A tale of two infields pits strength against strength
By Tyler Kepner
Two were drafted first overall. Two have won their league’s MVP award. They come from all over: Cuba and Curaçao, Puerto Rico and Venezuela, California and Georgia and Mississippi and New Mexico. And all of them have played for only one team in the majors.
The opener of the 117th World Series, on Tuesday night at Minute Maid Park in Houston, was to be the 50th postseason game together for the Houston Astros’ infielders: first baseman Yuli Gurriel, second baseman José Altuve, shortstop Carlos Correa and third baseman Alex Bregman.
The 50 games would extend a postseason record for a single infield, and the Astros’ group has now taken five deep postseason runs together. All four infielders have made multiple All-Star teams except Gurriel, 37, a longtime star in Cuba who won this year’s American League batting title.
“It’s one of the best infields ever,” said Kyle Tucker, the Astros’ right fielder — and yet it might not even be the best infield at this World Series.
Consider this quartet of Atlanta Braves: first baseman Freddie Freeman, second baseman Ozzie Albies, shortstop Dansby Swanson and third baseman Austin Riley. They nearly became the first infield ever with 30 home runs by each player: 33 for Riley, 31 for Freeman, 30 for Albies and 27 for Swanson.
Swanson is the only starting infielder in this World Series who has played for another organization. The Arizona Diamondbacks drafted him out of Vanderbilt with the first pick in 2015 — just ahead of Bregman, an Albuquerque, New Mexico, kid who played at Louisiana State. Six months after the draft and early in Swanson’s minor league career, Arizona traded him to the Braves, the team he loved as a boy in Marietta, Georgia.
“One thing I have a lot of admiration for about him is taking an extra base; a ball that everyone thinks is a single, he turns into a double,” Bregman said of Swanson. “And Riley’s unbelievable. There’s a reason why he’s getting MVP chants in Atlanta. Unbelievable power. I definitely wish I had his arm at third base.”
The Braves drafted Riley from a high school in DeSoto, Mississippi, near the end of that first round in 2015. Now 24, Riley is the same age as Albies, a speedy, slick-fielding switch-hitter from Curaçao. He has not won an MVP, as Altuve did for Houston in 2017, but he has more homers and nearly as many hits as Altuve had at the same age.
“People were saying I can’t get the job done because I’m small,” said Albies, who is 5-foot-8, 2 inches taller than Altuve. “I’m like, ‘Altuve’s smaller than me, and he’s done it.’ The first time I saw him, we said hi to each other. He’s actually a little smaller than me. I thought, ‘If he can do it, why can’t I do it?’”
Freeman has been doing it for years, since reaching the majors in 2010 and hitting his first home run off future Hall of Famer Roy Halladay. His latest stellar season — a .300 average, an .896 on-base plus slugging percentage and a National League-best 120 runs scored — followed up his MVP performance during the pandemic-shortened 2020. Freeman made five postseason trips before this fall, when he finally won a pennant despite injuries to several teammates.
“We have had like 40-foot potholes that we’ve hit, like humongous speed bumps,” Freeman said of Atlanta’s adventurous season. “Everything you could possibly see in a road, we hit it — and we still somehow overcame all that.”
Freeman is facing free agency after the season, like Correa, who started the Astros’ reconstruction by signing from Puerto Rico as the first overall pick in 2012. Correa hit a career-high 26 homers this season and had by far his best year on defense. That makes sense, considering the infield’s history together.
“I think the biggest benefit is that we know each other so well that you know how much ground you can cover,” Correa said, adding later, “We’ve been playing together for so long that it’s just automatic by now.”
Free agency could break up one or both infields this winter, but one group will enter the offseason as champions.
There are numerous connections between the teams even after you get past their star-studded infields:
This is hard to believe, but it’s true (we triple-checked): The 2021 World Series is the first to feature the teams that lost in the League Championship Series the previous year. Houston and Atlanta both fell in Game 7 of the LCS in 2020 but returned this month to win the pennants. (Close call: 1980, when Philadelphia faced Kansas City. Both teams had lost the LCS in 1976, 1977 and 1978, but missed the playoffs in 1979.)
Hello, old friend
Another World Series, another appearance by Charlie Morton, who was to start for Atlanta in Game 1. Morton also pitched for Tampa Bay last year and for Houston in 2017, when he won Game 7 at Dodger Stadium with four strong innings of relief.
Morton will always have a place in Astros lore because he was on the mound for the last out of that World Series. So how strange is it that he is now facing the Astros in the World Series? Well, it has never happened before. Morton will become the first pitcher to close out a World Series for one team and then face that same team in a future World Series.
On the shelf
Both teams are missing high-impact players because of injury. Atlanta lost outfielder Ronald Acuña Jr. to a torn anterior cruciate ligament in July, and Houston’s ace right-hander, Justin Verlander, did not pitch all season after Tommy John surgery. A more recent injury knocked out Lance McCullers Jr., who began this postseason as the Astros’ No. 1 starter. McCullers, who was 13-5 with a 3.16 ERA this season, started twice in the division series but is out for the World Series with a muscle strain in his forearm.
That doesn’t look right
Ten players have played only for Houston and Atlanta, including Evan Gattis, who hit .300 for the Astros in the 2017 World Series. One hundred others have played for both teams, as well as others, including Jim Bouton, Sid Bream, Joe Niekro, Billy Wagner, Jimmy Wynn and Hall of Famer Eddie Mathews, who hit 493 homers for the Braves — in Boston, Milwaukee and Atlanta — and 10 for the Astros in 1967.
Atlanta manager Brian Snitker played four seasons as a catcher in the Braves’ farm system through age 24. Then he became a coach. His son, Troy, played three seasons as a catcher, mostly in Atlanta’s farm system, also through age 24. Then he became a coach, too, and is now an Astros hitting instructor.
Troy said that his sister, Erin, reached him on FaceTime from the field in Atlanta, just after Brian clinched their date in the World Series. “To have both of us do it in the same year and be able to go up against each other,” Troy Snitker said, “it’s a dream come true.”