Talk about the longest week ever, and it is only Wednesday.
The Astros are set to appear in their fourth World Series in six years, with Game 1 this upcoming Friday evening against the Phillies at Minute Maid Park. This waiting game feels like an eternity as we're conditioned as baseball fans to watch some form of it nearly every day for roughly six months. I've been subsisting on highlights of the ALCS to get by these last couple of days. Or I am overly complaining about The Rings of Power series, as my wife kindly brought to my attention yesterday.
The time off between series has also granted me the additional time to think — mostly worry, to be honest — about this upcoming best-of-seven set against this year's edition of the "hot NL East team of destiny to beat the Astros." Philadelphia, after all, took down the Cardinals, Braves, and Padres in a rather convincing fashion. They're not slouches. Also, as illogical as it is, the NL East thing is hard to shake, considering Houston's recent fortunes, or lack thereof. That said, the Astros didn't win 106 games this season or sweep both of their postseason series by mere accident.
As with any postseason series, the best regular-season team may not win it all. Unlike basketball and, to a lesser extent, football, the best teams do not regularly emerge as champions in baseball. Small samples during a short series by hotter than usual players — hello, Eddie Rosario and Jorge Soler — can significantly dictate the outcome. But with the overall offense environment suffering in this year's postseason (.213/.279/.361 ), I have a feeling we could see the outcome dictated a bit more by reliable run prevention, which is a department that the Astros have excelled throughout 2022.
During this year's grueling 162-game season, there wasn't a better team in the American League better at preventing runs than the Astros, who held opponents to a mere 3.20 runs per game. Only the Dodgers, at 3.17 runs per game, could argue the advantage in this regard. The Phillies, on the other hand, finished seventh in the National League, allowing little over a run more per game than Houston at 4.23 runs.
The majority of Houston's success is due to its enviable depth, which may become something of a legend if this year's club wins it all. Strong defense has also played a vital role in this excellent run prevention, as the Astros are held in high regard across several defensive metrics. The shift is undeniably playing a part, and ironically, this is the last postseason where we'll see this kind of defensive alignment allowed.
Back to the pitching depth, unlike last year against the Braves, when the Astros didn't have Justin Verlander or Lance McCullers Jr., this year's staff is better suited to go the distance. As we saw against the Mariners and Yankees, one doesn't have to worry if Dusty Baker will run out of arms unless the game reaches the 22nd or 23rd inning. If that happens, there is nothing else one can reasonably do about it.
That said, the Phillies aren't without weapons of their own. Aaron Nola (3.12 ERA in 17 1⁄3 innings) and Zack Wheeler (1.78 ERA in 25 1⁄3 innings) pitched wonderfully thus far in the postseason. Ranger Suárez has also kept his opponents in check in his three postseason appearances. Seranthony Dominguez and Jose Alvarado give Philadelphia a formidable backend of the bullpen with other capable relievers on the roster. While they don't possess the depth of the Astros, the Phillies' best arms should not be considered any lesser. Like the Nationals in 2019, they could ride those top arms to a championship if utilized in the most optimal situations.
On defense, the Phillies aren't exactly held in high regard, mainly due to how their roster was constructed, with both Kyle Schwarber and Nick Castellanos in the outfield. The infield isn't much better. However, the trade deadline acquisition of Brandon Marsh arguably solidified its outfield defense to some degree, so it isn't quite as dreadful as one would remember earlier in the season. Plus, they made some solid plays in the field in October, with Castellanos sliding catch against the Braves in Game 1 of the NLDS standing out. I am curious if they start to shift a bit more compared to their season averages. But the most significant weakness remains Philadelphia's fielding tendencies, which could favor the Astros in games when both offenses are struggling to score runs.
The pieces are in place for this series to be remembered as one decided by pitching and defense, with the occasional home run courtesy of a rare mistake being the difference in a couple of games. Of course, I could be completely wrong, and all the games feature offensive firepower reminiscent of more recent seasons. Considering that we still don't know much about which baseballs — juiced or de-juiced — are being used, it is possible. Regardless, the Astros ought to feel good about their chances as long as their run-prevention machine continues to turn on.