The 2023 World Series matchup is set.
One night after the Rangers booked their first trip to the Fall Classic since 2011 with a Game 7 victory over the Houston Astros, the Diamondbacks continued their stunning run with a 4-2 Game 7 win in Philadelphia.
What has October taught us about each of these teams? What does each squad need to do to come out on top? And which players could be the difference-makers on both sides? ESPN MLB experts Bradford Doolittle, Alden Gonzalez, Jesse Rogers and David Schoenfield break it down.
What’s the most impressive thing about the Rangers this postseason?
Doolittle: The explosiveness of the offense is the Rangers’ standout trait, but during the playoffs what has really put them over the top is the performance of their top two starting pitchers. Simply put, Texas would not be in the World Series without the consistent performances of Jordan Montgomery and Nathan Eovaldi.
Eovaldi built upon his previous playoff reputation and has fully established himself as one of the great October pitchers of the last decade — at least. Montgomery has been almost as good (with one clunker mixed in there, in the ALDS against the Baltimore Orioles). Montgomery has become Bruce Bochy’s new “MadBum” (Madison Bumgarner), drawing a Game 7 bullpen assignment even when the Texas relief staff was fully rested and ready to go. Two starting pitchers can no longer carry a club to a championship in the way that Randy Johnson and Curt Schilling did in 2001, but what we’ve seen the Rangers’ top two do is as close to that as we are likely to get.
Gonzalez: The Rangers’ lineup is deep, but Adolis Garcia is the one who makes them go — more so than even Marcus Semien and Corey Seager, the $500 million middle-infield combo that occupies at the top of the order. Garcia has become Texas’ most dynamic player. And when he’s running hot, his energy is infectious. In his last six at-bats of the ALCS, while heckled at unimaginable levels by the Houston crowd, he homered three times and drove in nine runs, almost single-handedly ending the defending-champion Astros’ season. He has driven in 20 runs in 12 playoff games and is already just one RBI behind David Freese in 2011 for the most in a single postseason. This is a guy who just four years ago was passed over by the St. Louis Cardinals — and two years ago by the Rangers themselves, when they designated him for assignment. Amazing.
Why will it (or won’t it) work against the D-backs in the World Series?
Doolittle: Arizona has not really been carried by the performance of any particular starting pitcher or, indeed, any one thing at all. Whatever it has taken to survive in a particular series, Torey Lovullo and his team have been able to find. In Merrill Kelly and Zac Gallen, Arizona does have a top two capable of staying with Eovaldi and Montgomery. There is less pressure for that duo to work deep because Lovullo has been so aggressive with his bullpen use, but if Texas continues to get long, effective starts from its big two, that will make things awful tough on Arizona. That would mean Bruce Bochy can both effectively moderate his high-leverage relievers and keep his staff fresh for when he needs to feature a steady parade of bullpen arms.
Gonzalez: Garcia’s bat has a tendency to run hot and cold. He OPS’d .790 in July and August, then .934 in September. And just before running absolutely rampant in that six-at-bat stretch to cap off a historic LCS run, he struck out four consecutive times, taking some ugly swings on a handful of occasions. In the past three seasons, only one man in all of baseball — Eugenio Suarez — compiled more strikeouts than Garcia, so highs and lows are inevitable with him. The Rangers just have to hope his surge lasts another week or so. It’s a really small sample size, of course, but Garcia was only 2-for-17 with five strikeouts against the D-backs this season, including a combined 0-for-7 showing against Zac Gallen and Brandon Pfaadt (he did not face Merrill Kelly).
Who is the one player who must deliver for the Rangers to be champs from here?
Doolittle: Our perception of who needs to get going during the playoffs can change so rapidly. Corbin Carroll, who looked like he was a budding playoff superstar during the first round against the Brewers, mostly struggled in the NLCS, then went wild in Game 7. Corey Seager, the best player in the playoffs during the Rangers’ early games, struggled throughout the ALCS — then went wild in Game 7. So you just don’t know how rapidly this picture will change.
One player who has been consistent for the Rangers throughout October is Marcus Semien — but not in a good way. It’s hard to imagine the Rangers finishing this run off without Semien starting to book some better offensive results. Semien seemed to have better swings and approach in the last two games against Houston, and if that’s a precursor to him breaking out in the World Series, look out. The rest of the Rangers lineup seems to be in fine fettle — if Semien gets going, there is nowhere for opposing pitchers to hide.
Gonzalez: This one is easy: Jose Leclerc. Those who haven’t been following the Rangers this postseason might not be all that familiar with him, but he has become their go-to closer and most important reliever. The Rangers have navigated this entire year with a shaky bullpen, and as the stakes have continually ratcheted up, it has become clear that Bochy trusts very few pitchers with close leads late. One of those is certainly Josh Sborz. And perhaps the only other one is Leclerc, who has converted almost as many saves this postseason (three) as he did throughout the entire regular season (four). The 29-year-old right-hander was really good this year, with a 2.68 ERA and 67 strikeouts – though also 28 walks – in 67 innings. He can provide more than one inning, and he’ll undoubtedly be called on to do that in the World Series.
What’s the most impressive thing about the D-backs this postseason?
Rogers: Everything? But really, it’s been their ability to adjust on the fly — whether that’s to a raucous crowd, a slumping player or a struggling reliever. They’ve mixed and matched all over the place, and they have a manager who is willing to put his neck on the line. Simply put, they’ve maxed out on moments to get them where they are. Whatever you think of the matchup, it would be unwise to anoint the Rangers after what the D-backs have done this postseason. Every part of their roster helped get them to this point. There’s no reason that will change now.
Schoenfield: That they’ve made it this far even though their stars haven’t really carried the load. After a hot start to the postseason — 6-for-12 with two home runs in his first three games — Corbin Carroll was a non-factor until busting out in the finale of the NLCS with three hits, two runs, two stolen bases and a sac fly. The Diamondbacks lost both of Zac Gallen’s starts against the Phillies. Christian Walker, who led the team with 33 home runs, had two hits and drove in two runs in the NLCS. And yet, somehow they won all three of the non-Gallen/non-Merrill Kelly games, when everyone figured the only way for them to upset the Phillies was to have Gallen and Kelly dominate. Up is down, left is right, nothing about this team in the postseason really adds up — but they’re still playing baseball.
Why will it (or won’t it) work against the Rangers in the World Series?
Rogers: Now that they’ve gotten this far, why would anyone say the D-backs can’t keep doing their thing all the way to a title? This is a team that seems to have a different hero every game. And here’s another key to the D-backs success: They’re hitting home runs this postseason. That was a huge question mark coming into October. They’ve sprinkled in just enough to keep the opposition honest. In fact, it’s Alek Thomas — a part time starter — who leads them with four. It’s hard to imagine a conventional series win — there would have to be some grinding moments — but Arizona could pull off another shocker.
Schoenfield: It seems unlikely, doesn’t it? You can only rely so much on Brandon Pfaadt or Alek Thomas, and Ketel Marte can’t be the only player to consistently produce on offense. Then again, the Diamondbacks took advantage of the Phillies’ biggest weakness — Craig Kimbrel — to win Games 3 and 4, and it’s not like the Rangers have a lockdown late-game bullpen either as closer Jose Leclerc has been sketchy and also worked hard this postseason. But all you have to do is out-win the opponent over seven games, not outscore them.
Still, it feels like the keys will once again be Gallen and Kelly. The Rangers’ lineup finished the ALCS scoring 20 runs the final two games. They have home-field advantage where their OPS in the regular season was more than 100 points higher than on the road (they hit 143 home runs at home, 90 on the road). Given the Diamondbacks will have to rely have heavily on the bullpen in Games 3 and 4 and then again in Game 7 if it goes that far, it’s important that Gallen and Kelly also give them some length.
Who is the one player who must deliver for the D-backs to be champs from here?
Rogers: Gabriel Moreno. It might sound dramatic to choose a rookie catcher, but his impact on the Diamondbacks right now can’t be overstated. He’s been moved up in the lineup and now will need to call another great series against an offensive powerhouse. It’s so much to ask — but it has been every round, and he keeps coming through. Don’t forget his rocket arm, either — the Rangers didn’t run a lot during the regular season, but they have that tool in their toolbox. If Moreno can keep doing exactly what he’s doing, he’ll be a big reason the Diamondbacks have a shot at this.
Schoenfield: Carroll. They’re going to have to score runs to beat the Rangers, which means they’ll need production from someone besides Marte at the top of the order. Until Game 7, when he seemed more himself, Carroll looked a little overmatched against the Phillies until his big Game 7, and perhaps the fatigue of the long season has caught up to him. His groundball rate has gone from 45% in the regular season to 55% in the postseason (and 65% in the NLCS); he’s clearly had issues driving the ball. Maybe it’s a slump — and perhaps his late breakout points to as much — but if it is fatigue, the Arizona offense might be in trouble.