On each of the first two occasions, that underdog won it all.
First, it was the 93-win 2019 Nationals, who won their wild-card game against the Brewers before edging the Dodgers in five games in the NLDS, sweeping the Cardinals in the NLCS and topping the 107-win Astros in seven games in the World Series.
After the Dodgers came out victorious in the pandemic-shortened 2020 season, the 88-win Braves provided another surprising NL East test for the Astros last season. Atlanta advanced past Milwaukee in the NLDS and Los Angeles in the NLCS before taking four of six from Houston in the World Series.
Do the Philadelphia Phillies have the pieces for a similarly stunning finish, or is this year’s iteration of the Houston Astros too complete to defeat?
There are no obvious weaknesses on a Houston club that swept its way to this point, becoming the first team since the 1998-2003 Yankees to appear in the World Series four times in a six-year span. The Astros are thriving not by dismantling opponents but by outlasting them, constantly eclipsing their foes behind a wave of reliable arms. Six of Houston’s seven postseason wins have come by one or two runs. The other was a shutout. Late in a close game, the Astros will hold the advantage.
Now, Peña’s playing his best offensive baseball of the year. After posting a mediocre 101 OPS+ in the regular season, he’s slashing .303/.324/.667 with three homers and three doubles in the playoffs. Peña went 6-for-17 with four extra-base hits in the LCS against the Yankees, helping put them away in the deciding Game 4 with a game-tying, three-run home run.
The defining swing
The ALDS against the Mariners could’ve looked a lot different if not for Yordan Álvarez’s mammoth blast to end Game 1. In the ninth inning, with two outs and his team trailing by two runs, Alvarez set the tone for the series by demolishing a baseball 116.7 mph off the bat and 438 feet to right field for a three-run, walk-off home run against Robbie Ray.
It was the first walk-off home run to overcome a multi-run deficit in postseason history.
Where they’ve excelled in October
Well, they’re undefeated this postseason, so the answer is a lot of areas. Namely, though, it’s the pitching.
The Astros have a 1.88 team ERA and 0.88 WHIP in the playoffs, helping them overcome underwhelming offensive performances from some of their most trusted hitters. José Altuve is 3-for-32 with one extra-base hit, Kyle Tucker is 6-for-28 with one extra-base hit, and deadline acquisition Trey Mancini has yet to record a hit in 12 postseason at-bats. As a team, the Astros are hitting .227 overall and .220 with runners in scoring position. But Peña, Álvarez, Alex Bregman, Yuli Gurriel and Chas McCormick have carried the offense, with each recording multiple homers this postseason with an OPS of .888 or better.
Houston relievers have a 0.82 ERA and 0.73 WHIP this postseason, holding opponents to a .127 batting average. Ryan Pressly is 4-for-4 in save chances and has yet to allow a run in 5⅓ innings. Bryan Abreu has made six appearances without yielding a run. In the 18-inning marathon to advance past the Mariners, the Astros held Seattle scoreless with the help of five solid innings from Luis Garcia, who didn’t enter until the 14th.
The Astros have gotten to this point despite a surprising 6.30 ERA from Justin Verlander, who led all qualified starters this season with a 1.75 ERA. The rest of the starting staff has excelled, and the depth of the rotation will be an advantage once the Astros get past Phillies aces Wheeler and Nola. Framber Valdez, Lance McCullers Jr. and Cristian Javier have combined for a 1.55 ERA in their five postseason starts.
The Astros struck out fewer times than any team in baseball other than the Guardians this season, which is particularly impressive considering that they also ranked fourth in the majors in home runs, with nine more than the Phillies.
Houston’s hitters are likely to put the ball in play, which could test a Philadelphia defense that ranked 29th in outs above average, 24th in ultimate zone rating and 25th in defensive runs saved this season.
The Philadelphia Phillies celebrate winning the National League pennant with their victory over the San Diego Padres in Game 5 of the NLCS.
How they got here
WCS vs. STL: 2-0 NLDS vs. ATL: 3-1 NLCS vs. SD: 4-1
The playoff star: Bryce Harper
The Astros might have more depth, but the best player on the field this postseason is wearing red. Harper has a ridiculous .419/.444/.907 slash line with five homers and 11 RBIs in the playoffs. Only one other player on either team has that many home runs and RBIs, and it’s Harper’s teammate Hoskins.
Harper was scuffling at the end of the regular season, posting a .676 OPS in the second half while getting back up to speed from a thumb injury, but with the lights at their brightest, he has reminded the world of his capabilities. He has 18 hits this postseason — five more than any other player and the most in a single postseason in Phillies history. Of those 18 hits, 11 have gone for extra bases. Harper earned NLCS MVP honors after going 8-for-20 with two homers and three doubles against the Padres.
Bryce Harper wins NLCS MVP
Bryce Harper talked to Tom Verducci after winning the NLCS MVP award and reflected on what it means for his team to bring the NL pennant to Philly.
The defining swing
Hoskins’ emphatic, throw-the-bat-down dinger off Spencer Strider in the NLDS is difficult to forget, but Harper sending the Phillies to the World Series for the first time since 2009 is the unquestioned winner. It will be playing on Philadelphia highlight reels for years to come, particularly if the Phillies continue their thrilling run through the World Series.
With his team trailing 3-2 in the eighth inning of Game 5 against flame-throwing Padres reliever Robert Suárez, Harper kept the series from going back to San Diego by taking a 99 mph fastball the other way for a go-ahead, two-run blast.
Where they’ve excelled in October
The Phillies possess the pieces to mash, and that’s what they’ve done all October. Their 16 home runs and .442 slugging percentage lead all playoff teams. Harper, Hoskins and Schwarber have combined to go deep 13 times. The Phillies have done their damage despite no homers yet from Nick Castellanos or Alec Bohm, who combined for 26 in the regular season. Any mistake Astros pitchers offer could change a game.
What the Philadelphia rotation lacks in depth it makes up for with top-line talent. Wheeler has a 1.78 ERA and 0.51 WHIP in four starts this postseason. Nola stumbled against his brother’s Padres — he surrendered six runs in 4⅔ innings in Game 2 of the NLCS, the Phillies’ only loss of the series — but allowed one run over 12⅔ innings in his first two playoff starts. The Astros will try to get the aces out as quickly as possible to get to a Philadelphia bullpen that is still piecing things together.
The Phillies attempted to address some of their relief shortcomings by adding closer David Robertson at the deadline, and though he hasn’t looked quite the same since suffering a calf injury earlier this postseason, their relievers are 5-0 with a respectable 3.19 ERA in the playoffs. Seranthony Domínguez and José Alvarado are doing much of the heavy lifting, but the Phillies have gotten creative in the bullpen as well. Ranger Suárez started Game 3 of the NLCS and earned a victory before closing out Game 5. Suárez, Alvarado, Domínguez and converted starter Zach Eflin have all earned saves this postseason.
Houston pitchers have thrown the lowest percentage of fastballs and the highest percentage of breaking balls of any team this postseason. That’s not particularly beneficial for a Philadelphia team boasting the highest slugging percentage against fastballs of any team this postseason.
Still, Philadelphia had the sixth-highest slugging percentage off breaking balls in the regular season, and Harper — who hit .314 against breaking balls this year — looks capable of hitting just about anything right now. Also worth noting, particularly if the Phillies steal a game at Minute Maid Park: Philadelphia is 5-0 with a plus-20 run differential at home this postseason.
Rowan Kavner covers the Dodgers and NL West for FOX Sports. He previously was the Dodgers’ editor of digital and print publications. Follow him on Twitter at @RowanKavner.
Get more from Major League BaseballFollow your favorites to get information about games, news and more