Ness Notes: Fall Classic No. 117

by Larry Ness

The 2021 World Series is the 117th edition of Major League Baseball's championship series. It features the National League champion Atlanta Braves and the American League champion Houston Astros. The series begins on October 26, with a potential seventh game scheduled for November 3. It's come "a long way, baby!" The very first World Series was played in 1903, when Honus Wagner and the Pittsburgh Pirates met Cy Young and the Boston Americans. The first game of that series was played on Oct 1 at the Huntington Avenue Ball Field in Boston where Northeastern University now stands, almost one month earlier than this year's "Fall Classic" will play its Game 1. Pittsburgh won the first game 7-3 but Boston won the best-of-nine series, 5-3, with Young winning Games 5 and 7. A note to Boston fans; the team changed its name to the Red Sox in 1908. There was no Fall Classic in 1904 due to bitterness between the AL and NL but it returned by 1905 and has been played every year since except for 1994 (player strike). Now there's a thought. MLB played the World Series all through World War II but the ONLY two times it was NOT played (1904 and 1994) was due to 'battles' between owners vs owners or owners vs players. The more things change, the more they stay the same.

The LA Dodgers, the defending champs with MLB's highest payroll (about $260 million) and the NY Yankees (2nd-largest payroll of about $203 million) are NOT here. The Braves began the 2021 season having won three straight NL East titles and in 2020, led the Dodgers 3-1 in the NLCS, only to lose the next three games. As for the Astros, they had won 101, 103 and 107 games from 2017-19 but then went just 29-31 in 2020. However, under an expanded postseason, the Astros 'snuck in' and then made it all the way to Game 7 of the ALCS, before falling to the Rays. The Astros rebounded to win the AL West with a 95-67 record in 2021 and have now made the World Series for the THIRD time in the last five seasons (note: Houston has made five straight appearances in the ALCS!). Picking Atlanta to meet Houston before the season started would not have been far-fetched but it was a highly unlikely scenario at the trade deadline back on July 30. Atlanta's superstar outfielder Ronald Acuna Jr. had been lost for the season with a torn AC in mid-July and the Braves didn't have a winning record until their 111th game of 2021 (56-55) and that represents the deepest into a season any World Series team has gone before getting above .500. Atlanta finished with 88 wins, which was the fewest of the 10 playoff teams in 2021. Yes, the Braves didn't have a winning record until Aug 6 but since then (including the playoffs), they've gone 40-21.

Of course, the Astros storyline is obvious. Can a villain atone for its previous sins? It will probably take a long time before the Astros are viewed as anything but the sport's outlaws but the Astros can pride themselves on improving the team's recent resume. I note above that the Astros made their FIFTH straight appearance in the championship series and I'll add here that they are just the THIRD franchise to do that. Again, Houston now plays in the World Series for the THIRD time in five seasons. With a second championship in this run, this time without an asterisk, Houston will cement an impressive legacy. I noted that the Braves had to play without Acuna since the All Star break but Atlanta also was without Mike Soroka (13-4, 2.68 ERA in 2019), who hasn't pitched since early 2020 because of Achilles surgery. Houston can feel Atlanta's pain, as the Astros made it back to the World Series despite ace Justin Verlander missing the season while recovering from Tommy John surgery. You may have heard of Justin, or at least his wife! Houston earned its way into the World Series thanks to an offense that has scored 67 runs in 10 playoff games, with SIX of its seven wins coming by at least five runs. Forty-five of those 67 runs have come with two outs, a testament to a lineup that had the lowest strikeout rate in the majors in the regular season.

There's also a pretty good storyline working for BOTH managers. The 72-year-old Dusty Baker was hired by Houston prior to the 2020 season to bring stability to a team rocked by its cheating scandal. As noted above, despite a 29-31 record in the abbreviated regular season, Baker managed his team to Game 7 of the ALCS. Now, he is back in the World Series for the first time since his 2002 Giants lost to the Angels in seven games. It's the longest span between World Series appearances since Bucky Harris was the player-manager for the Washington Senators in 1925 and then the manager for the Yankees in 1947. Baker is 12th in regular-season wins but all 11 managers ahead of him have all won a World Series and all except Bruce Bochy are in the Hall of Fame. Baker's managerial career has been filled with heartbreaking losses, mostly notably his Game 6 defeats with the Giants in that 2002 World Series and the Cubs in the 2003 NLCS (can you say Steve Bartman?). Is this finally Dusty's year?

The 66-year-old Atlanta manager Brian Snitker is a 'baseball-lifer." He has been a member of the Braves organization since 1977. As a player, he reached Triple-A for two games. He began managing in the minors in 1982 and had been a loyal organization member for 40 years when the Braves first named him interim manager in 2016. They kept him in the job after he went just 72-90 in his first full season in 2017 but he has since managed the club to FOUR straight NL East titles. An interesting aside is that Snitker's son Troy, is an assistant hitting coach for the Astros. Snitker is well aware that all Braves fans are tied to Atlanta's impressive yet unfulfilling past. From 1991 to 2005, the Braves were one of the most successful teams in baseball, winning an unprecedented 14 consecutive division titles (omitting the strike-shortened 1994 season in which there were no official division champions). That team produced one of the greatest pitching rotations in the history of baseball. Most notably, this rotation consisted of pitchers Greg Maddux, John Smoltz, and Tom Glavine. Pitcher Steve Avery also was a significant contributor to the rotation during the period of 1991–1993. The Braves won the National League West division from 1991 to 1993, and after divisional realignment, the National League East division from 1995 to 2005 (omitting the 1994 strike season). However, the Braves advanced to the World Series just FIVE times in that span (1991, 1992, 1995, 1996, and 1999), winning just ONE title (in 1995 against the Cleveland Indians).

Ironically, the Braves again own a distinct advantage in this series when it comes to starting pitching, as Morton (Game 1 starter), Max Fried (Game 2 starter) and Ian Anderson (Game 3 starter) are all in good form. In contrast, Lance McCullers Jr. is likely to miss the World Series after not pitching since leaving Game 4 of the ALDS with forearm discomfort. That leaves Houston with Framber Valdez in Game 1, Luis Garcia in Game 2 and Jose Urquidy. in Game 3.  Then again, heading into the World Series, relievers have thrown 54% of postseason innings. For the Astros, it's been 57%, and for the Braves, 49%. Houston is the slight favorite to win both the series (William Hill has the odds at Houston -145) and Game 1 (William Hill has Houston -130).

Will the Series extend into November? That's the fun part, not knowing. Enjoy, one way or the other.

Good luck...Larry 

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