend all postseason for Houston.

How much of a blow was the Braves losing their ace, Charlie Morton?

Olney: I asked Astros manager Dusty Baker that question before Game 2, and he was pretty direct. "Big," Dusty said. "That's like us losing Lance McCullers." He's right. Morton would've started Game 5 and perhaps worked in relief in Game 7, if necessary. Now the Braves will spend the next few days trying to figure out how to cover those innings. Atlanta's rotation was a theoretical strength over the Astros, but that edge may be gone unless a hero emerges.

Rogers: It will be felt late in the Series. He was money in the bank for a late start or relief appearance, while Braves skipper Brian Snitker admitted they may have to piece two games together using their bullpen. It's why Max Fried going just five innings in Game 2 was a topic of conversation afterward. He ate up some innings after getting hit around a bit. They'll need every arm possible for Games 4 and 5. But the biggest blow will simply be missing Morton's start when it comes up in the rotation again. He's a big-game pitcher.

Schoenfield: It's the ripple effect, beyond just the loss of not having Morton for Game 5. The Braves had to use their top four relievers to secure Game 1 and at the minimum, A.J. Minter was probably unavailable for Game 2. It didn't matter in the end, since the Braves never got back in the game, but thinking ahead let's see what happens in Games 3-4-5. Not only what the Braves will do in Game 5, but does Snitker manage his staff any differently in Games 3 and 4, knowing he'll need a lot of bullpen innings in Game 5 without Morton?

Which player is going to be the biggest difference-maker going forward?

Doolittle: It's a hard thing to predict, but let's go with Carlos Correa. Game 3 will be pivotal and with Ian Anderson going for Atlanta, Correa's penchant for mashing changeups might come in pretty handy. He's got a .930 OPS against changeups for his career and 1.066 this season. If the Astros get some traffic on the bases for him, Correa might be poised to cash in.

Olney: Framber Valdez. He turned the American League Championship Series with his Game 5 dominance of the Boston Red Sox, and the Astros need him to do that again. He'll be pivotal in this Series.

Schoenfield: We mentioned Bregman above, so let's go with his third-base counterpart, Austin Riley, who is hitting a lukewarm .245/.288/.429 in the postseason with 19 strikeouts and just three walks. That's a 36.5% strikeout rate -- way up from his 25.4% rate in the regular season. In other words, he looks a lot more like 2019-20 Riley than the guy who will finish in the top 10 of MVP voting this year. He may not be the biggest difference-maker, but the Braves will need him to make more of an impact.

What is the storyline you'll be following most closely as the Series shifts to Atlanta's Truist Park?

Olney: I'm fascinated by what choices the Braves make with their rotation going forward -- and the possible (even likely) role that Kyle Wright must play. Nobody has ever doubted his talent, but as Snitker said the other day, he hasn't had a lot of innings in the minors, so when he's gotten opportunities in the majors, he's struggled -- most notably that playoff game against the Dodgers last year when he didn't get out of the first inning and L.A. put up an 11-spot in the frame. He was added to the Braves' roster for the World Series, just in case, and welp, that moment may have arrived with Morton's injury. That's why Snitker got him an inning of work in Game 2 -- and he looked exceptional. Will that foster enough confidence for the Braves to give him another shot on the big stage? Will they bet on his talent and the 137 good innings he had in Triple-A this year? They need him.

Rogers: The weather. I know it's cliche but Houston hasn't dealt with much adversity this season in that department, though they did hit in some cooler temperatures in the ALCS. Games 3 and 4 could be cold and wet, as it's expected to be in the high 40s or low 50s with rain. Perhaps it shows up on defense, where Yordan Alvarez will be wearing a glove for the first time in a long time. The elements should be a factor in Atlanta.

Schoenfield: I'm curious to see what the Astros do with their outfield defense without the DH. Alvarez and Kyle Tucker have been the team's best hitters in the postseason and Michael Brantley is hitting .352. If Baker wants to get all three bats in the lineup, that means moving Tucker to center field, where he's played just 28 innings all season. Defense matters, but it's also hard to sit Brantley or Alvarez. I'd go with defense and play Chas McCormick in center and Alvarez in left, saving Brantley to hit for the pitcher, catcher Martin Maldonado or McCormick if it's a key situation.

With the Series tied at 1, what does each team need to do to win three more games?

Doolittle: Mash. The pitching puzzle for both teams is complicated and it's going to be a race between the collective fatigue of both staffs and the final out of the Series. Both of these offenses should be able to feast on tired pitching when they encounter it, so the team that puts up the most rallies like the Braves' first three innings in Game 1 or the Astros' second inning in Game 2 is going to win.

Rogers: Houston just has to pitch a little. The Astros' offense doesn't go dormant for very long, so as long as they don't get multiple really bad starts, they'll be all right. Atlanta needs a surprise performance or two. That probably means on the mound but it could be at the plate, where they may get down in a game but eventually outscore the Astros when everyone least expects it. If the Braves win the Series it will be by some unpredictable means. They've done as much so far in the postseason. See Eddie Rosario for evidence.

Schoenfield: Beat the other team's starter. Both bullpens are looking really tough right now. We love our late-inning World Series drama, but I don't know if we're going to see any late-game lead changes. (OK, I don't completely trust Will Smith. He's due to give up a high-leverage home run.)

Based on what you've seen, are you sticking with your original World Series prediction? Why or why not?

Doolittle: I had the Astros in seven. With a split in Houston, the biggest thing that has changed is that the Braves have lost one of their big three pitchers. I don't see why I'd want to change course now, even if for the time being Atlanta has seized the home-field advantage.

Olney: I picked the Braves in six games and I'll stick with that -- but without much confidence. These are two really closely matched teams right now, I have no idea what's going to happen. And it's awesome.

Rogers: I took Houston in six. Like the ALCS, they will win two of three on the road and win it back at home. Atlanta losing Morton only helps that prediction. Nothing I've seen so far has changed my mind about the outcome.

Schoenfield: I'll stick with the Astros. Morton's injury is huge and it just feels like all those right-handed relievers in the Houston bullpen can shut down the back half of the Atlanta lineup, especially with Riley scuffling. If we see the same Luis Garcia in Game 3 that we saw in Game 6 of the ALCS, we may not even make it back to Houston.