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World Series viewers guide — Can Nationals stop Astros?

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It is a sporting event so wonderful it requires two names: The World Series. The Fall Classic.

The Houston Astros got here in dramatic fashion on Jose Altuve‘s walk-off home run to knock out the Yankees in the American League Championship Series. The Washington Nationals have had some high drama of their own, with late rallies in the wild-card game against the Brewers and in Game 5 of the division series against the Dodgers, before they crushed the Cardinals in a four-game sweep in the NLCS.

If we’re lucky, we’ll get seven games of thrills over nine days, seven games of heroes and tragedy and breathtaking moments. One thing is for sure: We have the potential for some epic pitching performances. In the year of the home run, at a time when relievers pitch more innings than ever, starting pitching will be at the forefront of this World Series. Consider the following nuggets from ESPN Stats & Information:

— For the first time in World Series history, five of the top 10 pitchers in strikeouts in the regular season are in the World Series. Gerrit Cole (326) and Justin Verlander (300) ranked 1-2, and Stephen Strasburg (251), Max Scherzer (243) and Patrick Corbin (238) were also in the top 10.

— For the first time since 1945, six of the top 20 pitchers in ERA are in the World Series. Cole, Verlander, Scherzer, Zack Greinke, Corbin and Strasburg all ranked in the top 16.

— Astros starters struck out 28.9% of the batters they faced in the regular season, the highest rate in MLB history. (Cole had the highest rate ever by a starting pitcher, at 39.9%.) Nationals starters have struck out 36.1% of the batters they’ve faced in the postseason.

— The starters on these two teams have held their opponents to a combined batting average of .183 in the postseason.

— The Nationals’ big three of Scherzer, Strasburg and Corbin earned $77.8 million this season, the highest total in baseball for a team’s top three starters. The Astros’ big three of Verlander, Cole and Greinke earned $73 million, the second-highest total. Yes, scoring has been down in the postseason. Maybe it’s because the ball hasn’t been flying like it did in the regular season. But maybe these pitchers are part of the reason as well. If you detest nine-man playoff bullpens and quick hooks after two times through the order — don’t even mention bullpen games — this World Series is a potential love letter to another style of October baseball in which starting pitchers rule the headlines.

Here’s the rest of our viewers’ guide to the 2019 World Series:

What the Astros have on the line: With three consecutive 100-win seasons, including 107 victories this season, the Astros will secure a legacy as one of the greatest teams of all time with a second World Series title in three years. If they don’t win, they will — at least for the time being — be grouped alongside other historically dominant teams, such as the 1969-71 Orioles or 1990s Braves, who would get credit as being among the best ever if they had won more than one World Series.

What the Nationals have on the line: The Nationals have a chance to bring the nation’s capital its first World Series title since Walter Johnson led the Senators to the 1924 championship. Since their first playoff appearance in 2012, the Nationals have been one of the most star-laden franchises in the sport, but they had failed to win a playoff series until this season. They got over that hump, and with a title, they would avoid the fate of star-driven teams such as the 1960s Giants, 1990s Indians, 1990s Mariners and the current-era Dodgers: great teams that fell short in the postseason.

The favorites: The Astros — in a big way, at least according to the oddsmakers in Las Vegas. Caesars Sportsbook installed the Astros as -235 favorites on Sunday, making them the largest favorites since the Red Sox were -240 to beat the Rockies in 2007. Those odds are a little surprising, given the strength of the Nationals’ rotation and how well the Nationals have played since an awful 19-31 start dropped their World Series odds to 50-1 in late May.

The Astros, however, are more than the dominant 1-2 punch of Cole and Verlander. They have one of the best offenses of all time. According to the metric weighted runs created plus (wRC+), which adjusts for park and era, the 2019 Astros had the second-best offense ever, behind only that of the famed ’27 Yankees of Babe Ruth and Lou Gehrig. With all that in mind, perhaps it’s worth noting: The Red Sox swept the Rockies in 2007.

What everyone is talking about: Obviously, the starting pitchers — big names, big stars, guys who had dominant seasons. It’s probably the best and most famous group of starting pitchers in a World Series since the 2001 matchup between the Yankees and Diamondbacks that featured Roger Clemens, Randy Johnson, Curt Schilling, Mike Mussina and Andy Pettitte. That’s two Hall of Famers in Johnson and Mussina, two guys who might get there in Schilling and Pettitte, and one guy who might be the greatest pitcher of all time.

This year’s group includes three potential or likely Hall of Famers in Verlander, Greinke and Scherzer, one guy who was arguably the best starter in the game this season (and has won 19 consecutive decisions) in Cole, two former No. 1 overall picks in Cole and Strasburg (Verlander was second overall), a guy who could end up winning 200 games in Strasburg, a guy who has been one of the best starters in the game the past two seasons in Corbin and a former ERA champ in Anibal Sanchez, who nearly pitched a no-hitter in the NLCS.

What else everyone is talking about: The ball. After a record-setting season of home runs, the ball seems to be a little different in the postseason. Rob Arthur’s analysis at Baseball Prospectus indicated that there has been more drag on the ball, so balls with exit velocities and launch angles similar to what was seen in the regular season aren’t flying as far. But then the ball might have changed back to the regular-season ball. Or it didn’t. Did we mention that there are some very excellent starting pitchers in this postseason? For what it’s worth, in the regular season, there was a home run every 24.59 at-bats. In the postseason, there has been one every 27.36 at-bats. Runs per game are down from 4.83 to 3.92, and though scoring usually goes down in the postseason, that’s a larger than normal drop. Keep close tabs on fly balls hit to the warning track.

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Jose Altuve grazed by pitch, Astros booed in first away game of spring

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LAKELAND, Fla. — Jose Altuve insisted he tuned out the hecklers. He couldn’t avoid a pitch that grazed him.

“He was hit in the foot. That ain’t nothing, you know what I mean?” Houston Astros manager Dusty Baker said Monday after an 11-1 win over the Detroit Tigers at half-empty Joker Marchant Stadium. “It wasn’t intentional.”

Altuve was loudly booed when he was introduced for his spring training debut, cheered when he struck out and called a cheater by several fans. Quite a difference from past years, when the diminutive All-Star second baseman was among the most popular players in the majors.

But that was before Altuve and his Houston teammates were implicated in the sign-stealing scandal that has rocked baseball.

“We just heard a lot of noise, and that’s it,” Altuve said.

Altuve and fellow starters Alex Bregman, Carlos Correa and Yuli Gurriel all played for the first time in the exhibition season. After Houston opened the Grapefruit League in the stadium it shares with the World Series champion Washington Nationals, this was the first time the Astros were away from their complex — providing a taste of the reaction they might receive on the road this year.

“We were focused on playing baseball. We know that we need to go on the field and get ready and prepared for the coming season,” Altuve said. “That’s what we’re thinking about right now.”

Actually, the reception during the visit to Tigertown USA was fairly tame compared to what it figures to be during the regular season.

“What reaction?” Correa said.

Early arrivals in the announced crowd of 4,891 were discouraged by ushers from gathering near the Astros dugout unless they had box seats along the third-base line.

Hecklers aired their voices after batting practice, booing during lineup introductions and each time Altuve, Bregman, Correa and Gurriel stepped to the plate. Altuve got some cheers, too, when he was charged with an error for dropping a throw by Bregman from third base on a force play.

The quartet was treated to one more round of boos when they left the game and made the long walk up the first-base line to the visiting clubhouse.

“There’s frustration in the fan base and they have a right to voice their opinion. … The Astros are going to have to wear it for a while, and eventually it’ll move on. But fans are going to voice their opinions and they have a right to,” Tigers manager Ron Gardenhire said. “Those guys understand it over there, and they’re going about their business of getting ready for the season.”

Altuve took a called third strike to a round of cheers in his first at-bat, then lined a crowd-quieting RBI double into the left-field corner his next time up.

Altuve showed no signs of being upset when he was grazed with a pitch by Tigers reliever Nick Ramirez after the batter before him, Myles Straw, homered in the fifth inning. The 2017 AL MVP was replaced by a pinch runner.

Baker planned to play Altuve, Bregman, Correa and Gurriel no more than five innings in Houston’s first true road exhibition since a Major League Baseball investigation found the Astros broke rules by illegally stealing signs during their championship season in 2017.

While most of the team made the three-hour trip from West Palm Beach by bus early Monday, Baker said the team’s starting infield traveled the previous day and spent the night in Orlando. Established players rarely make such long road trips in spring training camp.

“That made it easier for them to show up here, and it makes it easier for me to say: ‘Hey, man, do you want to come,'” Baker said before the game, adding he had not tried to prepare Altuve, Bregman, Correa and Gurriel about what to expect Monday.

“No, I don’t tell ’em anything. There might not be any noise,” Baker said. “Everybody keeps anticipating noise, and there might not be noise. It’s hard to warn somebody that something’s coming and it never comes because you’ll be looking out for it instead of playing the game. If it comes, you deal with it. If not, you go ahead and live your life.”

Two other Astros were hit by pitches in the late innings, though Gardenhire stressed it wasn’t on purpose.

Earlier, Detroit starting pitcher Matthew Boyd, who fanned Altuve in the first inning, said it wasn’t difficult to block out the booing and heckling and remained focused on playing the game.

“It’s spring training. Honestly, let’s let it die. What’s done is done. I know how everybody feels, but no one is going to change anything now,” Boyd said. “The punishment’s been handed out, the line’s been drawn in the sand. Hopefully that shuts it down, and it’s just best for everyone to move forward. They’ve got to live with it. That’s more than enough punishment.”

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Jose Altuve grazed by pitch, Astros booed as they visit Tigers

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LAKELAND, Fla. — Jose Altuve insisted he tuned out the hecklers. He couldn’t avoid a pitch that grazed him.

“He was hit in the foot. That ain’t nothing, you know what I mean?” Houston Astros manager Dusty Baker said Monday after an 11-1 win over Detroit at half-empty Joker Marchant Stadium. “It wasn’t intentional.”

Altuve was loudly booed when he was introduced for his spring training debut, cheered when he struck out and called a cheater by several fans. Quite a difference from past years, when the diminutive All-Star second baseman was among the most popular players in the majors.

But that was before Altuve and his Houston teammates were implicated in the sign-stealing scandal that’s rocked baseball.

“We just heard a lot of noise, and that’s it,” Altuve said.

Altuve and fellow starters Alex Bregman, Carlos Correa and Yuli Gurriel all played for the first time in the exhibition season. After Houston opened the Grapefruit League in the stadium it shares with the World Series champion Washington Nationals, this was the first time the Astros were away from their complex — providing a taste of the reaction they might receive on the road this year.

“We were focused on playing baseball. We know that we need to go on the field and get ready and prepared for the coming season,” Altuve said. “That’s what we’re thinking about right now.”

Actually, the reception during the visit to Tigertown USA was fairly tame compared to what it figures to be during the regular season.

“What reaction?” Correa said.

Early arrivals in the announced crowd of 4,891 were discouraged by ushers from gathering near the Astros dugout unless they had box seats along the third base line.

Hecklers aired their voices after batting practice, booing during introduction of lineups and each time Altuve, Bregman, Correa and Gurriel stepped up to the plate. Altuve got some cheers, too, when he was charged with an error for dropping a throw by Bregman from third base on a force play.

The quartet was treated to one more round of boos when they left the game and made the long walk up the first base line to the visiting clubhouse.

“There’s frustration in the fan base and they have a right to voice their opinion. … The Astros are going to have to wear it for a while, and eventually it’ll move on. But fans are going to voice their opinions and they have a right to,” Tigers manager Ron Gardenhire said. “Those guys understand it over there, and they’re going about their business of getting ready for the season.”

Altuve took a third called strike to a round of cheers in his first at-bat, then lined a crowd-quieting RBI double into the left-field corner his next time up.

Altuve showed no signs of being upset when he was grazed with a pitch by Tigers reliever Nick Ramirez after the batter before him, Myles Straw, homered in the fifth inning. The 2017 AL MVP was replaced by a pinch runner.

Baker planned to play Altuve, Bregman, Correa and Gurriel no more than five innings anyway in Houston’s first true road exhibition since a Major League Baseball investigation found the Astros broke rules by illegally stealing signs during their championship season in 2017.

While most of the team made the three-hour trip from West Palm Beach by bus early Monday, Baker said the team’s starting infield traveled the previous day and spent the night in Orlando. Established players rarely make such long road trips in spring training camp.

“That made it easier for them to show up here, and it makes easier for me to say: ‘Hey, man, do you want to come,'” Baker said before the game, adding he had not tried to prepare Altuve, Bregman, Correa and Gurriel about what to expect Monday.

“No, I don’t tell ’em anything. There might not be any noise,” Baker said. “Everybody keeps anticipating noise, and there might not be noise. It’s hard to warn somebody that something’s coming and it never comes because you’ll be looking out for it instead of playing the game. If it comes, you deal with it. If not, you go ahead and live your life.”

Two other Astros were hit by pitches in the late innings, though Gardenhire stressed it wasn’t on purpose.

Earlier, Detroit’s starting pitcher Matthew Boyd, who fanned Altuve in the first inning, said it wasn’t difficult to block out the booing and heckling and remained focused on playing the game.

“It’s spring training. Honestly, let’s let it die. What’s done is done. I know how everybody feels, but no one is going to change anything now,” Boyd said. “The punishment’s been handed out, the line’s been drawn in the sand. Hopefully that shuts it down, and it’s just best for everyone to move forward. They’ve got to live with it. That’s more than enough punishment.”

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Yankees’ Gerrit Cole strikes out 2 in hitless inning of spring debut

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TAMPA, Fla. — Gerrit Cole struck out two and walked one over a hitless inning in his spring training debut for the New York Yankees against the Pittsburgh Pirates on Monday night.

Cole’s first pitch to Adam Frazier was a 97 mph fastball. After Frazier popped out and Bryan Reynolds struck out, Cole Tucker drew a walk. The right-hander then fanned Josh Bell to finish his outing.

Cole signed a $324 million, nine-year contract as a free agent after going 20-5 with a 2.50 ERA and 326 strikeouts last season for the AL champion Houston Astros. He has an overall career record of 94-52.

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