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The Astros are favored in the World Series, but the Nationals’ rotation stacks up

In what will be a battle between MLB’s top two rotations, the World Series will be defined by its starting pitchers.

MLB: St. Louis Cardinals at Washington Nationals Brad Mills-USA TODAY Sports

The starting pitchers who will likely take the mound for the first three games of the World Series are so well-recognized their first names aren’t even needed for introductions.

Scherzer. Cole. Strasburg. Verlander. Corbin. Greinke.

With the exception of Zack Greinke, who was traded from the NL to the Astros midseason, every one of those names will be scattered across ballots for this year’s Cy Young awards.

They accounted for a staggering 13.7% of the 11,232 strikeouts accrued by qualified starting pitchers this season—a season in which MLB set the record for the most strikeouts in history for the 12th year in a row.

The homer-happy 2019 season was defined by offense, and many teams rode their bats to plenty of success; the eight highest-scoring teams all made the playoffs. But up until this point, the Astros and Nationals have been led by their aces at the front of the rotation.

That starts with Game 1’s probable pitchers: Max Scherzer and Gerrit Cole.

Scherzer, a three-time Cy Young winner, shook off the narrative that he can’t pitch in the playoffs by allowing one run over 15 innings between the NLDS and NLCS.

Cole closed out the regular season with a 1.78 ERA over his final 22 starts and kept rolling right through October, with one run allowed in 22.2 frames this postseason.

The edge in this matchup has to go to Cole, simply because he’s been the best pitcher of the 2019 postseason by a mile and he’s coming in on extra rest. Scherzer has certainly been excellent in his own right, and the team has to be expecting him to go toe-to-toe with Cole. But it’s going to take a career-defining performance from Scherzer—and some help from the Nats’ offense—if Washington is going to win Game 1.

“What I’ve seen of him, he’s really good,” Nationals manager Davey Martinez said of Cole at his press conference Monday. “But we’ve known that, even in his Pittsburgh days, faced him a lot. He’s really good. If you look at this whole series, both sides got unbelievable starting pitching.”

In Game 2, the script will flip in favor of Washington. Stephen Strasburg has been the second-best pitcher of the playoffs and is well on his way to cementing himself as an all-time great postseason starter (1.10 career ERA in playoffs). Justin Verlander—this season’s favorite to win the AL Cy Young—is no slouch, but he struggled with the long ball during the regular season (career-high 36 homers allowed) and postseason (five long balls in four starts).

“If you want to do well against the Nats, you’ve got to beat their starters, and then make them make decisions as the game goes on,” Astros manager A.J. Hinch said. “If you sit back and kind of wait for the bullpen or wait for them to make a decision, you’ll look at Strasburg and Scherzer throwing 120, 130 pitches and you’ll be too deep in the game to make up a difference. Those guys getting 21, 24, 27 outs is a real possibility for them.”

As for the first game back in D.C., Hinch has already named Greinke as Houston’s starter.

The former Arizona Diamondbacks blockbuster signing was acquired by Houston at the trade deadline, seemingly solidifying the most enviable playoff rotation in baseball. Greinke hasn’t lived up to the bill, allowing 10 runs in three appearances—although he did toss a quality start in Game 1 of the ALCS.

Martinez has yet to name a Game 3 starter, and when asked whether it was because he might use Patrick Corbin out of the bullpen in one of the first two games, he said, “We shall see.” That would likely push Corbin back to Game 4, making Aníbal Sánchez the Game 3 starter—you know, the guy who nearly threw a no-hitter in Game 1 of the NLCS. Corbin himself has been shaky in the playoffs, but his 7.43 ERA is overblown by the six runs he was tagged for as a reliever in NLDS Game 3.

But regardless of who starts Game 4 for Washington, the Nationals should be the favorites as Houston will likely try out a bullpen game like it did in Game 6 of the ALCS. That game worked out pretty well for the Astros, who limited the Yankees to two runs until the ninth in an eventual World Series berth-clinching 6-4 victory.

Vegas says the odds are stacked against the Nationals, who’ve been dubbed the biggest World Series underdogs since the 2007 Colorado Rockies. (They were swept by the curse-breaking Boston Red Sox.) But as far as the rotations go, it’s not unreasonable to call it a push.

Scherzer. Cole. Strasburg. Verlander. Corbin. Greinke.

Those six players were paid a combined $169 million this season, and they all lived up to expectations. Some of those names are on track to end up on a plaque in Cooperstown, but first, the world’s biggest stage awaits.

Not all the history that’ll be inscribed on those plaques have been written just yet.