Astros vs. Phillies: Four things to watch for in the 2022 World Series

Gabe Lacques

HOUSTON – It’s season-long dominance versus a red-hot October, 106 wins against 87, a six-year run of greatness vs. a fun-loving, bomb-hitting band of accidental tourists.

When the Houston Astros and Philadelphia Phillies face off in this 118th World Series beginning Friday night at Minute Maid Park, the matchup looks simple on paper but intriguing enough to give any observer pause.

With Game 1 on Friday, and aces Aaron Nola and Justin Verlander set to get things going, a look at four things to watch in this Philly-Houston battle:

A rest stop for Philly

Seventeen consecutive days on the road, 26 straight days with some sort of baseball-related activity, a startling high-wire act that led them into the World Series.

You wonder: Will a four-day pause give the Phillies a chance to look down rather than burrow ahead?

No, this isn’t the dreaded rest vs. rust argument, which is as disprovable as it is annoying. Rather, have the Phillies been operating on pure adrenaline, and will it be hard to get the veins pumping again after their heart rates returned to something resembling normal?

Kyle Schwarber and Bryce Harper during the Phillies' Game 5 win in the NLCS.

Philadelphia criss-crossed from Chicago to Washington to Houston during a season-ending 10-game road trip just to get into the playoffs, shot up to St. Louis and quickly swept the Cardinals in the wild card series, proceeded to Atlanta for the NLDS, got home after nearly three weeks to close out the Braves and then proceeded on to San Diego for the NLCS. Five intense games with the Padres ensued, followed by a fourth absurdly glorious clubhouse celebration.

In short: If you suddenly stop Dancing On Your Own, will the music stop?

"You don’t really have any time to think. You start thinking in this game and you can get yourself into trouble," says first baseman Rhys Hoskins, who hit significant home runs in both the NLDS and NLCS. "Has it been a blur? Absolutely.

"But that usually happens when good things are going on." 

DOMBROWSKI: Phillies president went and built another World Series team

WORLD SERIES: How NFL chased baseball off Sunday night

As the sixth seed in the playoffs, the Phillies were guaranteed to start on the road; the 10-game trip with the season on the line was just the cherry on top. Along the way, they popped bubbly in Houston (where they clinched a playoff berth) and St. Louis before a pair of celebrations in Philly after winning the NLDS and NLCS. 

That included some late nights cavorting with the locals at the adjacent Philly Live! complex and seeing the city respond emphatically to their success. 

And finally, come Monday, a day of rest after eliminating the Padres.

"I will say I’m probably drained, but I can’t really feel it," says catcher J.T. Realmuto, whose last day off behind the plate was Sept. 8, save for Game 2 of a doubleheader. "Everything is so exciting, we’re having so much fun that the tired feeling won’t kick in until this is all over with. It’s been such a roller coaster ride. There’s so many emotions the last four weeks. 

"You kind of felt it, the first day after we clinched (the NL pennant), the body let me know hey, you’re a little sore today, more than normal, but after having a few days off we feel recovered and ready to go."

Another East feast?

Justin Verlander takes the field for a workout on Thursday.

They were heavily favored against the Washington Nationals in 2019. Enjoyed homefield advantage once again against the Atlanta Braves in 2021. And enter undefeated, rested and at home against a Phillies team that won just 87 games and pieced together an unlikely postseason run.

So maybe this time, the Astros can take care of business against an ostensibly inferior NL East team?

Not so fast. The Nationals relied on a six-man pitching staff and timely hitting to win all four games at Minute Maid Park and a seven-game World Series title in 2019. The Braves overcame Charlie Morton’s broken leg in Game 1 and got a closeout pitching performance for the ages from Max Fried to win Game 6 in 2021.

And now, in Aaron Nola and Zack Wheeler, the Phillies, though overmatched in some portions of the roster, bring the sort of starting pitching that should put the Astros on alert.

Safe to say they’ve been warned.

“We don’t want to lose to an NL East team again,” says pitcher and likely Game 4 starter Lance McCullers Jr. “Listen, I faced the Phillies in October when they came to Minute Maid. And I told Justin (Verlander), that’s probably the best lineup I’ve faced all year. They are a tough team, man. And they have great pitching.”

The Phillies may try to follow something more closely resembling the Nationals’ path – perhaps not deploying starting pitchers in relief but relying on a relatively small circle of trust in the bullpen. Jose Alvarado, Seranthony Dominguez and David Robertson all appeared in three of five NLCS games and Alvarado has appeared in eight of the Phillies’ 11 playoff games.

Atlanta, meanwhile, relied on a deep and dominant “Night Shift” bullpen that was forced to cobble together two bullpen games after Morton’s injury, winning one of them to turn the tide of the Series.

And should the Phillies pull the upset, perhaps put all your savings on the Mets or Marlins to win it all next year.

Ranger Suarez: Most Valuable Phillie?

Ranger Suarez celebrates after recording the final out of the NLCS.

OK, so that tag almost certainly belongs to Bryce Harper, actual 2021 NL MVP and NLCS MVP after his stunning go-ahead home run in the eighth inning of Game 5. Yet if the Phillies are to upset the mighty Astros, they’re going to have to get weird.

Enter Suarez.

He’s quietly been one of their best starting pitchers since the Phillies stretched him out and into the rotation in 2021. But that experience and all he accomplished before leaves Suarez equipped for any role, at any time. 

And that has proven invaluable so far. 

Suarez started the first game of the NLDS and saved the last game of the NLCS. In between, plenty of Philly stars stepped to the fore, most notably Harper. 

Yet Suarez will likely get a start in one of the three games in Philadelphia, and certainly could be called upon out of the bullpen before or after that assignment. It's the sort of flexibility Suarez showed in 2021, when he started a dozen games but relieved in 27 more, posting a 1.36 ERA. 

That kind of flexibility is invaluable in the playoffs. 

"Not everybody can do that, especially consistently," says Game 2 starter Zack Wheeler. "He’s a really good pitcher; I think a lot of guys overlook him. And I think he should’ve won the Gold Glove, too.

'He’s a great athlete, but it’s mental, also. He's done a really nice job and works really hard and is fun to watch, too."

Suarez says he has adopted a whatever-it-takes mentality and is prepared for any role in this World Series. He's also grateful, as a guy who did not stick permanently in the majors until a year ago.

"Not everyone gets to go to the playoffs. Not everyone gets to go to the World Series," he says. "At this moment, believe me when I tell you, I am enjoying every second of it. I feel blessed.

"I feel lucky to be here." 

No ring fling for Dusty

If there's a sentimental favorite in this World Series, it's 73-year-old Astros manager Dusty Baker, who has notched 2,093 career victories and now won three pennants - but no championship ring. 

Baker did win one as a Los Angeles Dodger, but he's the winningest manager in history without a World Series title, the eight above him all with at least one. 

Yet for all the talk of "getting Dusty a ring," the Astros manager can largely do without the actual piece of jewelry. 

Hard to stay low key with an 18-karat gold ring on your finger, as the Braves won last season.

"Only ring I wear is my wedding ring," says Baker. "I got 'em in a safe deposit box. I got All-Star rings. There's different rings. And I truly doubt if my World Series ring would fit, honestly.

"So, no. I don't know if I'll wear this one either if we win it. You're proud of it, but the more you wear it then the more you're noticed and people ask to see your ring or ask or even recognize you. Because when I get out of here, I'm not real big on being recognized. Because I've been recognized most of my life and sometimes you yearn for privacy.

"But you can't hide and you can't just stay in your house all the time either. And as big as some of these are now, man, you can notice it from across the street."