Almost two years on from the sign-stealing scandal which rocked Major League Baseball, the Houston Astros return to World Series play on Tuesday night with a nation full of doubters to win over.
The Astros were found to have broken MLB rules by using camera feeds to relay messages to their hitters regarding the selection and location of opponents’ pitches, with their 2017 World Series win over the Los Angeles Dodgers being slap bang in the middle of the period during which they were found to be breaching codes.
The fallout from that overshadowed another run to the World Series in 2019, when they lost to the Washington Nationals in seven games, with general manager Jeff Luhnow and manager AJ Hinch both suspended for the entire 2020 season. Despite not having their 2017 title stripped, it was clear to many baseball fans that their championship had been sufficiently tainted for their first and only World Series win to be considered an achievement on paper only.
After the shortened 60-game season in 2020, the Astros are back at the Fall Classic in the first full campaign since the scandal, leaving much of America preparing to root for the Atlanta Braves.
While the ‘Stros still boast many of the players who seemingly benefited from the rules breaches in 2017, including star infielders Jose Altuve, Alex Bregman, Yuli Gurriel and Carlos Correa, the Braves have a core of fresh young faces who have looked primed to challenge for the biggest prize of all for a few years.
Even in the face of the loss of right-fielder Ronald Acuna Jr. to an ACL injury in July, Atlanta have been able to lean on shortstop Ozzie Albies and third baseman Austin Riley for production. They also did very well out of the Trade Deadline in July, adding former World Series champion outfielders Joc Pedersen and Jorge Soler as well as left-fielder Eddie Rosario, whose stunning slash-line of .560/.607/1.040 in the National League Championship Series win over the Los Angeles Dodgers rightly saw him named the series MVP.
As with any World Series, though, the 2021 showpiece will likely be won and lost in pitching. The Astros are set to start with Framber Valdez in Game 1 having turned in a wonderful performance in the pivotal Game 5 win over the Boston Red Sox in the ALCS, throwing eight innings of three hit ball, conceding a single run with five strikeouts to one walk.
Toeing the slab for Atlanta is a familiar face to supporters at Minute Maid Park. Charlie Morton was the winning pitcher in the Astros’ biggest win over all time, their Game 7 success in Los Angeles in 2017, coming in in the sixth inning with a 5-0 lead and throwing four innings of one run baseball to see Houston to its sole World Series title. And his start for the Braves on Tuesday will mark his third World Series participation for three different teams, having also pitched for the Tampa Bay Rays against the Dodgers in 2020.
While the Astros are in their third Fall Classic in five years and have home advantage in Games 1, 2, 6 and 7, the Braves have the majority of America on their side. Having been a huge team in the 1990s, making five World Series and beating Cleveland in six games to win Atlanta’s only championship in 1995, it is high time the Bravos had another tilt.
The signs suggest it will be a close affair, but let’s not just talk about the signs.
World Series schedule:
Game 1 @Houston – Wednesday 1:09am BST
Game 2 @Houston – Thursday 1:09am BST
Game 3 @Atlanta – Saturday 1:09am BST
Game 4 @Atlanta – Sunday 1:09am BST
Game 5* @Atlanta – Monday 12:15am GMT
Game 6* @Houston – Wednesday 2nd November 12:09am GMT
Game 7* @Houston – Thursday 3rd November 12:09am GMT
*- if necessary
Main image courtesy of Geoff Livingston