3 ways the Astros can claim World Series advantage

3 ways the Astros can claim World Series advantage

PHILADELPHIA — The Phillies have wrestled home-field advantage in the World Series away from the Astros after splitting the first two games at Minute Maid Park on Friday and Saturday. That leaves the Astros needing to win at least one of the next three games in what’s expected to be a raucous Citizens Bank Park to bring the Fall Classic back to Houston, beginning with Game 3 on Monday.

Since the Astros began their historic run of advancing to six consecutive American League Championship Series in 2017 — they’ve won four pennants and one World Series in that span — they have won 22 playoff games on the road, which is seven more than any other team in baseball. This team is road tested.

The Phillies are 21-9 (.700) all-time in postseason games at Citizens Bank Park — the best home record of any team in any ballpark that has hosted at least 20 playoff games. They have won all five home games this postseason, outscoring opponents by a 35-15 margin (and outscoring them 12-6).

In the postseason series with the current 2-3-2 format, teams splitting the first two games at home have gone on to win the series 47 of 86 times (55 percent). In all best-of-seven series tied 1-1, the winner of the third game has won the series 68 of 98 times (69 percent).

Here are three things the Astros need to do in Philadelphia to swing the series their way:

1. Ride their pitching advantage
Pitching depth has been the Astros’ strength throughout the playoffs, and now is the time to show it. The Astros gave Justin Verlander (Game 1) and Framber Valdez (Game 2) five-run leads to start the World Series, but Verlander couldn’t make his hold up. Now they’ll turn to playoff-tested right-hander Lance McCullers Jr., who’s facing off against veteran hurler Noah Syndergaard in Game 3. The Astros should hold the advantage here.

McCullers is one of the best big-game pitchers in Astros history, going 2-2 with a 2.77 ERA and a 1.10 WHIP in 18 career games in the postseason. His 11 playoff starts and 68 1/3 innings are second-most in franchise history behind Verlander (17 playoff starts, 104 1/3 innings). McCullers faced the Phillies in his final regular-season start Oct. 3, holding them to one run on six hits and one walk over six innings.

Syndergaard, making his first World Series start since 2015, has topped 35 pitches just once since the middle of September, so Game 3 could see the Phillies get deep into their bullpen in the first of three consecutive games, although Philadelphia’s bullpen has thrown 8 2 /3 scoreless innings in the World Series so far.

In Game 4, the Astros will likely have the starting pitching advantage again, with Cristian Javier getting the ball against Ranger Suárez, who the Astros tagged for six runs in three innings Oct. 4. Javier, with his “invisi-ball” fastball and sweeping slider, may have the best stuff on the starting staff and has never faced the Phillies.

“Javy’s so unique in his own way, but it’s definitely an advantage,” Astros pitching coach Josh Miller said. “Their hitters have not seen his stuff come from the unique delivery and the high-quality pitch combination that he has. So it should be in Javy’s advantage when he does take the mound, and I would expect him to do very well as well.”

2. Hope Jose Altuve stays hot
After going hitless in his first 25 at-bats of the postseason, Altuve appears to be turning the corner. He had three hits in Houston’s Game 2 victory and is 7-for-16 since one of the worst slumps of his career.

Altuve set the tone at the top of the lineup, which was on display in Game 2 when he drilled a first-pitch double and watched Jeremy Peña and Yordan Alvarez follow him with doubles of their own. All three scored, and the Astros were on their way to a series-tying victory.

“Obviously, early in the playoffs, I was swinging at everything, and then slowly getting better at swinging at my pitch,” Altuve said.

Altuve is one of the most prolific postseason players in Major League history, with 23 career postseason homers — second-most all-time — and 99 postseason hits, which trails only Derek Jeter (200), Bernie Williams (128), Manny Ramirez (117), Jorge Posada (103) and Yadier Molina (102).

3. Continue to keep Schwarber and Harper in check
While opposing teams have tried to make someone besides Alvarez beat them after he hit game-winning homers in Games 1 and 2 of the ALDS against Seattle, the Astros have done a pretty good job at keeping Phillies left-handed sluggers Kyle Schwarber and Bryce Harper in control so far (although Schwarber narrowly missed a homer with a 403-foot foul ball in the eighth inning in Game 2).

Harper, the Most Valuable Player of the NLCS, went 0-for-4 in Game 2 and is 2-for-8 in the series without an extra-base hit or an RBI. Schwarber is 2-for-7 in the series, likewise without an extra-base hit or an RBI. In the regular season and postseason combined, McCullers has held left-handed batters to a .556 OPS this year (.170/.301/.255) with one homer in 113 plate appearances. Javier has been similarly effective against lefties, holding them to a .184/.270/.311 slash line.

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