A year that began with a protracted labor dispute ends with an intriguing World Series between the Philadelphia Phillies and Houston Astros.
It’s probably not the matchup Commissioner Rob Manfred dreamed of when he went to bed every night this summer with visions dancing in his head of Aaron Judge and the New York Yankees facing the Los Angeles Dodgers.
There’s even a good possibility Manfred might have to hand the championship trophy he once called a “piece of metal” to Astros owner Jim Crane, two years after letting Astros players skate for the sign-stealing scandal that tarred their 2017 title.
Nevertheless, the World Series begins Friday at Minute Maid Park, with American League Cy Young Award favorite Justin Verlander going up against Phillies star Aaron Nola.
Here are eight things to know about the 118th Fall Classic.
1. Who will win?
Barring a complete reversal of form, the Astros should win in five or six games. They have the superior pitching, hitting and defense and are coming off a sweep of the Yankees, a team far better than the Phillies.
The key for the Astros will be to avoid pitching to Bryce Harper in clutch situations. In the last two series, Harper has been walked only once in 38 plate appearances. He’s 16-for-36 (.444) with four home runs and 10 RBIs, including the game-winning homer in Game 5 that sealed his MVP award in the National League Championship Series.
Astros manager Dusty Baker was with the Washington Nationals in 2016 when Cubs manager Joe Maddon had his pitchers walk Harper 13 times in a four-game series at Wrigley Field. A Nationals pitcher called it “scared” baseball. The Cubs swept the series, and Maddon didn’t care what anyone thought of the strategy.
The World Series is a different animal, but if the Astros can pitch around Harper in critical situations and risk getting beaten by Nick Castellanos, the strategy makes sense.
2. Why should I watch?
Short answer: You don’t need to. But it’s the World Series, and you already have invested more than six months watching baseball. Even if your favorite team didn’t make it, you owe it to yourself to see this season through to the bitter end.
MLB also decided to start the World Series on a Friday to avoid competing against the “Sunday Night Football” game between the Green Bay Packers and Buffalo Bills. Now you won’t have to choose between baseball and the NFL, at least until Monday night, a “meh” matchup between the Cincinnati Bengals and Cleveland Browns.
3. What is the ex-Cub Factor?
Decades ago, freelance writer Ron Berler created the theory known as the “Ex-Cub Factor,“ which states any team in the World Series with three or more former Cubs is fated to lose.
It has been disproved many times, including last year when the Atlanta Braves beat the Astros with ex-Cubs Jorge Soler, Joc Pederson and Jesse Chavez. Soler even was named Series MVP.
But in case you were wondering, the Phillies have three former Cubs in Castellanos, Kyle Schwarber and David Robertson.
4. Is it safe to root for the Astros?
The Astros remain the most hated team in baseball after the cheating scandal but also are one of the most respected after winning four AL pennants in six years.
If you can separate your revulsion of the acts of players who allegedly cheated — including Jose Altuve and Alex Bregman — with the way the current team plays, you can root for the Astros. But sports needs its villains, too, and it’s OK to root against them.
5. Will we get any glimpses of the Phillie Phanatic?
The giant green furball will be on full display throughout the Series games in Philly, as contractually mandated by MLB and Fox Sports. The Phillie Phanatic remains the Babe Ruth of mascots, so no one minds the overkill. Often imitated, never duplicated.
6. Has any team gone unbeaten in the postseason since playoffs were expanded?
A World Series sweep is not uncommon, but only one team has been unbeaten in the postseason since 1969, when the League Championship Series were added. The only team without a loss was the 1976 Cincinnati Reds, who beat the Phillies 3-0 in the NLCS before sweeping the Yankees in the Series. The 2005 Chicago White Sox and the 1999 Yankees went 11-1. The Astros are 7-0 entering Game 1.
7. Could this matchup go down as a classic?
It doesn’t bode well unless you like watching a lot of strikeouts mixed in with a few hits here and there. The Phillies are batting .237 in the postseason with 94 strikeouts in 11 games. The Astros are hitting .227 with 61 strikeouts in seven games. Look for more of the same.
Perhaps the last real “classic” World Series was in 2016, when the Cubs beat Cleveland in seven games. But in “The Grandest Stage, A History of the World Series,” author Tyler Kepner doesn’t place the Cubs’ drought-busting win among the top 10 of all time. The top spot went to the 1991 Series, in which the Minnesota Twins beat the Braves in seven games. The No. 2 spot went to the 1975 Series, in which the Reds beat the Boston Red Sox in seven games in what many consider the greatest World Series ever played.
8. Are there are any untold stories about Dusty Baker?
Not really. You already know he has the most wins of any manager without winning a title and at 73 will be the oldest manager in a World Series. And that he co-invented the high–five and once got high with Jimi Hendrix. You’ll probably see have seen a replay of the 2002 World Series in which his young son, Darren, almost was run over at the plate while serving as the Giants batboy.
Baker is old enough to have played with Hank Aaron and been around dugouts long enough to manage stars from Barry Bonds to Sammy Sosa to Harper to Altuve. When 67-year-old Bruce Bochy was hired last week to manage the Texas Rangers, Baker said: “One more for the old dudes.” That sentiment also would apply to Baker if the Astros win the Series.
Best-of-seven series; all games on Fox-32
- Game 1: at Astros, 7 p.m. Friday
- Game 2: at Astros, 7 p.m. Saturday
- Game 3: at Phillies, 7 p.m. Monday
- Game 4: at Phillies, 7 p.m. Tuesday
- Game 5*: at Phillies, 7 p.m. Wednesday
- Game 6*: at Astros, 7 p.m. Nov. 4
- Game 7*: at Astros, 7 p.m. Nov. 5
* — if necessary