The Philadelphia Phillies have lost only two games on their road to the World Series, and never more than one in a series. The Houston Astros have had even more success, sweeping both the Mariners and Yankees to snag their latest AL pennant. But even though the playoff records of each of these teams look similarly dominant heading into Game 1 tonight, their respective paths, and the feelings they’ve sparked along the way, could not be more different. In Philly, a team that’s held onto a bucking bull all month hopes it can avoid being flung to the ground for just one more week. In Houston, they’ve been drinking warm milk before early bedtimes since the beginning of the year, and not for a single day in this postseason have they looked like they’ve lost control.
To best understand the dynamic at play here, we need only look back to last Saturday, when each team notched a victory that would bring them within one game of punching their tickets to the World Series. At 5:07 p.m. in the Bronx, the Astros took their first at-bats, and within an inning-and-a-half a dropped fly ball and a Chas McCormick home run gave them a 2-0 lead on Gerrit Cole. As Cristian Javier pitched 5.1 scoreless innings, setting up five different arms from the bullpen to eventually finish the job, the Astros tacked on three more runs to win handily. There was almost nothing for the home fans to cheer all night; the steady dominance was enough to break Yankees fans.
The Astros have surrendered just two leads in this postseason. In every spot where they’ve hit even a little bit of trouble, showing the opposition a glimmer of a weakness, Yordan Álvarez has always been there to calm everybody down. They weathered the few challenges the Mariners mustered (including shutting them down completely across that 18-inning, 1-0 marathon) and then let all the air out of the Yankees. So far, their plan to master this bracket is playing out exactly as it was designed.
At 7:45 p.m. in Philadelphia, a decidedly wilder, more exciting, and more memorable baseball game began with disaster for the home team. Starting pitcher Bailey Falter lived up to his name, getting just two outs before surrendering a Manny Machado home run, then a pair of hits and a walk that led to his quick exit. When the Phillies came up to bat for the first time, they did so in a 4-0 hole, but it only took them a few tries to chip into it. A two-run Rhys Hoskins dinger and then an RBI double from Bryce Harper reignited the crowd. Bryson Stott tied the game 4-4 in the fourth with a single, then Brad Hand gave the lead right back by allowing Juan Soto to go yard, and then the Phillies answered in the bottom of the fifth with a four-run fireworks display. When the dust cleared, they had won 10-6 and taken a 2-1 lead in the series.
So many of the Phillies’ games would take paragraphs and paragraphs to properly summarize. There was the first Cardinals game where they entered the ninth down 2-0, scored six runs, and still came dangerously close to losing. There were their sudden offensive explosions in their wins against the Braves. There were Jean Segura’s adventures in Game 3 against the Padres, and Harper’s ecstatic game-winning dong after a blown lead in Game 5.
Time and again, while the Astros have cruised through their competition with minimum levels of stress, the Phillies—while still winning—have made their fans hold their breath, clench their fists, and brace themselves for heartbreak. Houston straightforwardly supports strong pitching with high-leverage moonshots, but the ways in which the NL champs win have proven impossible to predict, running the gamut from multiple 2-0 wins to a handful of bombastic home run derbies. Astros relievers have a combined ERA of just 0.82 in the postseason, and opposing teams are hitting a mere .147 when the Houston has the lead. Meanwhile the Phillies’ relievers have a dicier ERA of 3.19, and when Philly is leading, the other team is hitting .219 with eight home runs against them. Astros bullpenners like Bryan Abreu and Ryan Pressly have shut out the lights when called upon, but every late-game arm the Phillies can put on the mound has at least one recent shaky outing to their name. Somehow, both approaches have worked for their respective teams. That can’t continue; there’s only one parade to be had.
On one side, there is anxiety and uncertainty and hope. On the other, there is a grim conviction in proven superiority across any time frame you want to measure. If you’re going to watch, you have to pick one or the other—either the imperial accomplishment of a great team continuing to be great, or the bizarre shock of a third-place afterthought trampolining the competition with its middle fingers raised. I’m not interested in framing this World Series as good vs. evil, though plenty of people can and will do that. But one glaring observation serves as my guiding light: The more boring these games are, the more likely it is that the Astros win it all.