AP Photo/David J. Phillip
Game 1 of the 2022 World Series had a little bit of everything, but mostly what it had was J.T. Realmuto showing why the Philadelphia Phillies refer to him as the Best Catcher in Baseball.
For them, it ultimately meant a 1-0 series lead. And for the Houston Astros, that means trouble.
There was a point on Friday when the Astros seemed well on their way to victory. Justin Verlander entered the fourth inning having retired the first nine batters he had faced, and he had a 5-0 lead courtesy of a Martin Maldonado single and two home runs from Kyle Tucker.
Yet that lead came under threat when the Phillies, who won 19 fewer games than the Astros in the regular season, pushed three across in the top of the fourth. Then in the fifth, it vanished when Realmuto knocked a two-run double off the left-field wall.
Cut to the top of the 10th, and there was that man again with a go-ahead shot to right field:
THOSE FIGHTINS! #WorldSeries pic.twitter.com/tBnyeldpbU
Once David Robertson induced a groundout from Aledmys Díaz for the final out, the Phillies had dealt the Astros their first loss of the playoffs and, as Sarah Langs of MLB.com noted, their first loss in any game they had led by five or more runs since July 26, 2021.
Meet J.T. Realmuto, Who Really Is This Good
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Perhaps it’s a reach to present Realmuto as some kind of overlooked gem. He is, after all, a three-time All-Star who secured the highest average salary for a catcher in Major League Baseball history when he signed a five-year, $115.5 million contract in January 2021.
Plus, there’s the 31-year-old’s place among his fellow catchers on the wins-above-replacement leaderboard for the last six seasons:
- J.T. Realmuto, MIA/PHI: 24.7 WAR
- Willson Contreras, CHC: 19.1 WAR
- Salvador Perez, KCR: 14.9 WAR
Still, it used to be that one could fairly surmise that Realmuto was one of baseball’s more under-the-radar stars. It didn’t help that he didn’t set foot in the playoffs in any of his first eight seasons, which is typically the best place for a player to get on the radar.
There were also times in 2022 when it looked like Year 9 would keep Realmuto’s playoff record empty, perhaps never more so than on June 25.
By the end of that day, the Phillies would be nine games out of first place in the National League East and suddenly without reigning MVP Bryce Harper after he suffered a broken thumb on a hit-by-pitch. And even after cranking two home runs over his last three games, Realmuto was still hitting only .237.
Whether by coincidence or providence, that’s when things clicked into place for Realmuto. He hit .310 and clubbed 17 home runs the rest of the way, in the process accumulating more WAR (FanGraphs version this time) than any position player not named Aaron Judge.
It’s in no small part because of this super-heated version of Realmuto that the Phillies were able to qualify for the playoffs for the first time since 2011. And rather than cool down, he’s greeted his first postseason by turning on the jets.
He came into the World Series having hit safely in eight of the Phillies’ first 11 games, with home runs in Game 4 of both the Division Series and Championship Series. When he hit that double off Verlander, it had a sort of “Who else?” feeling to it.
Philadelphia Phillies @Phillies
J.T. stands for JUST TIED THIS BALLGAME RIGHT UP pic.twitter.com/u33yqoIuaA
In a game that otherwise featured terrific plays by Alec Bohm at third base and Nick Castellanos in right field, Realmuto also came this close to being yet another defensive hero for the Phillies.
José Altuve got a good jump and had a good pitch to run on when he took off for second base with two outs in the ninth inning, but Realmuto nearly caught him stealing anyway. Though they got away with it this time, the Astros surely won’t be forgetting that firsthand glimpse of Realmuto’s MLB-best pop time to second base.
It’s Only One Game, But It’s a Big Loss for the Astros
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A loss in Game 1 of the World Series? The Astros have now been there five times in their history, yet they know from 2017 that it is possible to come away victorious anyway.
There should nonetheless be no mistaking that a 1-0 deficit is indeed a hole, and one that tends to eventually leave teams buried for good. Per Langs, the track record of teams coming back after losing the first game of the World Series is not good:
This is not to say there weren’t any silver linings for the Astros on Friday.
It was certainly good for them to see Tucker, who had entered the series just 6-for-28 in the postseason, go off for two long balls and an eighth-inning single. It was also another largely successful night for the bullpen, which boasts a near-microscopic 0.95 ERA for the playoffs.
But then there’s the Verlander problem.
There was no such problem during the regular season as the 39-year-old pitched to a league-best 1.75 ERA and won 18 games next to just four losses. That performance is almost certainly going to win him the third Cy Young Award of his career.
Since the playoffs began, however, Verlander hasn’t looked like the same guy. He got lit up in his first outing against the Seattle Mariners and at times looked human in his second even as he struck out 11 members of the New York Yankees.
All this seemed to be behind Verlander through the first three innings of the eighth World Series start of his career, but the unraveling that followed was the real deal. He got out of his mechanics and struggled to throw the ball where he wanted, including on that curve that caught too much of the zone against Realmuto.
“I need to do better,” the veteran ace said afterward, according to Chandler Rome of the Houston Chronicle. “No excuses.”
In the end, it was merely the latest World Series disappointment for Verlander. Per MLB.com’s Paul Casella, he now has the highest ERA ever in the Fall Classic among pitchers who’ve logged over 30 innings therewithin:
This is a sizable blemish for the future Hall of Famer. And if this series gets to a point where the Astros have to start Verlander again, it’ll resemble a bad omen.
Meanwhile, there’s no ignoring the problems the Astros are having on the offensive side.
Those start at the top with Altuve, who only has four jam-shot hits to show for his 38 at-bats in the playoffs. They also involve Yordan Álvarez, who’s 3-for-25 since hitting home runs in Games 1 and 2 of the Division Series. There are also some automatic outs in the bottom third of the lineup.
In a broader sense, the Astros frankly looked beatable even before the Phillies finally put them in the loss column for the 2022 playoffs. Though they won all seven of their games en route to the World Series, all but one was decided by two or fewer runs.
What’s Next for the Astros and Phillies?
Game 2 of the World Series is set for Saturday at Minute Maid Park, with Zack Wheeler on the mound for the Phillies opposite Framber Valdez for the Astros.
Valdez is a ground-ball machine who’s allowed just two earned runs over 12.2 innings so far in the playoffs. Yet on account of the 1.78 ERA that Wheeler posted in four starts prior to the World Series, the pitching matchup for Game 2 may nonetheless favor the Phillies.
First pitch is scheduled for 8: 03 p.m. ET.
Stats courtesy of Baseball Reference, FanGraphs and Baseball Savant.
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