HOUSTON, TEXAS - OCTOBER 25: Grounds crew prepares the field during a workout prior to the start of the World Series between the Houston Astros and the Atlanta Braves at Minute Maid Park on October 25, 2021 in Houston, Texas. (Photo by Carmen Mandato/Getty Images)

After losing in their respective League Championship Series’ in 2020, the Houston Astros and Atlanta Braves have both gotten over the hump and will take part in the 2021 Fall Classic.

So how did they get here?

Houston Astros

It was not the easiest of roads for Houston throughout the season.

They were slow moving out of the gate in the first part of the season as they really struggled to overcome injuries to some key players in 3B Alex Bregman and RHP Justin Verlander. The Oakland A’s had the upper hand in the division out of the gate, but Houston was able to outlast them in the end to win the AL West title.

The Astros were rather quiet at the trade deadline this year, as they felt very comfortable with their current roster. They traded for former Seattle Mariner Kendall Graveman to help bolster their bullpen with the loss of Roberto Osuna. It was a bit surprising to not see Houston go after another starting pitcher, but they have done an excellent job at getting outs in whatever way possible. 

After winning the AL West and securing the #2 seed in the American League playoffs, the Astros hosted the #3 seed Chicago White Sox in the ALDS. After taking the first two games of the series, Houston would lose game three before wrapping things up in the fourth game.

Next up was a rematch of the 2018 ALCS against the Boston Red Sox. After winning a very close first game, Houston would drop the next two games and home field advantage had flipped. The Astros did not let this phase them, as they won the next three games to win the series and punch their ticket to the World Series for the third time in five years (2017, 2019).

Atlanta Braves

It was a bizarre season to say the least in Atlanta.

If you had been told back in March that the Braves would be playing in the World Series, you probably would not have been entirely surprised. But if you had been told they would make it without Ronald Acuña Jr. Marcell Osuna, Mike Soroka, and Huascar Ynoa for the majority of the season?

You would have been laughed at.

The Braves as well started off the season rather slow as well, with the New York Mets having a strong hold on the division for the majority of the season. Freddie Freeman had an abysmal start to the season, Marcell Osuna was suspended for domestic abuse, Mike Soroka had a setback in his recovery from achilles surgery, and Huascar Ynoa broke his hand punching a wall in frustration. It looked like it was going to be a nightmare season in Atlanta. 

Then, the trade deadline came along.

After losing Acuña Jr. and Osuna, most teams would have simply packed it up and gotten ready for 2022. The Braves knew that the Mets and Phillies were very flawed, and the division was still wide open. Atlanta not only traded for two outfielders to fill those gaps, they traded for two more as well.

Joe Pederson was acquired from the Chicago Cubs, Adam Duvall was acquired from the Miami Marlins, Eddie Rosario was acquired from the Cleveland Indians, and Jorge Soler was acquired from the Kansas City Royals. And, somehow, they have all been unbelievable.

After running away with the NL East division in September, the Braves secured the #3 seed in the NLDS and took on the Milwaukee Brewers. After losing a low scoring first game, the Braves would win the final three games in the series to pull off the big upset. Their reward? A rematch of the 2020 NLCS with the Los Angeles Dodgers. It was a chance to avenge the 3-1 lead they blew in that series.

Atlanta defended their home field by taking the first two games in the series. They would lose two out of the three in Los Angeles, but that still set them up with two chances to win the series in Atlanta. They did not want to risk a winner-take-all seventh game, and they were able to wrap things up with a 4-2 win in Game 6 to advance to the World Series for the first time since 1999.

The Matchup:

Infield:

Baseball fans are absolutely spoiled with a matchup of two of the best infields in all of Major League Baseball. The Braves become only the second team in MLB history to have every infield starter hit over 30+ HR’s in a season. 1B Freddie Freeman is the reigning MVP, and heated up after a slow start in the NLCS. After an 0-8 start to the series with 7 K’s, Freeman made some adjustments and went 6/13 to end the series. 3B Austin Riley has enjoyed a breakout campaign after there were some questions about his development. He had a huge game to start off the series including the walk-off winner.

SS Dansby Swanson and 2B Ozzie Albies round up one of the most powerful infields in recent memory. Albies has had a hit in every single game outside of Game 1 in Milwaukee, and Swanson has been equally as hot with a hit in every game but Game 1 in Los Angeles. Wrapping up the infield for Atlanta is Travis D’Arnaud behind the plate. D’Arnaud is only hitting .194 this postseason, but there is enough firepower in that order to make up for it. He simply needs to call a good game, limit the run game, and keep the ball in front of him.

As for Houston, their infield is not too shabby as well. 3B Alex Bregman is making up for lost time in the regular season by showing some signs of life in October. 1B Yuli Gurriel won the American League batting title, and while he has power, the rest of the team provides more than enough. SS Carlos Correa is set to be a free-agent this offseason, and with every bat drop and electrifying moment, he adds more money to his looming payday.

2B José Altuve recently jumped into third place all time in HR’s in postseason history, passing Derek Jeter in the process. Finishing things off for Houston is Martín Maldonado at catcher, who is not known for his bat to say the least. He is hitting a measly .069, but he is one of the premier defensive catchers in the game. He does however have great numbers off Charlie Morton, going 8/15. Similarly to D’Arnaud, his job is to play strong defense and allow his hitters around him to carry the weight.

Outfield:

As mentioned above in the trade deadline talk, the Braves remodeled their entire outfield at the trade deadline. Jorge Soler had to miss a large chunk of the postseason due to testing positive for Covid-19, but he is expected to be back for the World Series. It will be very interesting to see how Atlanta approaches their lineup as Eddie Rosario has been on fire, and was named NLCS MVP. Most likely, it will be matchup based. 

There is no justifying taking Rosario out currently, as well as the man they call “Joctober” in Joc Pederson. Adam Duvall is only hitting .229 this postseason, so it may just end up being a platoon between Soler and Duvall depending on who is hot. It is also important to note that in Games 1, 2, 6, and 7, there will be a DH as the games are in an American League ballpark, leading all four of them to be able to hit. Regardless, the Braves outfield is filled with talent, but more importantly, confidence. 

As for Houston, they have a few questions themselves. The corner outfield is pretty much set for Houston; Michael Brantley is one of the best pure hitters in the league, and has solidified his place in the order. He’s batting a cool .311 in the postseason for the Astros. Kyle Tucker sent his team back to the World Series with an exclamation point as his three run bomb in Game 6 pretty much wrapped things up. 

Yordan Alvarez can play the outfield, and will likely have to in Atlanta, but for now he will start off as the DH. There’s a legitimate argument to be made he is the best player in this series, and a Top 5 player in the league right now. He’s hitting .441 in the playoffs, and hit over .500 in the ALCS to earn MVP honors. The biggest question for Houston is who will be holding down Center Field. The likely candidate is Chas McCormick, who is hitting .316 so far in the postseason. Jake Meyers spent time out there in the postseason, but he is currently dealing with an injured shoulder. Jose Siri has also had some time out there, but has not produced much. It’s likely McCormick starts games in Houston, and Alvarez plays the field in Atlanta.

Pitching:

Both teams have questionable depth, but Atlanta clearly has the edge here in the rotation, and it doesn’t seem particularly close. Former World Series Champion with Houston, Charlie Morton, will start Game 1 for Atlanta. Morton hasn’t been going as deep into games as he did during the regular season, but he has still been very consistent. He is a strong veteran presence that will not be afraid of the moment. 

Max Fried got shelled his last time out in Los Angeles, but he had been dominant in the second half of the season and postseason before this. It’s fair to assume that was just a blip in his campaign. Ian Anderson has been good, but he as well has not gone deep into too many games lately with a combined seven innings in his previous two starts. Will they be able to get the Braves the outs that they need? 

After this top three, the Braves have some questions. Will Drew Smyly start a game? Will they do a bullpen game? Should they do a bullpen game? Regardless, the Braves are guaranteed to have 5 starts from above average to elite pitching. The bullpen for the Braves has been dominant of late, led by Tyler Matzek. For legal reasons, we will not share the nickname his teammates call him, but it summarizes his performances lately. He has allowed a TOTAL of two runs since September 7th.

After being out of professional baseball for five years, it’s a wonderful story. A.J. Minter has also been sensational as he has yet to allow a run during the postseason, and Luke Jackson has also been fantastic outside of one rough outing in Los Angeles on Oct. 19. What was once a flaw for the Braves has evolved into a strength.

This is where Houston may run into some problems. Starter Lance McCullers Jr. has been ruled out for the World Series, leading the Astros to have to get creative here. Framber Valdez will unsurprisingly be getting the baseball for Houston in Game 1. After a fantastic regular season, Valdez shined on the big stage last week with eight innings of one run baseball against the Red Sox.

It is crucial for Houston to win the games when he starts, because it is not too pretty after that. Luis Garcia is a fascinating case for Houston as well. In his last start against Boston, he threw five shutout innings with only one hit allowed. However, in his last two appearances before that, he allowed 10 runs in less than four innings. Which Luis Garcia we will get in this series is a mystery to us all, as his velocity took a massive uptick in his most recent appearance. 

The Astros will rely on a blend of youth and veterans to wrap up the rest of their pitching staff. Christian Javier is only 24 years old, but has yet to allow a run in 7.2 innings this postseason. Zack Greinke is obviously not what he once was, and has only pitched 2.1 innings this postseason. A known playoff performer, does he have any magic left in the tank? Jake Odorizzi is another veteran in this rotation, but in his only playoff appearance he let up four runs in four innings.

Houston will be relying heavily on their bullpen this series. Ryan Pressly is the driving force in this bullpen, allowing only one run so far in six postseason appearances. Him and Kendall Graveman have formed a very reliable duo in the back of the bullpen, but it’s going to come down to the relievers that can go multiple innings for Houston. If they have a couple of short outings from their starters, this could get ugly.

Conclusion

This is an extremely difficult series to pick, because both teams are very similarly constructed. It’s going to be warm weather in Houston, and not warm but not cold weather in Atlanta. The bats should come alive for both teams here. When it comes to a series like this, there needs to be something that pushes a team over the edge. The Braves have that “team of destiny” feel to them, and this feels like the 2017 Eagles in the sense that this is the year that they would get over the hump when they have no expectations to do so. With lineup that are very similar in fire power, and two veteran coaching staffs, the Braves pitching may just be enough to put them over the top.

The Pick: Braves in 7

World Series MVP: Austin Riley