Less than 24 hours after the Houston Astros took the American League pennant in dramatic fashion, they are already a consensus favorite to take home the world championship. Caesars Sportsbook lists their odds to beat the Washington Nationals in the World Series as -235, the heaviest for a World Series since the Boston Red Sox were -240 favorites to beat the Colorado Rockies in 2007 (a bet that paid off).
And it's not hard to see why. The team thought to be their toughest competition in the National League - the Los Angeles Dodgers -didn't make it past the NLDS. But the oddsmakers seem to have given little consideration to the Nationals, the team that knocked off those very same Dodgers, the team that plowed through the St. Louis Cardinals in the NLCS without letting them hold a lead at any point in any of the four games.
The strengths of the Astros are undeniable. They may be baseball's most complete team, with a pitching staff that may go down in legend as one of the era's greatest if they complete the title run, and a lineup containing bats such as Michael Brantley, Yordan Alvarez, and last night's hero Jose Altuve.
But good pitching always beats good hitting, and if the NLCS proved anything, it's that the Nationals have some of the best and hottest pitchers in baseball. Stephen Strasburg, Max Scherzer, and Patrick Corbin made baseball's deadliest pitching trio this season, finishing first, sixth, and tenth in Wins Above Replacement.
In the NLCS, they came through in a big way, combining for only 12 hits and seven runs allowed against the Cardinals - three of which were by Corbin in one unlucky stretch of the fifth inning, which he escaped without giving up the lead. Even 14-year veteran Anibal Sanchez proved he still had some gas left in his tank when he threw a masterful 7 2/3 inning, one-hit shutout in the first game.
Better yet, their sweep of the St. Louis gave them an important advantage over the Astros in the form of nearly a week's worth of rest in advance of the Series. By contrast, a rain delay and a frustrating loss at Yankee Stadium forced the Astros to play on two consecutive days in two cities 1,600 miles apart, playing past midnight (well...Eastern Time, anyway) in Game 6 and using a combined eight pitchers over the final two games of the series. One, Brad Peacock, "opened" for their clinching win on Saturday night and threw on zero days rest, effectively knocking him out for the opening game of the World Series (unless A.J. Hinch just hates his guts).
While the Astros will retain the home-field advantage due to their superior record, It's not out of the question that Washington could steal a game at Minute Maid Park, if not both. After all, on the road this postseason, the Nationals are 4-1, their one loss coming in game one of the NLDS against the Dodgers.
Are the odds still stacked in the Astros' favor? Very much so. Of course the Nationals might not have gotten here without lucky breaks, such as a crucial misplay in the eighth inning of the Wild Card game. But the Nationals earned their place, and they have the skill to at least give us a Fall Classic to remember with fondness, if not win the whole thing.