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There’s No Stopping Houston’s Hitters

Sports Illustrated
Sports Illustrated
 2021-10-23

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The only concern for the Astros was whether their pitching would hold up. Their bullpen was overworked, Lance McCullers Jr. was out for the series and the Red Sox’ offense was scoring runs at a historic pace .

Then, Boston’s bats went cold. Over the final three games of the series, the Red Sox scored three runs and hit .111. That, after scoring 25 runs and posting a .296 average across Games 1-3.

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Astros celebrate after winning the ALCS.

Thomas Shea/USA TODAY Sports

Houston’s pitchers, with the help of astute observations from manager Dusty Baker, pitching coach Brent Strom and catcher Martín Maldonado, deserve a lot of the praise for the Astros’ flipping the series. Likewise, Boston’s complete offensive cratering warrants criticism. But let’s not overlook the importance of the Houston hitters , an impressively oppressive group that wore down the Red Sox and improved as the series progressed.

The Astros really had only one bad game at the plate, in Game 3, which I summed up as the “ Beatdown in Beantown ” in the next day’s newsletter. In the 12–3 loss, Houston had just five hits and plated all three of its runs on a Kyle Tucker fourth-inning home run, after Boston already had scored nine times.

Otherwise, though, the Astros were fine on offense. They scored five runs in both their Game 1 win and their Game 2 loss —not a ton of runs, but also enough to win if the pitching holds up—and hit .284 over those two games. Then, after Eduardo Rodríguez silenced them in Game 3, they scored nine runs in both Game 4 and 5, and then five more in last night’s clincher . (Five was more than enough in Game 6, considering Boston had two hits and didn’t score.) Across the final three games of the series, Houston scored 23 times and batted .303.

The ALCS was the coming out party for Yordan Alvarez, the Astros’ designated hitter and left fielder. His status as a fearsome hitter already had been established; two years ago, the last time Houston went to the World Series, Alvarez won the Rookie of the Year. But after he had surgery on both knees and was limited to just two games last season, he became a bit overshadowed by some of the other young stars in the game. This season, he proved his rookie year wasn’t a one-hit wonder. He hit .277/.346/.531 with 33 home runs, 104 RBIs and a 136 OPS+.

Now, on the October stage, Alvarez has followed up his regular season with an even better ALCS. If the chaos of the playoffs is the true test of stardom, the 24-year-old Astros slugger has made a compelling case to be considered among the game’s top 5-10 hitters. He’s that good. His numbers in the series: .522/.538/.870, three doubles, one triple, one home run, seven runs, six RBIs. His championship win probability added—meaning, how much his contributions alone increased his team’s chances of winning the World Series—was a whopping 13.41%.

What should be concerning for whichever team wins the NL pennant is that Alvarez is far from Houston’s only offensive threat. The No. 7 hitter, Yuli Gurriel, in this lineup won the batting title this year. It features two of the 10 active batting average leaders (José Altuve, No. 2; Michael Brantley, No. 10), and while batting average alone won’t win championships, the Astros also have three players who hit 30 home runs this year: Altuve, Alvarez and Kyle Tucker, who is perhaps MLB’s best relatively unknown player. Oh, and then there’s third baseman Alex Bregman, who finished second in the 2019 MVP voting but missed more than two months this year with a quad injury, and shortstop Carlos Correa, one of the smartest hitters in baseball . This lineup is so good that it can start defensive whiz Martín Maldonado behind the plate, even though he quite possibly could be the worst-hitting everyday player in MLB history. As Tom Verducci writes about Maldonado in his column from Game 6: “He is a 35-year-old catcher with a career .212 batting average over more than 2,900 plate appearances. Only three other players in history ever stuck around for that many plate appearances by hitting so poorly: Cy Young and two famously inept hitting catchers, Bill Bergen and Jeff Mathis.”

Justifiably, you’ll hear and read a lot about the Astros’ illegal sign-stealing scheme , which has tainted their 2017 World Series title, the only one in franchise history. A win this year will not be due to trash-can banging or codebreaker algorithms, but because this is one of baseball’s deepest lineups in decades. Houston’s hitters are exhausting to pitch to and exhilarating to watch.

So, can anybody stop them? It’s unlikely that either Dodgers or Braves pitchers will shut them down. The only concern for the Astros is whether their pitching will hold up.

Have any questions for our team? Send a note to mlb@si.com .

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Dusty Baker

Thomas Shea/USA TODAY Sports

1. THE OPENER

“Septuagenarians: the new market inefficiency.”

That is the incredible lede from Tom Verducci in his column on the Astros’ winning the pennant , their third in five years. This time, they have a new manager, who is actually an old manager. Dusty Baker is one of the two septuagenarians in the Houston dugout who helped turn this ALCS around.

As Tom writes: “This pennant is about moving forward, not back. It is about playing smart baseball, not duplicitous baseball. It is about Baker, Strom and Maldonado. And it is about the eternal wisdom of experience.”

Read Verducci’s entire story here .

And guess what?! Like many teams in this postseason, today’s Five-Tool Newsletter is going with TWO Openers. That’s right. Just like the Dodgers have done because Dave Roberts messed up his three remaining starters. But, in our case, this is by design.

In our Bonus Opener (still working on names for this, so please, if you have suggestions, let us know) Stephanie Apstein takes you inside the fashion trend of the postseason: Joc Pederson’s pearls!

“I want to make a nice fashion statement,” Atlanta’s right fielder texted his jeweler, Gabe Arik. “And I’m thinking about pearls.”

Read Stephanie’s entire feature here .

2. ICYMI

Need to catch up on the NLCS before tonight’s Game 6? We’ve got you covered.

Buehler to Start NLCS Game 6 in Place of Scherzer by Marcus Krum
“My arm was dead,” Scherzer said after his Game 2 start. He’s already pitched four times this postseason.

The Dodgers Are Inching Closer to Another NLCS Comeback by Stephanie Apstein
Chris Taylor's heroic Game 5 performance lifted the inconsistent Los Angeles bats. Can they continue their magic back in Atlanta?

Want to read some more Astros stories? Here you go!

How Should We Feel About the Astros? by Matt Martell
It's time to enjoy baseball's villains, even if we still aren't ready to forgive them.

Framber Valdez's Sinkers Push Boston to the Brink by Tom Verducci
In pitching so long and so well, Houston’s lefthander evoked the greatness of Bob Gibson in the 1967 World Series. This major turning back of time put the Astros up 3–2 in the ALCS.

Altuve's Mid-Game Tweak Sparks Houston's Series-Tying Rally by Tom Verducci
The Astros second baseman sparked their furious Game 4 rally with a home run that could only have happened after some help from his hitting coach.

Yordan Alvarez

Thomas Shea/USA TODAY Sports

3. WORTH NOTING from Tom Verducci

The NLCS winner must deal with a red-hot Yordan Alvarez, the massive Houston DH/left fielder who fills the batter’s box, does not give an inch and is hitting everything.

Alvarez is the game’s best left-on-left slugger because he keeps his left shoulder square an extraordinarily long time. He is a matchup nightmare. He burned Josh Taylor with a triple in Game 6 after smashing three Chris Sale fastballs for loud hits in Game 5.

Lefty? Righty? Power? Finesse? Good luck filing a scouting report on the ALCS MVP because he is hitting everything this month. The best plan for the Astros’ World Series opponent is to circle his name in a deep lineup and say, “There is no way we can challenge him in a key spot and let him beat us.”

Be prepared for Alvarez to take his walks in the World Series. Here is how tough he is on everything this month. About the only chance is throwing changeups or splits. Alvarez is 0-for-4 on those pitches, but that includes a 114-mph lineout to center field.

Alvarez in 2021 Postseason

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4. WHAT TO WATCH FOR from Emma Baccellieri

Tonight’s NLCS Game 6 could be the last game we see before the World Series. With first pitch at 8:08 p.m. ET on TBS, the Braves will try to eliminate the Dodgers, who hope to stay alive by forcing a Game 7.

The biggest story here is L.A.’s starting pitching. The team announced last night that Max Scherzer would not be able to start as planned : After getting pulled in the fifth inning of his Game 2 start last Sunday, he said that his arm was “dead,” and it apparently has not bounced back as hoped. That left a few options for the Dodgers, albeit none, obviously, that sounded as good as a healthy Scherzer. Their choices were to go with Walker Buehler on short rest, they could do a true bullpen game or they could aim for a few innings from Tony Gonsolin or David Price. The Dodgers announced this morning they had settled on the first option: Buehler on three days of rest.

That’s something that the ace tried for the first time earlier this postseason. It went well : He started Game 4 of the NLDS with similarly short rest and held the Giants to one run over 4 1/3 innings. But his start after that, Game 3 of the NLCS, was disastrous . This means that it’s hard to tell just what the Dodgers will get from him tonight—but the circumstances suggest that they would be happy with getting five solid innings or so before turning to the bullpen. (Which, it’s worth pointing out, is now without Joe Kelly, who was replaced by Price, and potentially without Justin Bruihl, who is not at full strength but has not yet been taken off the roster.)

The bottom line here? This is a prime opportunity for the Braves to strike and close out the series.

5. THE CLOSER from Emma Baccellieri

Yes, Yordan Alvarez has been incredible at the plate all October. But he was in another category on Friday. The 24-year-old didn’t just go for 4-for-4: He went 4-for-4 with a single, two doubles and a triple and hit three of those balls with an exit velocity of more than 100 mph. He looked dangerous enough that when the game was close, it was worth wondering why the Red Sox were content to pitch to him at all, and it’s a gift that we all get to keep watching him in the World Series.

That's all from us today. Quick programming note before you go: If the Braves close it out tonight, tomorrow will be just the second day without baseball since the playoffs started, and we'll take a quick breather because of it. In that case, we'll be back in your inbox Monday to start previewing the World Series. If the Dodgers win tonight, we'll be back here tomorrow as usual.

Either way, please share this newsletter with your friends and family, and tell them to sign up at SI.com/newsletters . If you have any questions or comments, shoot us an email at mlb@si.com .

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