THE BIG HIT | The 5 things the Astros and Nationals need to do to win the World Series

by Ken Napzok

Though I am very well-studied in baseball history (I think I’ve watched the third inning of Ken Burns baseball 42 times alone) and there is nothing more historic than the World Series. Every at-bat is history in the making.

It’s a living document that connects the present day all the way back to the first series in 1903. And though I am very well-studied in that aforementioned baseball history, I can never quite remember how the World Series came to be, but thank the Baseball Gods it did.. I think in 1903 American League President Ban Johnson got into a bar argument with the ghost of the Abner Doubleday claiming that Cy Young could strike out Honus Wagner on three straight pitched balls and here we are.

History drips off of every World Series like syrup from a pancake poured by a 39 year-old bachelor alone on a Friday night. And now the Astros and Nationals are next up to add to the annals of the World Series.

At the beginning of the 2019 postseason, a lot of fans — ok mostly just me — we’re really excited at the prospect of the Battle of the Titans. This grand idea that two of the record breaking four one hundred win teams would face off in the World Series.

It would be the Nsync v Backstreet Boys of the Fall Classic. However, this didn’t happen. The Dodgers fell to their worst enemy… themselves. The Yankees knocked out the 101 win Twins with ease but found their backs up against the wall one too many times in Houston.

The Battle of Titans dream has faded away, but what remains are the two teams that are supposed to be here. That is how baseball history works. There are no more What Ifs just the What Is. 

The Houston Astros and Washington Nationals are primed to give us a big show and here are the 5 things they each must do to win the 2019 World Series.

5 – Defeat the Aces 

This series is full to the brim of those old school aces we’re all convinced don’t exist anymore. Justin Verlander and Gerrit Cole in one corner and Stephen Strasburg and Max Scherzer in the other. Not to mention Zach Greinke and Patrick Corbin quietly sitting ringside. Without a doubt this series is going to come down to arms not listed here. (We’re looking at you Anibal Sanchez) 

However, that’s a no brainer. Each team is going to need to get wins when the Big Guns aren’t on the mound. No duh. (Man, it felt good to type that a fourteen year-old) What really has to happen is that each of these teams has to be the one to get at these aces.

All of these starters will have their right proper rest, so they should be going at full strength. Great for us fans, but bad for the batters they are ready to mow down. The first step to a larger Series victory will be found in the team that faces down a giant and slays him with a sling shot. 

4 – Play Small Ball like it was 1982

There is a fun conspiracy going around that those wonderful slick, tightly wound baseballs that have been flying out of ballparks all season are all on an early winter break. “It’s the only possible way to explain the lack of home runs this postseason,” say these Truthers.

And, who knows, maybe they’re right or maybe they’re the Flat Earthers of Baseball. But it’s not as if they’re haven’t been any home runs during the first few rounds of these playoffs. In truth, the answer is probably more on the side of the fact that pitchers filling out the staffs of these teams are, you know, playoff caliber pitchers. 

However you slice it, one thing remains clear: to win this final stage the Astros and Nationals are going to have to go back to those Little League basics and play the style of baseball that would make Whitey Herzog happy. It’s time for some small ball. 

Now, this doesn’t mean that a modern day Willie McGee will be slapping a ball to the opposite field while Vince Coleman runs around the bases like he pressed the burst button on a video game. This does mean that those little things like productive outs, risky hit and runs, and doubles down the line will be getting a little more of the headlines this week. 

This doesn’t mean, though, that the new school research and playbooks are being tossed out. Quite the contrary. Those extreme shifts and playing the percentages listed on an Excel sheet will be even that much more important to these two teams. You can’t defend against a towering home run, but you can stop a bunt attempt. 

Let’s get excited for both of these teams playing small.

3 – Keep Destiny Away From The Hot Hands

Jose Altuve. Carlos Correa. Juan Soto. Ryan Zimmerman. These are the players that are playing with more than just their God given skill set, they’re playing with a purpose that’s driven more by the spirit than the stats. These are some of Hot Hands about to suit up. While it’s hard to pitch around destiny (more on that later, Aroldis) it can’t hurt to try. 

The game plans are being finalized by these two teams right now and without a doubt there are probably a lot of conversations about how to take the bats out of these Dancers with Destiny. 

The problem is can you deny the Fates when they come calling. While one of these two teams has to lose, therefore ending the magic carpet rides for some of these players living a dream, it is sometimes impossible to avoid these Hot Hands. So, the strategy might be closing your eyes and hoping you get through it when one of these players — or others like Howie Kendrick or Yuli Gurriel — step up to the box with history on the line. Maybe, just maybe, you can survive it?

Unless, of course, Destiny is looking for a new dance partner.

2  – Steal A Base So We All Get Tacos

Please.

We’re all hungry. 

Watching postseason baseball takes a lot out of all of us. Writing about it even more so. (I can confirm that Flagged Sports founder Matt Topolski won’t let me have a meal until the final out of the World Series.) 

So if you want to win this World Series. If you want to the fans and the universe to be on your side. You need to be the first team to steal a base, win everyone a taco, and go on toward the victory you deserve. 

1 – Not Worry About History

The Houston Astros and Washington Nationals are each entering this series with a little bit of history induced pressure on them. Houston had been to one World Series in 55 years when they reached the series in 2017. Then they won… and now they are on the verge of becoming a true blue dynasty. (The Giants of the early part of this decade being the last) That is a lot of pressure. A loss here and they are a one championship team and the questions — all of them unfair mind you — start emerging. Is that all they got? Do we need to start breaking them up? Was this their window with Verlander and Cole? Can Mike Scott still throw a split-finger fastball? 

Over in the Nationals’ clubhouse the pressure is actually born out of the joy of finally getting here. As we all know, the Expos/ Nationals have never been to the World Series. This is what the Astros felt in ‘05, the Rays in ‘08, and the Rangers in 2010 among others. Finally getting to the World Series — reaching the ultimate goal for not just yourself but the pantheon of great players in your franchise’s past — is a big weight. Add to that the fact that the city itself hasn’t hosted a World Series in 86 years and suddenly the Ghost of Clark Griffith is hanging out with you wondering if you’re going to finally get this done. 

The Astros and Nationals can’t play under the thumb of history if they want to win. They aren’t playing for “back then” or “tomorrow.” This, if I may sound like a vague cliche motivational speaker, is about today. First timers have won. (see: Blue Jays, Toronto and look across the diamond at the Astros) And young upstart teams with an eye on the bigger future have returned to win. (The 76’ Reds, the ‘98 Yankees, and the aforementioned Giants under Bruce Bochy.) History will be made in this World Series, but for either of these teams to do so the one thing they can’t be concerned about is just that: History. 

Play ball! 

Power Rankings

The baseball week that was

Who are we kidding? Though a lot has happened in this past week, we’re still catching our collective breath after Game 6 of the Americal League Championship series. The game was one of those contests that make you yell, “Hot damn I love baseball” to the kid ringing up your sandwich at the gas station. 

“This is a Gas n Gulp, sir.” 

“And that was a great game,” you retort as you step back into your car humming “Take Me Out to the Ball Game” while replaying every clip in your head like an early 90s edition of ESPN’s Baseball Tonight. (Shout out to Dave Marash.) 

So, with all that in mind, this week’s power rankings come straight from the game of the postseason thus far.

5 – Bullpen Games

Game 6 of the 2019 ALCS will not just be considered an all-time great game, it will be considered an all-time great game very much of its era. The game is not a tale of two starting pitchers going toe-to-toe. There is not a Jack Morris goes 10 innings in the 1991 World Series. There is not a Bob Gibson striking out 17 in ‘68. There is not a Madison Bumgarner, Orel Hersigher, or — you know — Gerrit Cole putting their team’s on their back and taking them over the finish line. This game was a Bullpen Game.

“What’s a Bullpen Game,” grumbled your Grandfather.

‘It’s a game that would make John McGraw roll over in his grave and kick dirt on a Statcast employee, Grandpa!” 

It is important to not become one of those stuffy, stubborn fans that stews in the ways of the past… and I’m saying that mostly to myself. I sigh at extreme defensive shifts, roll my eyes at some of the new stats designed to measure every step a player takes, and, more than anything, I often long for the days when a pitcher was allowed to finish what he started. But the game has to change. In fact, change has been part of the game’s DNA from the beginning. If not, Justin Verlander would be flinging a dirty, hard rock of a ball almost underhanded to a helmetless player holding a tree trunk for a bat who is trying to score before his off season shift at the local steel mill starts. 

Yeah, change happens. 

The Yankees and Astros trotted out 14 pitchers during the game. Chad Green and Brad Peacock got credit for a play-off game start but were gone long before the ice around Joe Buck’s emotions thawed. The fate of these two teams was handed to guys named Cessa, Urquidy, and, in the end, Osuna and Chapman. None of it — save for the closers in the final frame — was traditional. 

And it was a game of the ages. 

Game 6 of the ALCS was a reminder — perhaps even a statement — to the old guard and the dubious alike that great baseball is just that: great baseball. 

4 – Smiling in the face of failure

With the Houston faithful still stunned at what they had just witnessed in the top of the ninth, Aroldis Chapman was zipping fastballs and sliders by the first two batters. This is what he does and this is why he is there. Yet George Springer stepped into the box next and Chapman seemed to nibble a bit. Less heat, more fluff. No doubt in large part due to the rightfully earned respect that Springer garners. Chapman walked him. 

If you’ve watched baseball long enough, you can always seem to tell when something as innocuous as a two out walk is in actuality rather ominous. The energy in the crowd picked up. Chapman seemed to huff. I texted my fellow Yankee fan of a friend currently pacing his living in New York with one word: Altuve. 

It seemed predestined. 

As Chapman’s pitched ball was sent flying deep in the (I’m assuming humid) Houston night, the camera cut to the face of Aroldis Chapman. He hadn’t moved since Altuve connected. On his face a smile, slightly amused, slightly aloof, but definitely conveying a sense of disbelief. It was a smile that said “did that really just happen?” while also saying what are you going to do. From the moment it happened, Chapman’s smile has been debated, mocked, scorned, memed, GIF’d, , become the topic of many o’conversations, and compared to the Joker’s smile.

Have at it. Seriously. Debate away. But Aroldis Chapman’s will be a part of this game’s legacy and with it a valuable lesson. Life is hard. It won’t always go your way. And when it does sometimes all you can do is smile in the face of failure. 

3 – Brantley. Michael Brantley

Gio Urshela was all set to get the headlines for his glove work in game 6.

Then Aaron Hicks looped a fly ball to shallow left field in the top of the 7th inning. Michael Brantley came running in and dove into the eternal highlight reel. Brantley’s great catch, followed by a rocket throw to first to double up a stunned Aaron Judge, will be played over and over and over. And it’s well-deserved. 

Michael Brantley is long removed from his 2014 breakout season and his rising star was certainly tripped up by injuries. His off-season signing by Houston went under the radar in the Winter of Machado and Harper as did his 90 RBI, .311 average, and all-star appearance during the season. All of this adds up to a tug of the heart redemption story, but even that was taking a back seat in the playoffs. 

Now with the double play heard ‘round the world the spotlight of history will always shed a little light on a player who fought so hard to get back on top of the hill. 

2 – 2 years, $24 million

It’s hard to recall a baseball game that had two historic home runs from opposing teams in the same inning. And not just any inning, but the ninth and final inning. Yet game 6 gave us just that and we would be remiss if we didn’t give The Machine, DJ LeMahieu, a little piece of the power rankings this week. 

One out, one on, and the player that seemed to hold the team together all season long through 30 injuries, pitching woes, and more took a swing that potentially turned the series around. 

LeMahieu’s two-run home run off Roberto Osuna was just as it should be. It wasn’t a titanic blast into the upper deck that immediately shut up the crowd and was followed by an ostentatious bat flip that would break all of the game’s unwritten rules about joy. No. No. Quite the opposite. LeMahieu’s home run was an opposite field, workman-like fly ball that got out of the park by hard work and determination just over the outstretched glove of George Springer. 

That is DJ LeMahieu in a nutshell. 

While the baseball world waited and waited for the Yankees to sign one of the big name free agents in the offseason, Cashman and Co. nabbed themselves a gamer with a two year, $24 million contract that seemed like the equivalent of leaving some change in a tip chair compared to what many felt was coming for the big name targets. Surely this was a neat little signing of a back-up to Manny Machado or insurance should Bryce Harper need someone to talk to on the bench. However, as we all now know, those signings never happened and the baseball fans pointed at Brian Cashman and Co and laughed. 

But LeMahieu was a batting champion as recently as 2016. (Though that stat isn’t a sexy as the other stats getting invited to all the cool parties these days, that title — batting champion — still means something.) He scored runs and was a Gold Glover wherever you put him. He might not have been on the cover of a video game, but he is the type of baseball player that you want on your team. For the first time in a long time, the New York Yankees played it smart. The reward was priceless. 

LeMahieu absolutely outplayed any previous projections and expectations. Is this a one off career year at 30, or has he become a franchise guy? The answer will probably land somewhere right in the comfortable middle, but one thing is for certain, in a line-up full of Bronx Bombers, Savage Beasts, and Crackling Krakens, the one player everyone wants at the plate when it’s all on the line is the guy that hits, plays, and wins like a machine. 

1 – MVP! MVP!

“Size matters not. Look at me. Judge me by my size, do you?” – Yoda, unknown lifetime batting average. 

There might come a day when Jose Altuve, a former American League MVP and now a ALCS MVP, is talked about without his size being mentioned. One day the only numbers we’ll talk about are the stats that will propel him into the Hall of Fame (baring injuries and me cursing me right now by mentioning it) and not the numbers listed next to the word ‘height.’ But this is not that day.

5 feet, 6 inches. 

Yet today he is a giant. He is a slayer of the mighty dragon called the Yankees. He is a hero standing taller than anyone else. 

That Jose Altuve would strike the fatal blow to the Yankees and send his team back into the World Series is not really a surprise to anyone paying attention and that’s what makes him even that much more impressive. Though the Astros line-ups over the last few seasons have been splendidly stacked, Altuve is the one everyone seems to look to. That’s not just pressure, it’s massive amounts of heavy expectations. It’s like the co-worker who always has a funny zinger at the morning meeting. Can he do it again? Yes! Yes, he can! (Also, stop making jokes at meetings. Let’s just get them over with, Bob from Accounting.) 

Jose Altuve became a Major League All-Star at 22, a batting champion at 24, an MVP at 27, and now, at 29 and still only 5’6”, a legend. 

It was the most just end to this historic game. The player that is the heart of the franchise put them on his back after a heartbreaking top of the ninth and said, “Let’s take it back.” 

And he did. 

This week in baseball history…

On October 25th, 1986, perhaps the most well-known Game 6 of any postseason series took place at Shea Stadium between the Boston Red Sox and New York Mets. Dramatic home runs,  big comebacks, and one little roller that changed the destinies of many players in dramatically different directions. Even after all these years, Vin Scully’s words never fade away. 

“Little roller up along first. Behind the bag. It gets through Buckner! Here comes Knight and the Mets win it.”

Much has been said about the play itself. The narrative of Buckner’s Error has long changed from the gaffe that cost a championship to a series of unfortunate decisions and plays that left an ailing Bill Buckner on the field and in a position he should not have been in. The idea of “Forgiving Buckner” was always a bit extreme, but at the same time needed for often extreme sports fans. An entire career was boiled down to one bad moment and that was beyond unfair. Buckner passed away this year and if you haven’t ever taken the chance to look beyond that moment, do so. 

Beyond the unbelievable ending, though, lay the heart of the game’s legacy. It isn’t about one error, it’s about the cavalcade of emotions found in every great baseball game. In this season’s memorable game 6 we were treated to a marvelous feast of emotions from the Yankees and Astros in the ninth inning alone. Resignation, hope, determination, fear, excitement, and, finally, unbridled joy. Just as it was in 1986.

The Mets and Red Sox didn’t just trade runs, they traded those emotions all through the game. If you re-watch the game, which you can do via the MLB vault online, you will find several little dramas and three act plays on display.

The stories are etched into the faces of the players and coaches. There is Ray Knight stewing on the bench because of an error he made, unaware that his little two strike dinker of a single two innings later would lead to history. Across the field is Red Sox skipper John McNamara grimacing with each tiny disaster playing out before him as he wonders if his decisions to pull Clemens, keep in Schiraldi, and, finally, not put in Dave Stapleton at first base were the right things to do.

Every swing Mookie Wilson took was a hack at the demons of failure and fear, while each pitch Bob Stanley threw seemed to come with the energy of someone not waking up from a nightmare.

There is Gary Carter’s two out, two strike single bringing an odd sense of hope that turned into a belief when then rookie Kevin “World” Mitchell slapped a single to center after having just put his uniform back on while booking his flight out of New York in the clubhouse. And, finally, there are the smiles of the giddy Red Sox players vanishing into the night as the grim realization that a victory that was so close was now part of someone else’s fairy tale. It’s all there in one game, ten innings of human drama. 

A great baseball game makes you feel alive and this week in baseball history Game 6 of the 1986 World Series was bursting at the seams with life. 

“If one picture is worth a thousand words, you have seen about a million words, but more than that, you have seen an absolutely bizarre finish to Game 6 of the 1986 World Series.” – Vin Scully


Walk Off Quote

“You don’t just accidentally show up in the World Series.” – Derek Jeter, high ranking baseball executive

***

Ken Napzok once got the green light to steal but stopped half to the second to make sure of it, but is the author of Why We Love Star Wars and host of The Napzok Files podcast feed. 

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