HOUSTON — There is no way to spin this other than to point out the obvious: The Houston Astros are in deep quicksand. The Washington Nationals went into Houston, beat Gerrit Cole and Justin Verlander and became the first team to win the first two games of the World Series on the road since the 1999 Yankees.
That paints a bleak picture for the Astros, even a 107-win Astros team, even a 107-win Astros team that remains supremely confident that it can win four of the next five games. History suggests something even more bleak than a two-game losing streak might suggest, however. The past 11 teams to win the first two games of the World Series — regardless of where the games were played — went on to win it all. Seventeen of the past 18 to win the first two games went on to win it all.
A championship, however, can still be achieved for the Astros, even if the last team to lose the first two games and win the World Series — the 1996 Yankees — did it before Juan Soto was born. The 1986 Mets lost the first two at home and beat the Red Sox in seven games. The 1985 Royals did the same against the Cardinals. So maybe the Astros can still pull this off, maybe they can channel their inner Mookie Wilson and find a way. With that in mind, here are three reasons why the Astros can still win the World Series … and three reasons they won’t.
Reason the Astros will win: They believe they will
The Astros are supremely confident. Did you see Alex Bregman‘s home run trot in the first inning after his long blast off Stephen Strasburg? This is not a team that is shy about letting opponents know how good they are. They remained upbeat after their Game 2 loss — as upbeat as you can be after a game that was 2-2 in the seventh inning turned into a 12-3 disaster, at least.
“We lost two games before during the regular season. Everyone in here knows how to bounce back,” Bregman said. “Lot of baseball left in this series. We’re going to go to Washington with our heads held high. Ready to go and get after it. We’ve lost two games before. I remember when we lost three in New York and next thing you know we’re in the World Series in ’17. We’ve been here before.”
Carlos Correa put it this way: “Not a lot of teams win 107 games a year so this is a special team. This is not just some random team, so if there’s a team out there that can do it, it’s us.”
True, no team with at least 107 wins has reached the World Series and lost since the 109-win 1969 Orioles lost to the Miracle Mets. Of course, this a small sample size. The only teams with that many wins to make it to the World Series and win are the 2018 Red Sox (108), the 1998 Yankees (114), the 1986 Mets (108), the 1975 Reds (108) and the 1970 Orioles (108).
Still, if as Yogi Berra said, “Baseball is 90 percent mental and the other half is physical,” the Astros are at least in a good frame of mind.
“We don’t want to be in this situation, but the chemistry of the team, the confidence between us is still right there and that’s the most important thing right now,” Jose Altuve said.
Reason the Astros will lose: The Nationals are really good … and really hot
We all know about that 19-31 start by the Nationals. If you throw that out the window, then they’ve gone 84-40 — a .677 winning percentage that translates to a 110-win pace over 162 games. Go back to the end of the regular season and they’ve won 18 of their past 20 games, including a record-tying eight in a row now in the postseason.
“When everyone goes back to 19-31, they were saying we need to fire Davey [Martinez] or trade so and so, we need to clean house or clean the front office out whatever it might be,” Anthony Rendon said after Game 2. “We kind of got our attitude and said, ‘Screw everybody, we’re not worried about what’s going on outside our clubhouse.'”
Also, you can argue they have the starting pitcher edge over the Astros the next two games. Game 3 lines up as Zack Greinke versus Anibal Sanchez. Greinke hasn’t been particularly great this postseason, giving up 10 runs in 14 innings over three starts. He gave up five home runs over his first two outings, and while he escaped with only one run in 4⅓ innings against the Yankees, he also walked four batters. Sanchez will have a two-week layoff since taking a no-hitter into the eighth inning in Game 1 of the National League Championship Series against the Cardinals.
Since Martinez didn’t have to use Patrick Corbin in Game 2, Corbin should line up to face Houston’s bullpen game for Game 4. That’s not necessarily the worst thing for the Astros as they have a deep bullpen and Jose Urquidy looked very good against the Yankees in Game 6 of the ALCS. Still, Corbin went 14-7 with a 3.25 ERA in the regular season. He’s one of the best lefties in the game. You’ll take that over a rookie with 45⅓ career innings in the big leagues.
Reason the Astros will win: They’ve hit into some bad luck (and the Nationals into good luck)
Batting totals through the first two games of the World Series:
OK. Here’s the average exit velocity:
Nationals: 88.1 mph
Astros: 88.6 mph
And here are the number of hard outs (balls hit over 95 mph with a launch angle between 3 and 45 degrees):
In the Nationals’ six-run seventh inning in Game 2, they had run-scoring hits of 83.5 mph, 75.7 mph and a swinging bunt of 62.8 mph. Good luck. Bad luck.
Reason the Astros will lose: The Nationals can hit
Verlander came away impressed after taking the loss in Game 2. “I guess I hadn’t really paid that much attention because they’re in the National League, but you start looking at their lineup and kind of prepping for them and I think they’re way better than what people give them credit for,” he said. “Obviously those guys in the middle get a lot of headlines, but the rest of that lineup, they can hit. And they work you. They have good approaches, they change their approach. They adjust throughout the middle of the game, at-bat to at-bat. It’s a grind.”
In the regular season, Verlander struck out 55% of the batters he faced after getting to two strikes. Cole struck out 60% after getting to two strikes. In their World Series starts, the two aces have struck out only 12 of 33 batters after getting to two strikes — 36%.
“Strikeouts are not OK,” Martinez said after Game 2. “You’re just going to walk back to the dugout. I believe in putting the ball in play and things are going to happen when you put the ball in play, regardless of whether you get a hit or not.”
The Astros had the lowest strikeout rate in the majors in the regular season, but the Nationals have had the best two-strike results in the playoffs so far and grinding those at-bats has led to some extra balls in play and some soft hits. They don’t always fall in, but they might if you put the ball in play.
Reason the Astros will win: Cole and Verlander
At the minimum, the Astros just have to win one of the next two games before getting back to Cole in Game 5 and Verlander in Game 6. If Houston takes the first two in D.C., maybe the two aces wrap it up with dominant performances. Nothing crazy in that idea.
Reason the Astros will lose: Max Scherzer and Strasburg
This is why it was strange that the Astros were such heavy favorites. These guys are good! They’re not exactly Ryan Drese and Mike O’Connor. If the Astros drop one of the next two, then they’ll have to beat Scherzer … then they’ll have to beat Strasburg … then they’ll have to win Game 7. Or, as Hinch put it, the Nationals “are halfway to a race to four wins.” It almost feels as if the Astros are still at the starting blocks and have to chase down Usain Bolt. Good luck — no matter how many games you won in the regular season.