Here are six players to keep an eye on.
• Jose Altuve, 2B, Astros: Centre stage for the American League’s most valuable player finds him in good form after an 0-for-13 blip in three games at Yankee Stadium against the New York Yankees, in which he was part of an offence that scored under two runs per game in its first five games of the series. It’s the second-most significant post-season funk in Altuve’s career; he went 0-for-17 to finish off the 2015 AL Championship Series against the Kansas City Royals. Altuve has clubbed five home runs this post-season while slashing .400/.500/.775, and his .431 batting average against curveballs this season needs to be respected by a Dodgers team that threw the second-most curveballs in the Majors.
• Yu Darvish, SP, Dodgers: If you didn’t know better, you’d think the Dodgers acquired Darvish specifically to face the Astros, right? As a group, the Astros hit .190 against him and Altuve (.219), Carlos Correa (.200), Marwin Gonzalez (.043) and Josh Reddick (.160) have all struggled in a minimum 15 at-bats against Darvish from his days with the Texas Rangers. Darvish has made a significant adjustment, incorporating a cut fastball and slider at the expense of his four-seam fastball. He’ll get Game 3 in Houston in what will be biggest mismatch among starting pitchers in this series and with Justin Verlander going for the Astros in Game 2, Darvish’s start could tilt the series. Darvish has been good this post-season, giving up a run in 11 1/3 innings.
• Kenta Maeda/Brandon Morrow/Tony Cingrani, RP, Dodgers: You can go around the field and through the rotations and find an edge here and there for both teams but only the Dodgers’ Dave Roberts can afford to manage a game as if it was regular season affair, due to the strength of his middle relief. He can get fancy and toss Clayton Kershaw out there if he wants, but unlike his counterpart with the Astros, A.J. Hinch, you don’t get the sense utilizing a starter in relief is a necessity. Maeda’s move into the bullpen has paid off handsomely. As a group, the bullpen has tossed 28 2/3 scoreless innings in the post-season and hasn’t allowed a run since Game 2 of the National League Division Series, 23 innings ago. Maeda has seen a velocity increase on his fastball and has retired all 15 batters he has faced in the post-season.
• Lance McCullers, SP-RP, Astros: Nobody should expect McCullers to be able to run the table with 24 consecutive curveballs the way he did in Game 7 of the ALCS, and as of now he’s destined to get one start, but given the issues the Astros have had with middle relief this post-season it shouldn’t surprise anyone if McCullers, who has fired the third-most innings this post-season for the Astros behind Verlander and Dallas Keuchel. Hinch says that McCullers “loves the moment,” and while it might be difficult to quantify that analytically, the fact his manager believes it means McCullers will be on the mound for a couple of pivotal moments, at least.
• Yasiel Puig, RF, Dodgers: It’s going to happen at some point: Puig is going to walk off with some type of individual honour and for a player who seems to not only seek the spotlight but also seems to understand the responsibility that comes with it … well, why not Puig for World Series MVP? Quick – which three players have seen the most pitches per plate appearance this post-season? Aaron Judge is first, Justin Turner second, and Puig is third at 4.60. Not only that, but Puig has hit left-handers this post-season (6-for-10) after hitting under .200 during the regular season. Kershaw says he’s never seen Puig have the “level of focus,” that he’s seen in the past three weeks. Bad news for the Astros.
• Justin Verlander, SP, Astros: Tough call, eh? Tom Verducci of Sports Illustrated broke down why moving to the Astros could breathe new life into Verlander’s game and in the Dodgers he’s facing a team with very little first-hand knowledge of what it’s like to face him. Verlander is the single most important arm in this series; he’ll get the start in Game 2 and it’s easy to see him making one or two relief appearances, as well as another start, if the Series goes seven games, given the weakness of Houston’s middle relief. Verlander has 24 strikeouts in three post-season starts and one relief appearance.
• The call: Dodgers in six games.