LOS ANGELES — The talented and accomplished statistical analysts for the Los Angeles Dodgers and the Houston Astros could have run a million simulations on the 2017 playoffs and may not have ever anticipated the situation that the two managers find themselves in for Game 6 of the World Series on Tuesday night.
Forget the Dodgers’ new-age pitching construction that smoothly operated like an Olympic 400-meter relay team. Dodgers manager Dave Roberts desperately needs Rich Hill to go old-school and become Sandy Koufax or Orel Hershiser.
“Under the circumstances of Game 5,” said Roberts, “you’ve got to be open to pushing [Hill], and I know he’s up for the challenge. … In an elimination game, we are absolutely looking for Rich to go deep.”
Similarly, Houston manager A.J. Hinch secretly hopes Justin Verlander can be Nolan Ryan or Mike Scott.
Roberts and Hinch oversee two pitching staffs that are worn down — or worn out — and even those relievers who are still in their team’s circle of trust may be spent. The Dodgers’ Brandon Morrow allowed three extra-base hits through the entirety of the regular season, and in Game 5, the Astros hammered two homers, a double and a single in the span of six pitches against him, in his fifth appearance in six days. Kenta Maeda has thrown 67 pitches over the past three days, which might account for how flat his slider was against the Astros in Game 5. Even closer Kenley Jansen has allowed runs in his past three appearances.
The Astros’ bullpen situation is seemingly even more undefined, with Hinch so flummoxed in his search for reliable relievers that he has turned to a strategy common four decades ago to managers Billy Martin and Dick Williams — stick with a pitcher until something bad happens, and then try somebody else. This is how it came to pass that Lance McCullers Jr. got a four-inning save in Game 7 of the American League Championship Series, and how Brad Peacock got the first of his professional career in Game 3 of the World Series.
The bullpen scripts that seemed so logical at the outset of the World Series are now obsolete. Hinch and Roberts have no real alternative but to work off gut instinct for the rest of this World Series, because there is no predictable element available to either team. Available starting pitchers may be asked to relieve, and relievers who have been trusted all summer may be asked to watch, to keep them out of harm’s way. There have been more extra-base hits (42) than singles (39) in the World Series, and as researcher Paul Hembekides learned from the Elias Sports Bureau, this is a first.
What Hinch said before Game 4 may apply to what is left of this World Series: “I don’t have a scripted way of getting our 27 outs. We have some strengths that we can feel we can exploit, some matchups that we want.”
Verlander starts Game 6 for the Astros, working with an extra day of rest because of the two travel days within the midst of the series, and Hinch can go into the night working under the assumption that Verlander will absorb most or perhaps even all of the needed 27 outs. Verlander, after all, threw 124 pitches in the only complete game of this entire postseason in Game 2 of the American League Championship Series.
But the Dodgers hitters are patient and deliberate, and they have mostly dominated starting pitchers in this postseason. No opposing starter has thrown a pitch in the eighth inning against L.A., and in 13 October games for the Dodgers, the opposing starters have averaged fewer than five innings per outing — 61⅔ innings in 13 starts. Even if Verlander pitches well in Game 6 and the Astros take the lead, it may be that Hinch will need a reliever (or two) to ferry that advantage through the ninth inning, and that’s where he’s got a big, big problem.
The Houston bullpen has an ERA of 7.58 in this World Series, and the roles established over the long regular season have been wiped out. Ken Giles is out as closer, and it’s unlikely he’ll pitch an important inning again in this postseason. Hinch tried to finish Sunday’s Game 5 with Chris Devenski, and the right-hander surrendered a three-run lead, appearing completely exhausted. Hinch sometimes matches up Will Harris against left-handed hitters and he could be an option to close a lead, but he has never thrown more than an inning or 23 pitches in a postseason game, and the Astros seem wary of asking for too much. Brad Peacock pitched brilliantly in Game 3, throwing 3⅔ innings and collecting the first save of his career — but in Game 5, he looked tired, his stuff flattened out. After leaning on Peacock for 92 pitches in Games 3 and 5, it’s unclear whether Hinch would ask him for more in Game 6; the manager may be more inclined to hold Peacock in reserve for Game 7.
Hinch does have a potential high-risk, high-reward move available to him, like an NFL coach who has the option of going for a touchdown on fourth-and-goal while leading by a field goal with four minutes to play.
“I’m going to proceed to just trying to win Game 6, and if that means I have to use guys in a unique way, that’s fine,” Hinch said. “If the game warrants any decision to try to win the game, I think you have to try to win the game that you’re playing that day and not concern yourself with a lot of the unknowns.”
McCullers is lined up to start Game 7 for the Astros, but Hinch could prepare McCullers for the possibility of serving as the de facto closer in Game 6, as he did in throwing the final four innings of Game 7 of the ALCS. If the Astros get the lead in Game 6 and Verlander needs relief, Hinch could bypass some of his taxed relievers and aim for the jugular and use a rested McCullers to try to finish the Dodgers.
The potential downside of taking this gamble, of course, would manifest in a Game 7, if the Astros lose Game 6. If Hinch uses McCullers out of the bullpen in Game 6, that would mean he would have to pick somebody else to start Game 7 — Charlie Morton, in all likelihood, on three days’ rest, backed by Brad Peacock, Dallas Keuchel and maybe even Verlander in relief.
Dave Roberts’ options seem more defined, with Hill and Darvish lined up to start Games 6 and 7, but much more sparse than when this series began. Early in the series, the Dodgers’ bullpen extended its scoreless innings streak to 28 innings, and now L.A.’s relief ERA in the World Series is 5.32.
Maeda threw extensively in Games 3 and 5, and he may be limited in Game 6. Morrow may not be available at all, and Jansen could be limited. Roberts told reporters that Alex Wood, who threw well in his Game 4 start, will be available as soon as Game 6, and Clayton Kershaw will presumably have his spikes on for Game 7.
Baseball’s two best teams have imperfect relief options, at best, after a week of big swings and big hits, and only one of the managers will piece together enough pitching the next two days to win the World Series.