Nats and Astros Proving Aces Still Reign

In an era when "openers" and "bullpen games" have become part of the modern baseball lexicon, the two clubs that will meet for all the marbles this week have one major strength in common: stacked starting pitching.

While they both boast powerful offenses, the Washington Nationals and Houston Astros have ridden good ole' fashioned horses to the Fall Classic. Both teams have showcased that while lockdown bullpens are nice, there's still nothing that can replace an ace shutting down the opponent for seven-plus innings.

Yes, it did take Houston seven pitchers to close out the Yankees in the deciding game of the ALCS, but that was because Astros manager A.J. Hinch wanted to ensure that if it came down to a winner-take-all Game 7, he would have Gerrit Cole locked and loaded. He would not opt for a bullpen game with the season on the line, but would give the ball to an ace, just as he went to Cole in the deciding game of the ALDS against Tampa Bay.

For the Nats, their starting staff almost single-handedly led the team to an NLCS sweep of St. Louis. Anibal Sanchez, Max Scherzer, and Stephen Strasburg absolutely dominated the Cardinals, tossing 21 2/3 innings without allowing an earned run in the series' first three games. Scherzer and Sanchez gave up two hits combined. And Patrick Corbin was dominating St. Louis in his own right before a rough sixth inning knocked him out of Game 4.

The conversation throughout this season (and for the better part of last season as well) has been the meteoric rise of home runs, juiced baseballs, and a departure from the "fundamentals." Its grip and rip, both in the batter's box and on the mound. Many teams have experimented with the idea that length from starting pitchers is overrated, and as soon as the sixth inning hits its time to parade in four different relievers who all throw 96+.

That strategy holds less weight when it comes to starters like Justin Verlander, Gerrit Cole, Stephen Strasburg, and Max Scherzer; true horses that are still pumping fastballs in the high 90s through the seventh inning and beyond. The Nationals bullpen was notoriously bad this season, so throughout this postseason they've largely said "the hell with it" and have basically gone exclusively to Sean Doolittle and Daniel Hudson as their only regular relievers. The Astros bullpen has shown some vulnerability as well, most recently illustrated by Roberto Osuna's blown save in Game 6 of the ALCS.

How exactly the starting pitching matchups will lineup remains to be seen, but the Nationals will certainly have the edge in terms of rest coming off an abbreviated NLCS. Max Scherzer will likely be the Game 1 starter for Washington on a whopping nine days rest, with Houston countering with Cole on six days rest. Stephen Strasburg should line up for game two on eight days rest against either Justin Verlander (regular rest) or Zach Greinke, who has not pitched since game four of the ALCS on October 17th. Patrick Corbin will likely toe the slab in Game 3 for Washington.

However it shakes out, there is an embarrassment of riches on either side of this match-up when it comes to starting pitching. So here's the hot take: Anibal Sanchez could be the X-factor in the Nationals taking down the mighty Astros.

Yes, Houston has three frontline starters, but their staff drops off beyond that. Their fourth starter throughout the regular season, Wade Miley, was dropped from the ALCS roster, and it remains to be seen if he will be included on the World Series roster. Sanchez is the antithesis of the power arms around him in this series, but has a 2.57 career postseason ERA over nine starts, and has allowed just one earned run across 12 2/3 innings this postseason.

Should Washington go into game four up two games to one, another masterful performance from Sanchez could tip the series heavily in the Nationals favor. Or, should they lose two of the first three, a Game 4 win could get them right back into the series. Either way, that game could be a tipping point.

Selfishly, I'll admit, this was the World Series matchup I wanted to see most of all. And in the age of the homer, us old fogies (I'm a mature 28) who've been watching postseason baseball for over 20 years should be treated to a throwback to the days of pitching winning championships.

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