LOS ANGELES – (USA TODAY) - Breaking down the 113th World Series between the Los Angeles Dodgers and the Houston Astros, which begins Tuesday night at Dodger Stadium:
Arms race: The Dodgers are well-rested and have their starting rotation set up exactly the way they want it after dispatching the Chicago Cubs in five games to win the National League pennant.
Game 1 starter Clayton Kershaw has done his best to dispel the narrative that he can’t win in the postseason, going 2-0 in his three starts this October, including six innings of one-run ball in the NLCS clincher over the Cubs.
The Dodgers had the majors' best rotation ERA (3.39), so they’ll have plenty of depth behind Kershaw with Rich Hill and Yu Darvish. And it isn’t often a team can trot out a 16-game winner as a No. 4 starter the way the Dodgers can with 2017 All-Star Alex Wood.
The Astros have a much stronger pitching staff in the postseason than they did for most of the year, thanks to the arrival of ALCS Most Valuable Player Justin Verlander at the end of August. He won all five of his starts with Houston during the regular season and has four wins in four appearances (one in relief) in the playoffs.
But because the Astros were taken to the limit before outlasting the New York Yankees in the ALCS, Verlander won’t be able to pitch until Game 2. 2015 Cy Young Award winner Dallas Keuchel will get the nod in the opener, but the Astros don’t have any obvious choices to round out the rotation.
Their next-best starters, Charlie Morton and Lance McCullers, tag-teamed to win Game 7 against the Yankees, but would figure to pitch the first two games – in some order -- when the series returns to Houston.
Keep an eye on: Yasiel Puig. When the spotlight is brightest, some players have a way of rising to the occasion. Puig may be one of those players. He’s tied for the Dodgers team lead in hits this postseason with 12, he’s gotten on base at a .514 clip in eight games and is third on the team in RBI.
Puig can be maddening when he loses focus – as his wild throws, baserunning blunders and off-field adventures attest – but in the playoffs, he’s been all business. And we may be just starting to see his true talent level.
Close and late: The Dodgers bullpen has been almost unhittable in the playoffs, allowing just three earned runs in 28 2/3 innings (0.94 ERA). When manager Dave Roberts has needed important outs, he’s turned to Kenta Maeda, Brandon Morrow and Kenley Jansen.
The three most-used relievers have combined to give up one earned run in 21 1/3 innings (0.42 ERA) and hold opponents to a batting average of .074.
Meanwhile, the Astros bullpen has been a mess in the postseason, pitching to a ERA of 5.03 in 34 innings. They coughed up two leads at Yankee Stadium in the ALCS and closer Ken Giles was shaky while protecting a 7-1 lead in Game 6.
With seemingly no one to trust to get the key outs in Game 7, manager A.J. Hinch opted to use McCullers for four innings to nail down the 4-0 clincher. While that was fine for a winner-take-all situation, Hinch will need to find someone in the bullpen to take care of the middle and late innings.
Giles (7.50 playoff ERA), Will Harris (4.50) and particularly All-Star Chris Devenski (12.00) need to rediscover what made them successful in the regular season.
In the dugout: Hinch will need to figure out his bullpen situation first and foremost or this will be a very short series. He’ll also need better production from several slumping hitters.
In Game 7 of the ALCS, he dropped right fielder Josh Reddick from the second spot in the order to ninth – and Reddick finally snapped an 0-for-22 slump. Catcher Brian McCann also struggled against the Yankees, but came up with a key two-run double in Game 7.
Without a designated hitter in the first two games (and possibly two more) and with minimal contributions from his bench players, Hinch may have his hands tied.
Dodgers manager Dave Roberts will have a wealth of options at his disposal, which he used masterfully in winning seven of eight postseason games. He has his bullpen pitching exceptionally well so every move he’s made has looked smart. And he’ll have perhaps his best player in shortstop Corey Seager back on the roster.
Intangibles: With three left-handers in the Dodgers starting rotation, Astros third baseman Alex Bregman could be the key to getting his team’s offense back on track. He hit .331 with a .570 slugging percentage against southpaws during the regular season.
Hinch moved Bregman into Reddick’s No. 2 spot for the final game of the ALCS – in between leadoff man George Springer and MVP candidate Jose Altuve. Although Bregman has hit just .190 this postseason, another productive bat at the top of the order could do wonders against the Dodgers lefties.
In the end: Things have aligned almost perfectly for the Dodgers. In each of the first two rounds, they’ve faced an opponent that was significantly weakened by expending so much energy just to get there. The situation is the same in the World Series.
L.A. is rested and refreshed, has the home-field advantage, and has the upper hand in the bullpen that should be able to hold the Astros offense in check. Kershaw wins twice, including the clincher in Houston. Dodgers in five.
Best of seven schedule
Game 1: Tuesday, Dodger Stadium. Dallas Keuchel (14-5, 2.90 ERA during the regular season) vs. Clayton Kershaw (18-4, 2.31), 8:08 p.m. ET.
Game 2: Wednesday, Dodger Stadium. Justin Verlander (15-8, 3.36) vs. Rich Hill (12-8, 3.32), 8:08 p.m. ET
Game 3: Friday, Minute Maid Park. Yu Darvish (12-10, 3.86) vs. TBA, 8:08 p.m. ET.
Game 4: Saturday, Minute Maid Park, 8:08 p.m. ET.
Game 5: Sunday, Minute Maid Park, 8:08 p.m. ET, if necessary.
Game 6: October 31 in Los Angeles, 8:08 p.m. ET, if necessary.
Game 7: November 1 in Los Angeles, 8:08 p.m. ET, if necessary.
© 2017 USATODAY.COM