By Cliff Corcoran
The Houston Astros are headed to the World Series having defeated the New York Yankees, 4-0, in Game 7 of the American League Championship series Saturday night. The Astros are now the first team since the creation of the American League to represent both leagues in the World Series (they won the National League pennant in 2005 before switching leagues in 2013). However, this is also just the second World Series appearance in team history, and the first for most of the players on their postseason roster (veterans Justin Verlander and Carlos Beltran are the exceptions). With that in mind, here are four lessons the Astros can take from their playoff experience thus far as the attempt to defeat the Dodgers to win the first championship in franchise history.
1. There's no place like home
Thus far this postseason, Houston is a perfect 6-0 at Minute Maid Park. They have held their opponents, the Red Sox and Yankees, the latter of which had the second most potent offense in the Majors this year (after the Astros themselves) to a total of just seven runs in those six games, or 1.17 runs per game. The fact that Justin Verlander and Dallas Keuchel started five of those seven games surely played a large role in that, but in the only road start made by either thus far, the Yanks scored four runs in 4 1/3 innings against Keuchel and handed him the loss.
With home-field advantage in the World Series determined by regular season record for the first time, the 104-win Dodgers will get Games 1 and 2 at home against the 101-win Astros in the first World Series matchup of 100-win teams since 1970. With Keuchel and Verlander lined up to start the first two games, as they did in the American League Championship Series, that means that only one of the Astros possible three home games will likely be started by one of their aces in the Series, that being Game 5 (if they get there) with Keuchel on the mound. Will the Astros' be able to continue their home field dominance with Charlie Morton and Lance McCullers in Games 3 and 4? Game 7 of the ALCS was a strong indication they can. However …
2. The starters are Houston's most reliable relievers
Closer Ken Giles and multi-inning set-up man Chris Devenski were outstanding during the regular season, but thus far in the postseason, Giles has allowed runs in four of his five appearances, posting a 7.50 ERA and blowing Game 4 against the Yankees, while Devenski has faced just 16 batters, and retired just nine of them, and is sporting a 12.00 ERA.
Astros manager A.J. Hinch avoided them both in Game 7 against the Yankees, opting instead for Game 4 starter McCullers on short rest. McCullers delivered with four dominant scoreless innings, just as repurposed starter Collin McHugh did in garbage time in Game 3. In the decisive game against the Red Sox in the Division Series, the first man out of Hinch's bullpen was Verlander. In total, Astros pitchers who made no regular season relief appearances (McCullers, McHugh and Verlander) have combined for a 1.98 ERA and 0.80 WHIP in 13 2/3 relief innings this postseason, while the experienced relievers have combined for a 7.08 ERA and 1.67 WHIP in 20 1/3 relief innings.
It's difficult to envision the Astros winning another seven-game series while getting so little from their bullpen proper. Fortunately …
3. Verlander is the ace
No disrespect to Keuchel, who will likely start Game 1 of the World Series, won the 2015 AL Cy Young award and boasts a 1.78 ERA in five career postseason starts. Despite all that, Verlander is the pitcher most likely to carry this team to its first championship.
In three starts and one extended relief appearance this postseason, Verlander has posted a 1.46 ERA and 0.93 WHIP, picking up the win each time out and allowing as many runs in 24 2/3 innings (four) as Keuchel allowed in those 4 1/3 innings at Yankee Stadium. That's no Minute Maid-assisted fluke. In his past 11 postseason starts, dating back to the start of the 2012 postseason, Verlander has a 1.61 ERA and 0.79 WHIP. He has completed eight or more innings five times, including a Game 5 shutout of the A's in the decisive game of the 2012 Division Series and his one-run, 13-strikeout complete game against the Yankees in the just-completed ALCS. Meanwhile, in nine appearances since joining the Astros and refining his game with the help of their analytics and video departments, Verlander has gone 9-0 with a 1.23 ERA, 0.77 WHIP, 10.3 K/9 and a 6.09 strikeout-to-walk ratio. Verlander is a pitcher who feasts on big game situations, and despite being 34 years old with a ton of mileage on his arm, he is pitching as well as he ever has.
The only fly in the ointment is Verlander's track record in the World Series. He's 0-3 with a 7.20 ERA in the Fall Classic. However, two of those starts came when he was a 23-year-old rookie in 2006, and the most recent was Game 1 of the 2012 World Series, which saw the Giants sweep the Tigers. Verlander is surely relishing the opportunity to correct that part of his record and capture that elusive championship. He'll get his chance in his first two career starts at Dodgers Stadium, likely in Game 2 and, if necessary, Game 6. Verlander has faced the Dodgers just twice in his career, but the most recent of those came on Aug. 20 of this year, before the trade to Houston. He held LA to one run, two hits and a walk, while striking out nine in eight innings.
4. Altuve and Correa drive the offense
That's no surprise. Altuve will probably finish first or second in this year's AL MVP Award voting, and Correa is a good bet to win one of those in the future. They are Houston's two best hitters and hit third and fourth in the lineup. Still, consider their performances in the team's four ALCS wins compared to their three ALCS loses:
Wins: .500/.531/.867, 3 HR, 7 RBI, 8 R, 32 PA
Losses: .091/.200/.136, 0 RBI, 1 R, 24 PA
The good news for the Astros is that Altuve is hitting .400/.500/.775 on the postseason as a whole, with five home runs in 11 games, while Correa, since shaking off an 0-for-4 in Game 1 of the Division Series, has hit .325/.372/.650 with three homers and nine RBIs in 10 games. Altuve is also 6-for-15 (.400) with four doubles in his career against Dodgers ace Clayton Kershaw and is a better hitter now than when he compiled those numbers. Still, the Astros could use more from the rest of their lineup, which combined to hit .142/.231/.310 with one home run (Evan Gattis's admittedly huge solo shot in Game 7) in 182 plate appearances in the ALCS. Having not faced L.A. since 2015, the Astros haven't had much exposure to the Dodgers' pitchers, but one matchup to watch is leadoff man George Springer against former Rangers starter Yu Darvish. Springer is 6-for-18 (.333) with two homers against Darvish. Both home runs came on the third pitch of a game.
Cliff Corcoran is a Sports on Earth contributor and a regular guest analyst on MLB Network. An editor or contributor to 13 books about baseball, including seven Baseball Prospectus annuals, he spent the last 10 seasons covering baseball for SI.com and has also written for USA Today and SB Nation, among others.