The stakes are plainly high for the Houston Astros in their 2021 World Series matchup with the Atlanta Braves

That seems an obvious thing to say given that the two squadrons will be playing a best-of-seven series for both belt and title. For the Astros, it's a chance to rebuke those who insist their 2017 World Series title -- the only one in franchise history -- is illegitimate on account of the sign-stealing scandal that overlapped that season. Whether any of that thinking strikes you as too simplistic (it probably is), it's all part of the backdrop to the Fall Classic that gets underway on Tuesday with Game 1 in Houston. 

So to set the scene for the baseball events to come and to further home in the Astros' side of things, let's take a look at four X-factors -- i.e., the player, players, or player-related considerations on which the World Series could hinge from the Houston perspective. Baseball content forthwith? Baseball content forthwith. 

1. Garcia's new level

Right-hander Luis Garcia spun a gem in the Astros' clinching ALCS Game 6 against the Red Sox. That's striking because Garcia had struggled in his prior two 2021 postseason starts. After one ALDS start and a start in ALCS Game 2, Garcia had a 24.55 ERA, more walks (five) than strikeouts (four), and batters owned a line of .389/.542/.778 against him in these playoffs. To compound matters, Garcia was forced to exit that Game 2 start against Boston with knee discomfort. 

Garcia was able to get over his knee troubles in large measure because he reworked his mechanics to reduce the load on his knee. He was able to do that by altering the placement of his drive foot on the mound, and as a perhaps intended consequence the altered setup unlocked some missing fastball velocity and some sharper stuff. For instance: 

In 5 2/3 shutout innings in Game 6, Garcia allowed only one hit and struck out seven against one walk. Boston that night swung at Garcia's cutter 13 times, and 12 times they whiffed on it. 

It's of course perilous to read too much into one start, but the fact that Garcia's dominant outing is underpinned by mechanical changes, it raises the possibility that he's found a new and sustainable level of performance. If this series goes long enough, then Garcia could wind up making two starts. Needless to say, Houston is hoping the ALCS Game 6 version is here to stay. 

2. Alvarez in the outfield

Yordan Alvarez's bat skills were on full display in the ALCS, for which he was named MVP. Nothing about that is particularly surprising. That's because the 24-year-old lefty masher in 233 career regular season games has a slash line of .290/.371/.577 (150 OPS+) with 61 home runs and as many doubles. On top of all that, he's got a career postseason line of .315/.411/.507 across 28 games. Simply put, he's one of the best young hitters in baseball. He's also a DH. 

Therein lies the issue for Houston. In Games 3, 4, and if necessary 5, National League rules will prevail in suburban Atlanta, which means no DH. Obviously, you don't sit a bat like Alvarez's. That means manager Dusty Baker will probably move Alvarez to left and put Michael Brantley on the bench, at least at the outset of those contests. 

Alvarez isn't a complete stranger to the position, as he's logged 385 career defensive innings in left, and he also spent some time there in the minors. Critically, 321 of those 385 big-league innings in left have come this season. On Oct. 2 against the A's, Alvarez spent all nine innings in the field. 

Houston's gamble is that Alvarez's noise-making at the plate more than makes up for whatever he gives back with the glove. That's probably a sound bet, but it's still a risk. Speaking of which, the Braves this season had one of the most fly-ball inclined offenses in the National League. 

3. Rested bullpen

Baker's bullpen got rode hard early in the ALCS, but they should be rejuvenated for the World Series. Here's how their recent workload looks coming into Game 1 against the Braves: 

  • Oct. 20: One reliever throws a total of 17 pitches
  • Oct. 21: Off
  • Oct: 22: Four relievers throw a total of 49 pitches
  • Oct. 23: Off
  • Oct. 24: Off
  • Oct. 25: Off

As for some specifics, closer Ryan Pressly threw just nine pitches in Game 6. Cristian Javier, who has emerged as Baker's multi-inning weapon of choice out of the pen, hasn't pitched since ALCS Game 4 back on Oct. 19. Sure, some might fret about rust, but in late October the safe assumption is that more rest is quite desirable, especially when, like the Astros, your bullpen has thrown 57 percent of your total innings. 

That's key because it could have bearing on …

4. Houston's Game 4 starter

Lance McCullers Jr. will unfortunately miss the World Series because of the forearm strain he suffered in the ALDS. That leaves some uncertainty at the back end. Framber Valdez, Luis Garcia, and Jose Urquidy will start a total of six games should the series go seven, which means there's some uncertainty for Game 4 in Atlanta. 

Baker could use Zack Greinke or Jake Odorizzi in a traditional starter's role or use them in a bullpen game. That's what he did with Greinke in Game 4 against Boston. How the series unfolds before that point may inform his decision. Who knows, maybe Baker is even open to starting Valdez on short rest should the Astros be on the brink of either elimination or a championship in Game 4. Going in, it stands out as one of Baker's key decisions. 

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