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What To Watch For During This Nationals-Astros World Series Match-Up

AILSA CHANG, HOST:

If in May, you said the Houston Astros would make it to the World Series, no one would've blinked. They won the title in 2017, and they were one of the favorites to win again this year. Now, if in May, you said the Washington Nationals would make it to the World Series, people would think you were drunk. Their star player left the team during the off-season, and the rest of the Nationals started the year dwelling near the bottom of the standings for weeks. But here we are in October with a World Series between the team everyone expected versus the team pretty much no one expected. On the line with me now is Dave Sheinin, who covers baseball for the Washington Post.

Hey.

DAVE SHEININ: Hi there.

CHANG: So like we said, in May, the Nats were pretty much a total mess. How did they turn things around?

SHEININ: Well, I think they turned things around in a couple of ways; No. 1, by recognizing the talent level that they had and, you know, with a mixture of hope and optimism that it would turn around. They had one of the most talented rosters in baseball and were underperforming. They also had to get their bullpen straightened out. That was killing them on a nightly basis. They finally did. And really, they just believed. And there was no panic up and down the organization, and it was kind of remarkable because, you know, a lot of - everybody in town was calling for the heads of the manager. People were speculating about which star players they were going to trade. They held it together, and here we are. You know, five months later, they're in the World Series.

CHANG: OK. So at this point, this might not be as big of a mismatch as it looks like on paper.

SHEININ: Right. I mean, I think if you take these last five months, since the bottom for the Nationals, they have been as good as anybody in baseball, including the Houston Astros. You know, I do think that there is a wide perception - and probably not unfounded - that the Astros are a better team. But that underdog thing - and that thing that the Nationals built up in May where nobody believes in us - that thing can carry you a long way. And, you know, the Nationals certainly believe they are on equal footing, if not better, than the Astros.

CHANG: OK. So besides sheer optimism and hope, how are they going to do that? I mean, the Astros, they won 107 games in the regular season. They were pretty much unstoppable. How do you think the Nationals can slow them down?

SHEININ: Well, the thing the Nationals have going for them is something that nobody the Astros have faced to this point have, which is starting pitching that can go toe-to-toe with the Astros, who have the best starting pitching in the American League bar none. The Nationals clearly have the best starting pitching in the National League bar none. And, you know, they will be able to put a pitcher on the mound in every game of this series who is the equal, if not the better, of the Astros pitcher.

CHANG: Wow.

SHEININ: And, you know, it's kind of a throwback series in that way because in the last 10 years, five years, baseball has become more of a bullpen game, and starting pitching has been minimized. But these two teams are sort of throwbacks to the era where starting pitchers are pitching seven, even eight innings in the game, and it's a matchup of aces.

CHANG: Oh, cool. I was just going to ask you that, you know, if you're someone who's not from D.C., not from Houston, what would be some of the things that just a casual baseball fan could look forward to in this World Series? First thing you just mentioned is we have this battle of the pitchers - anything else?

SHEININ: Well, you know, I think that one thing that's really interesting about this series is just how these are two, you know, new-money teams. You know, a Yankees-Dodgers World Series would have been a classic old-money baseball series that probably would have made people at Fox TV, you know, very happy - a matchup that's going to draw a lot of eyeballs because of the legacies of those teams. But, you know, this is just kind of a new-money matchup of two teams. The Astros had never won a World Series title in their franchise history until 2017.

CHANG: Oh.

SHEININ: The Nationals still have never won one in their existence. Of course, they only moved to Washington in 2005. But, you know, I think that's one thing that is interesting about this series - that, you know, there's just not the legacies that something like a Yankees-Dodgers matchup would have had.

CHANG: That's Dave Sheinin of the Washington Post.

Thanks so much.

SHEININ: Thank you.

(SOUNDBITE OF BOLA SETE'S "ASH WEDNESDAY") Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.