In a rare World Series matchup that felt far more likely at the beginning of April than the beginning of October, the Houston Astros and Atlanta Braves will square off for baseball’s biggest prize beginning on Tuesday night.
The 95-win Astros leapt back to the top of the AL West, rolled over the White Sox in the ALDS, dispatched the Red Sox in their fifth consecutive trip to the ALCS, and now take the World Series stage for the third time in five years.
They will take on the 88-win Braves, preseason favorites to contend who stumbled through a miserable first half. They lost MVP candidate and all-around superstar Ronald Acuña Jr. to a knee injury in early July, and if at that point you thought their season had any chance of ending up here, you might be named Alex Anthopoulos. They rallied with the assistance of a complete makeover of the outfield, winning a moribund NL East and then cutting down the Brewers and Dodgers in the postseason. Including the playoff triumphs, they’re 44-22 since the trade deadline.
Here are five storylines to know going into the Fall Classic.
Astros try to reframe sign-sealing scandal
So I don’t know if you heard about the 2017 Astros …
Yes, of course you have. Houston’s title-winning 2017 team looked like — and perhaps was! — the initial coronation of a dominant generational team. But the revelation that the club used an illegal and elaborate scheme to electronically steal signs and relay them to its hitters by banging on trash cans has forever tarnished that title. The 2017 Astros, regardless of how much the cheating actually helped, are now the icons of the sport’s biggest cheating scandal of the era, and the team that rocked our confidence in the game’s competitive integrity.
Fast forward to 2021, and the assessment gets more complicated. General manager Jeff Luhnow and manager A.J. Hinch were suspended and sent packing over the scandal, replaced by GM James Click and manager Dusty Baker (more on him later). There are only five players remaining from the 2017 major-league team, but four of them take the field together every night as a very conspicuous, very productive infield group – Jose Altuve, Carlos Correa, Alex Bregman and Yuli Gurriel.
Despite the obvious shame-worthy misdeeds of the sign-stealing scandal, it has become nearly impossible to pin the team’s success on the cheating. These hitters have been just as sterling in other years (presumably) without nefarious plots afoot. That hasn’t stopped fans from booing them and discounting their prior achievements — which is fine, boo the villains all you want — but the picture could soon morph.
A la the New England Patriots, it is possible to deserve scorn and skepticism while also earning recognition for excellence. The Astros may force our hands with a World Series title won by the book.
Dusty Baker seeks his first World Series ring
If anyone outside the Houston metro area is throwing their support behind the Astros this week, it’s probably because of Baker. The 72-year-old skipper is the winningest manager in MLB history without a World Series championship to his credit.
He came closest with the 2002 San Francisco Giants, and also guided excellent Cubs, Reds and Nationals teams that fell short of winning it all in a variety of painful ways.
Hired because he was one of the only people on Earth who could lend credibility to the clubhouse in the days after the scandal emerged, Baker is a one-of-a-kind pioneer. Mentored by Henry Aaron as a player — an excellent one, it should be noted — Baker blazed a trail as a Black manager in a game where they remain far too rare, and has charmed the baseball world for years with his knowing perspective and willingness to share it.
He deserves a spot in Cooperstown already, but if this championship seals a Hall of Fame speech for Baker, that’s a win for everyone.
Can Freddie Freeman cement his Braves legacy?
Freddie Freeman was the mainstay, the cornerstone the Braves kept in place when they went into a rebuild in 2014. He emerged on the other side as the ringleader of a dynamic offense. He won an unexpected MVP award with a blistering 2020 season, and could now add a ring to his growing stature in Braves lore.
He is a free agent at season’s end, but everything about his connection to the Atlanta organization screams that he will be back. Perhaps with an ice cream machine.
Freddie Freeman wanted an ice cream machine in clubhouse. Alex Anthopoulos agreed and said if Braves won East he would send another to Freeman's house. That was in June. Time to pay up
On season journey and where Braves need to go from here. 50% off 👀⤵️https://t.co/sZaFD5ffSa
— Jeff Schultz (@JeffSchultzATL) October 1, 2021
Having won the clinching game of the NLDS with a dramatic go-ahead homer off Brewers closer Josh Hader, Freeman is racking up signature moments. If he spearheads the team that breaks Atlanta’s frustrating run of playoff failures, the question of whether he’s a Brave forever will be purely a technical one.
Whose unsung pitchers will keep dealing?
Down their most proven starter in Lance McCullers Jr., the Astros had a brief pitching meltdown against the Boston Red Sox before roaring back on the strength of starts by Framber Valdez and Luis Garcia. The hidden edge, though, came from bullpen arms like Cristian Javier (5 IP, 0 runs, 7 strikeouts in the ALCS).
It is likely that a compromised starting rotation — which may have to include a worn-down Zack Greinke in Game 4 — will need plenty of innings of solid support. Kendall Graveman and Ryne Stanek also turned in strong performances for Houston in the ALCS, and will be needed to bridge the gap to lockdown closer Ryan Pressly.
The Braves, likewise, used bullpen heroes to thwart the Dodgers. Inconsistent but often excellent lefty A.J. Minter has been on a streak of greatness since returning from a minor-league stint in July, and Tyler Matzek crushed the Dodgers’ spirit with his strikeout-laden Houdini act in Game 6.
We can match up and compare the star sluggers and aces all day long. But the postseason has a way of reminding us that every spot on the roster can be the one that makes the difference.
These middle-inning arms stand a good chance of swinging the outcome.
Do the Braves have another underdog run in them?
Atlanta was +1100 at BetMGM to win the World Series on the day the playoffs started, and for good reason. It had the worst record of any squad that made it to October — wild cards included.
We have seen, though, that the Braves' regular season track record is not an entirely accurate portrait of the team as it exists now. It’s not that the playoff roster is suddenly stocked with stars, but it has proven deep enough to weather the storm of good competition so far.
Despite missing McCullers, the Astros will be the most complete team the Braves have faced — the Brewers lacked an offense and the Dodgers were hobbled on several fronts. Each team has some situational questions to answer late in games. The Braves' bullpen is stocked with lefty arms, while the Astros' pen lacks a standout southpaw.
Houston's biggest advantage remains its lineup's ability to make contact. The Astros have long struck out less than any other team in the league, and it repeatedly benefits them in crucial moments of the postseason. There were plenty of reasons the odds were against Atlanta, and they still ring true — even over the din of banging trash cans and boos.