Capital hill: Astros, Nats put World Series eyes on pitching
Gerrit Cole, Max Scherzer and a slew of aces get the World Series started in Houston, then the scene shifts to Capitol Hill.
But with Justin Verlander, Stephen Strasburg and all these electric arms, might as well call it capital hill.
Because in this Year of the Home Run, the focus of the 2019 Fall Classic is on the mound.
A throw-down for the ages, maybe.
“I know a few guys in their rotation, and I’m personally excited that they’re in this position, and I’m just very excited to get in there,” Cole said late Saturday night.
The matchup comes with a neat twist, too: The Astros and Washington Nationals share a spring training complex — they met in the exhibition opener in February, and Scherzer gave up a homer to the first batter of the game.
Now, eight months later, they meet for real, beginning Tuesday night at Minute Maid Park. The 107-win Astros trying to take their second crown in three years, the wild-card Nationals making their Series debut.
Houston opened as a 2-1 favorite of the Las Vegas sports books.
Cole is lined up for Game 1, with Verlander and Zack Greinke to follow.
“We got some pretty big boys that can pitch,” Astros manager AJ Hinch recently said.
So do the Nationals in their rotation with Scherzer, Strasburg and Patrick Corbin. And even Aníbal Sánchez — all he did lately was take a playoff no-hit bid into the eighth inning.
No slight to the big hitters here: José Altuve, the AL Championship Series MVP after his homer beat the Yankees in Game 6 on Saturday night, MVP candidates Alex Bregman and Anthony Rendon, postseason star George Springer and top shortstops Trea Turner and Carlos Correa.
Not to overlook the young stars on this stage for the first time, rookies like Juan Soto and Yordan Álvarez.
Yet in an era when teams search for new pitching strategies — witness the Astros’ parade of relievers in the Game 6 of the ALCS — the two clubs left figure to rely heavily on their rotations.
Fine by Hinch.
“Philosophically, whether it’s about the new-age opener or pulling guys third time through, most of the people that support that haven’t had Verlander or Cole on their team,” he said.
The Astros, who began as the National League expansion Colt .45s in 1962, led the majors in setting a franchise record for wins. Their playoff path was more of a struggle, beating wild-card Tampa Bay in the deciding Game 5 of the AL Division Series and then stopping the 103-win Yankees on Altuve’s pennant-winning homer off Aroldis Chapman in the ninth inning.
The Nationals, who started out as the Montreal Expos in 1969, took the reverse route.
A season after letting slugger Bryce Harper leave as a free agent, the Nats were just 19-31 in May. The slow start prompted speculation manager Dave Martinez would be fired and management would sell off stars at the trade deadline.
Instead, the Nationals bounced back. They earned a playoff spot, eliminated the favored Los Angeles Dodgers in the NL Division Series and swept the surging St. Louis Cardinals behind NLCS MVP Howie Kendrick.
For Washington, the city gets its first World Series since the Senators played in 1933. For the Nationals, the old October question: rest or rust?
The Nationals will have a full week between games while the Astros, get only two days off. A fact on this: Boston had two more days of rest last year and beat the Dodgers. But before that, the past nine champions were the clubs had fewer rest.
Martinez isn’t worried.
“These guys have played unbelievably. I think they needed a break. Some guys really needed a break,” he said. “Heal their bodies a little bit.”
The teams, incidentally, haven’t played in the regular season since 2017 — overall, Washington has 10 of the last 11 meetings dating to 2012.
They do, however, see a lot of each other every spring. They faced off at the Ballpark of the Palm Beaches on Feb. 23 in the exhibition opener, and Jake Marisnick led off the game with a home run against Scherzer.
Washington went 5-1 against the Astros in Florida this year. They start next spring with two exhibitions in Florida.
Before then, though, they’ll both make their pitch for baseball’s ultimate prize.