The game for the 118th World Series is set. With their League Championship Series wins on Sunday, the Astros and Phillies will square off in the Fall Classic, which opens Friday at Minute Maid Park. For Philadelphia, this is uncharted territory — the Phils haven’t played in the World Series in 13 years. For the Astros, looking to become the first team in the Wild Card era to lead the playoff table (and the first since the 1976 Reds), the territory is very familiar.
The Phillies won a thriller4-3, against the Padres in Game 5 of the NLCS thanks to a dramatic home run in the eighth inning of Series MVP Bryce Harper at Citizens Bank Park. A few hours later, the Astros polished a Yankees sweep with a 6-5 victory in the Bronx to reach the World Series for the fourth time in the last six years.
Here are seven key storylines as we look to Game 1 of the World Series:
Will Harper’s heroism continue?
Harper has been in the spotlight ever since he graced the cover of Sports Illustrated as a 16-year-old phenom. In the years that followed, he lived up to the hype in every way except that his teams hadn’t had playoff success. That changed this month, and the NL’s two-time MVP is a huge reason for that.
Harper’s signature home run in the pennant on Sunday capped an NLCS in which he hit .400 (8 for 20) with three doubles, two home runs and five RBIs. For the entire playoffs, he’s hitting .419 (18 for 43) with six doubles, five home runs and 11 RBIs.
It’s hard to believe the man just turned 30 last week. On Sunday, Harper hit the biggest home run of his life, half of which was spent under the collective watchful eye of the baseball world. Will he continue to power the Phillies’ Cinderella run to a World Series championship?
Which Kyle Schwarber will we see in the World Series?
Through the first two rounds of the playoffs, Schwarber was 1 for 20 with eight strikeouts. But his bat came to life in the NLCS, when he went 6-for-15 (.400) with three homers — including a gigantic 488-foot blast in Game 1, the longest ever hit at Petco Park — and six walks.
Schwarber will be in his second World Series after winning it all with the Cubs in 2016. He hit .412 in that Fall Classic against Cleveland, and the Phillies are hoping to see something closer to that performance this time around, which would mean a continuation of what he did in the NLCS.
Can Zack Wheeler and Aaron Nola get the Phils off to a quick start?
We know the Astros’ pitching staff is deeper than deep, as Houston has demonstrated throughout these playoffs. The Phillies roster, even with the hot bats of Harper, Schwarber and Rhys Hoskins, will have their work cut out for them.
But on the other side of the ledger, could Wheeler and Nola put Philadelphia in a great position when the World Series returns to Citizens Bank Park for Game 3?
The old adage goes that if you start a playoff series with two games on the road, you’ll settle for a split. But the way Wheeler and Nola have kicked off this postseason, aside from Nola’s rocky exit in Game 2 of the NLCS, it’s no stretch to imagine the Phils stealing two games from Houston.
Wheeler has a 1.78 ERA in four starts this postseason, while Nola hasn’t given up an earned run in two starts (12 2/3 innings) between the NL Wild Card Series and NLDS before being touchdown for six points in NLCS Game 2.
Is there a stage too big for Jeremy Peña?
The 25-year-old rookie delivered some of Houston’s biggest hits in those playoffs, including the solo home run that proved to be the difference in an 18-inning ALDS Game 3 win to complete a sweep of the Mariners.
Add to that two more home runs, including a big three-run blast in Game 4 of the ALCS at Yankee Stadium, three doubles and a stellar defense at shortstop, and you have the makings of one of great rookie playoffs in history. Peña, who is hitting .303 so far in the playoffs, was named the ALCS MVP and looks as relaxed as someone in their third or fourth playoffs, let alone their first.
With the confidence he exudes on the pitch and what he has shown so far this month, it will be very interesting to follow Peña in his first Fall Classic.
Will Jose Altuve come out of his playoff funk?
Altuve is a big part of the Astros’ success, and the fact that Houston is 7-0 in the playoffs as it went 2-for-31 at the plate is remarkable. It helps, of course, that Peña and others have stepped up, but even a club as good as this will struggle to win it all without hardly any attacking input from Altuve.
The Astros are hoping to see the return of Altuve, who hit .286/.361/.547 with 23 homers in his playoff career entering this month. Meanwhile, they’d also like to see Kyle Tucker play home plate — he’s hitting just .214 this postseason. Yordan Alvarez, after his stellar start to the playoffs with two home runs, including a forfeit in Game 1 of the ALDS against the Mariners, went 2-for-19 before delivering a single tyer late in Game 4 of the ALDS. ALCS. Houston would love to see him warm up again.
The Houston bullpen, great as it is, can it really go on like this?
We knew the Astros bullpen was deep and very good. But what the Houston relievers have done in the playoffs is nothing short of extraordinary — in 33 innings between the ALDS and ALCS, they’ve allowed just three runs (0.82 ERA). To have that kind of dominating your bullpen behind the likes of Justin Verlander, Framber Valdez et al. in the starting rotation makes you hard to beat, no matter how good the opposing formation is.
Can the Astros’ pen continue to be off against the Phillies in the World Series? If the answer is yes, this will cause major problems in Philadelphia.
Something’s gotta give: Will it be Baker or Harper who finally wins this elusive World Series?
Harper and Astros manager Dusty Baker were with the Nationals for two seasons from 2016 to 2017, and in both years Washington couldn’t get past the NLDS, losing to the Dodgers and Cubs. And both enter the 2022 World Series ringless.
Baker, in his 25th season as Major League manager, led five clubs to the playoffs – the Giants, Cubs, Reds, Nationals and Astros. He had reached the World Series once before this year, also with the Astros in 2021, when Houston lost to the Braves in six games.
Harper, meanwhile, is one of the biggest superstars of this generation, but he’ll be playing in the Fall Classic for the first time.
Somebody’s gonna get that first World Series ring. Who’s it gonna be?