Crack out the bunting, hot dogs, apple pie, and renditions of God Bless America, as the Fall Classic – baseball’s World Series – gets underway tomorrow in the best-of-seven encounter between the Houston Astros and the Atlanta Braves.
Following last year’s pandemic-shortened season that saw the Los Angeles Dodgers beat the Tampa Bay Rays in six games, baseball returned to its full-162 game schedule in 2021. Both the Dodgers and Rays returned to the playoffs but fell short in their quests.
Representing the American League, the Astros claimed the AL West division for the fourth time in five years with a 95-67 record, five games ahead of the Seattle Mariners. From there they beat the Chicago White Sox 3-1 in the divisional round to reach their fifth consecutive League Championship series where they took three straight wins to defeat the Boston Red Sox in six. 2021 will be the Astros third World Series appearance in that five-year span, beating the Dodgers in 2017 but falling to the Washington Nationals in 2019 in a bizarre seven-game series where neither team won a game in their home park.
Pacing the Astros is the bulk of the core that’s been in place during and before this run of success, comprising the infield quartet of Alex Bregman, Carlos Correa, Yuli Gurriel, and the diminutive Jose Altuve and outfielder Michael Brantley. It’s likely to the last go-around for this group, which lost outfielder George Springer from its ranks in the offseason (Springer signed a six-year deal with the Toronto Blue Jays) with Correa likely to depart the team as one of the big names on the free agent market this coming offseason. Kyle Tucker has stepped up in Springer’s absence, with young slugger Yordan Alvarez impressive so far in the postseason. That line-up is the key for Houston, as their pitching is the weaker side of their roster and more so with Lance McCullers Jr lost to injury in the divisional playoffs and future Hall of Famer Justin Verlander – the guy married to model Kate Upton – having missed the entire following offseason elbow surgery.
For the National League, the Braves took their fourth-straight NL East crown with an 88-73 mark, six ahead of the Philadelphia Phillies and the fewest wins of any of the teams to make the playoffs. But once there, they eliminated the highly fancied Milwaukee Brewers in four games, before exorcising the demons of last year’s League Championship series collapse against the Dodgers to win this time in six. Unlike the Astros however, this will be the Braves first appearance in the World Series since 1999 which came at the end of a decade where the Braves were the league’s dominant team, but just one title in 1995.
The Braves season has been anything but prototypical. At the end of May free-agent signing outfielder Marcell Ozuna was arrested on domestic assault charges and immediately placed on the restricted list where he has remained since while worse was to follow in early July when budding superstar Ronald Acuna Jr was lost for the year with a torn ACL. With the team scuffling along with a losing record, rather than mark the season as a lost one GM Alex Anthopoulos went all-in, acquiring outfielders Eddie Rosario, Adam Duvall, Joc Pederson, and Jorge Soler in splurge that carried them over the top. That quartet joins career-long Brave Freddie Freeman, excitement machine Ozzie Albies, and emerging slugger Austin Riley in a line-up that could be as formidable as the Astros. On the pitching side they’ll lean on the duo of free-agent signing Charlie Morton and homegrown Max Fried before turning to a relatively no-name group of relievers.
With baseball though, much also depends on the two men calling the shots from the dugout. This year those two are a pair of baseball lifers, and the oldest matchup by combined age in World Series history in a time where younger minds are a hot commodity.
Houston are skippered by Dusty Baker, who at 72 is bidding to be the second-oldest World Series-winning manager in history and looking to win his first World Series; only Gene Mauch has won more games as a manager in MLB without winning one. Hired in midst of the fallout of the Astros’ sign-stealing trashcan-banging scandal that taints their recent success and with his ever-present toothpick and wristbands, Baker played 19 seasons in the majors as an outfielder, including the first eight with the Braves (where he debuted at 19 against the Astros) and was the batter on-deck when Hank Aaron – who died in January and who the Braves and MLB have honoured all season – hit his 715th home run to break Babe Ruth’s record. He followed that with eight more years with the Dodgers where he won a World Series as a player in 1981, before embarking on a lengthy managerial career starting in 1993 with the San Francisco Giants who he lead to the World Series in 2002 where they lost to the (then) Anaheim Angels in seven games before departing. He’s subsequently managed the Chicago Cubs, Cincinnati Reds, Washington Nationals, and now Houston taking them all to the postseason and is the only person in baseball history to do that with five different teams.
In the opposing dugout for the Braves is 66-year old Brian Snitker, who has been with the organisation since being drafted by them in 1977. Unlike Baker, he never reached the majors, and upon being released in 1980 started coaching in the Braves organisation, ultimately managing six different minor league teams across 20 seasons all the way from the Rookie A-Ball level through to their Triple-A side. He’s also served two stints as the major league club’s third-base coach and became the Braves manager in May 2016 succeeding the fired Fredi Gonzalez. The moves that they make will be central to their respective clubs chances and whether they learned from the past – especially Baker who back in 2002 with glory looming pulled a dominant Russ Ortiz from the mound in Game 6, and Snitker against the Dodgers last year – will be fascinating.
My pick? Baker gets it right and his first ring as the Astros win in 6.
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