The 2022 World Series game is set.
Starting Friday, the Houston Astros and Philadelphia Phillies will battle it out for the Commissioner’s Trophy in a matchup between one league’s favorite and the other’s biggest underdog.
Under MLB’s new playoff format, the Phillies entered as the sixth and final seed in the National League, but advanced all the way to the Fall Classic, while the top-seeded Astros swept the rest of the minor league.
What did October teach us about each of these teams? What do they need to do to be on top? And which players could be the difference makers on both sides? ESPN MLB experts Jeff Passan, June Lee, Jesse Rogers and David Schoenfield break it down.
What is most impressive about the Astros this postseason?
passan: All is a thing, isn’t it? OK. If there’s only one thing that defines the Astros, it’s their pitching depth. They have Justin Verlander and Framber Valdez, both first-line starters, at the top of their rotation. Next up are Cristian Javier and Lance McCullers Jr., each of whom would be starters on most teams. As good as their starting pitcher is, the sheer amount of relief talent in their bullpen — from closer Ryan Pressley to Rafael Montero to Ryne Stanek to Brian Abreu to Hector Neris to Hunter Brown — makes any lead feel comfortable. The Astros are great at everything, but their pitching has kept them undefeated this postseason.
Li: Depth on Houston’s roster. If you had told the Yankees heading into the American League Championship Series that Jordan Alvarez and Jose Altuve would each have one hit in three games, New York would have been thrilled. Instead, the rest of the Astros led the way, from Yuli Gurriel to Alex Bregman to Chas McCormick to Jeremy Pena to Martin Maldonado. This Houston team can beat you in many different ways, from their incredibly deep pitching staff to their lineup, which can throw you out with the long ball or pound you into singles and doubles. On top of that, it’s consistency. Depth and consistency usually play well in October, and Houston proved that against the Mariners, in the AL Division Series, and against the Yankees.
Why will it (or won’t) work against the Phillies in the World Series?
passan: Certainly the Phillies’ lineup, the way they’re hitting right now, presents more of a challenge than the Mariners or Yankees did for Houston. But as long as Dusty Baker gets around with the right amount of urgency and uses his bullpen as much as he can — mixing and matching and not allowing Kyle Schwarber, Rhys Hoskins, JT Realmuth and Bryce Harper to look at third down unless the starter is really cruising — Houston has good to neutralize Philadelphia’s offense in a similar fashion to what he did in Seattle and New York.
Li: The Astros are the better team on paper, but being the underdog hasn’t stopped the Phillies so far in the postseason, after entering as the third-place team in the NL East and beating the Cardinals, Braves and Padres en route to the World Series. There’s something to be said for that October magic, and warming up at the right time. We’ve seen teams run out of this in the past, but Philly took a cue from last year’s Braves and got blazing hot when it counted most. Harper’s go-ahead homer in the final out of the National League Championship Series was a sports moment too on the nose for the movies, but he felt written in the stars by the baseball gods.
Who is the one player who has to surrender for the Astros to be champions from here?
passan: Considering the Astros made it to the World Series with him virtually non-existent, maybe Jose Altuve is a dumb answer. But to derail a hot and confident Phillies team, Houston needs production at the top of its order, and the Astros’ lineup with Altuve on base has an engine that’s already spitting out a lot of horses and turbocharging it.
Li: Pena has been Houston’s X factor so far in October. When Altuve and Alvarez struggled, the previously unheralded rookie came through and became a star for the Astros. If Altuve and Alvarez continue to contend, guys like Pena, McCormick, Trey Mancini and Gurriel will have to help Houston get to the World Series title.
What has been most impressive about the Phillies this postseason?
Rogers: They instantly became the team everyone in the organization thought they could be, one with excellent starting pitching and tremendous power — enough in both areas to overcome any defensive deficiencies or bumps. Harper, Schwarber and Hoskins don’t miss a beat and play with the most confidence they’ve had all year.
Schoenfield: The Stars are hot – not just the sluggers, but also Zack Wheeler, who has a 1.78 ERA in his four starts. He could start Game 1 on full rest, but it might make sense for the Phillies to go with Aaron Nola and then Wheeler in Game 2, as Wheeler has started to tire around the 80-point mark in both of his starts against the Padres. An extra day of rest can help. But let’s mention one more thing: The Phillies’ bullpen has somewhat figured things out, and manager Rob Thomson has done a great job adjusting on the fly and going with the hot hand. Seranthony Dominguez allowed just one run in 7 2/3 innings in the postseason with 15 strikeouts and no walks — and that one run was in part the result of Sunday’s wet conditions. Jose Alvarado is throwing heat from the left side, and David Robertson has plenty of postseason experience. Thomson was even willing to use Ranger starter Suarez to close out Game 5 of the NLCS.
Why will it (or won’t) work against the Astros in the World Series?
Rogers: The Phillies’ streak will keep the Astros from winning the short series, but in the end all that pitching will win out for them. The longer it lasts, the better for Houston, because Philly is no match for the Astros. Best of seven is usually won not at the plate, but on the mound. Houston dominates there.
Schoenfield: Pitch depth is still a question mark — though Connor Brogdon had 7 strikeouts against the Padres in Game 4, and Andrew Bellatti has pitched well enough in his five appearances to be a good matchup against Houston’s righty-heavy lineup (he allowed .608 OPS against righties, but .866 for lefties). But what if Brad Hand has to deal with part of the Alvarez/Bregman/Kyle Tucker bill? And Thomson was cautious about using Dominguez, who is in his first full season back from Tommy John surgery. He played just 11 consecutive regular-season days and had days off between all six postseason appearances — at least two days in five of them. At some point, he will have to return on consecutive days and perhaps for a longer stretch of the field.
Who is the one player who must deliver for the Phillies to be champions from here?
Rogers: It might be cliché to pick on Harper, but he’s the guy. The heartbeat of the Phillies runs through him. They will be underdogs, deservedly so, and will need an extra special run to beat Houston. Who better to energize them one more time than Bryce Harper? He’s already having a great postseason. As he goes, so goes the Phillies’ offense, which could shock the world by landing the Astros’ dominant pitching staff. It starts with Harper.
Schoenfield: I’m counting on another big streak from Harper, but my key guy is Nola. Wheeler has the potential to dominate in his outings. The Astros will have the lead in games started by Suarez or Bailey Falter (or Noah Syndergaard). Nola had two great starts in the postseason — 6 2/3 scoreless innings against the Cardinals and then one unearned run against the Braves. Against the Padres, however, he had a 4-0 lead but allowed back-to-back home runs in the second and then four runs in the fifth. Nola is also extremely vital because if he can go deep, it means more fresh arms for Suarez and the first Game 4. Oh, one of the reasons to start Nola in Game 2 instead of Game 1: He had a 3.84 ERA in the regular season on four days rest (14 starts), but 2.79 on five days (13 starts). If he starts Game 1, he would go into Game 5 again on four days’ rest, but if he goes into Games 2 and 6, he gets five days’ rest. The Phillies have an interesting decision on how to line up their rotation.