3 keys for each LCS game as competition heats up

October 20th, 2023

Now this is more like it. In a postseason full of series that kept wrapping up earlier than we all wanted them to, Thursday night assured that the Championship Series, in both leagues, are going to be a couple of fights.

The D-backs battled and battled and battled and finally won their first NLCS game in 22 years in walk-off fashion, and suddenly, that Phillies inevitability feels a little less, uh, inevitable. And the Astros, the longtime tormentor of the Rangers, reversed all the momentum of the Silver Boot Series with a dominant Game 4 victory. That series has a dramatically different vibe than it did 48 hours ago. That is how the postseason is supposed to work, after all.

We get two more games on Friday. Here’s a look at three key storylines for both games.

Astros at Rangers
Series tied 2-2
Justin Verlander vs. Jordan Montgomery
5:07 p.m. ET, FS1

Storyline No. 1: Will we look back at the fourth inning of Game 4 as the turning point of this series?

The bases were loaded in the top of the fourth with no outs and the game tied 3-3. The Astros, after losing the first two games at home, and now having given up a 3-0 lead in Game 4, looked like they were about to reassert themselves in this series. How big would this inning get? But then Alex Bregman, a stalwart of this team’s run to seven straight ALCS, struck out. Yordan Alvarez, seemingly primed to hit a grand slam, blasted a 400-foot drive to center that would have been out of 17 of 30 MLB ballparks, but all he had to show for it was a sacrifice fly. Would the Rangers get out of this mess with just one run? What an escape that would be.

And then José Abreu, who had underperformed for much of the regular season, got a 2-2 fastball in the perfect place and blasted a three-run homer that silenced the crowd for the rest of the night. Imagine how different Game 4 could’ve gone if Abreu had struck out? The Rangers would have escaped with just a one-run deficit: The crowd would have been going nuts. Instead, Globe Life Field went mute, the game was essentially over and before you knew it, this series was tied 2-2. Remember when the Rangers had a stranglehold on this series? They, uh, don't anymore.

Storyline No. 2: Sure, Jordan Montgomery has been great … but is he ready for this?

It has already become axiomatic to declare something like, “Jordan Montgomery sure has made himself a lot of money this postseason.” The impending free agent has been a revelation for the Rangers to be sure, becoming the ace they thought they were getting in Jacob deGrom and Max Scherzer. But it’s one thing to be a pleasant surprise; it’s another thing to pull your team’s season back from the brink, against Justin Verlander of all people.

Save for Game 2 against the Orioles in the AL Division Series -- in which, it should be noted, he gave up five runs in four innings -- Montgomery has been one of the biggest stories of this postseason. But he has constantly been pitching from a place of strength -- the guy giving the Rangers a series lead, rather than the guy keeping them alive. But now he’s pitching for a team that had a 2-0 lead and, suddenly, doesn’t. He’s never pitched a bigger game than this one. Is he really the ace? We’re about to find out.

Storyline No. 3: Will the Astros ever lose on the road?

As excited as Rangers fans might have been by the 2-0 series lead in Houston, it has been achingly familiar once things got back to Arlington: The Astros, the best road team in baseball, waxing their intrastate rivals again. For those keeping score at home, the Astros were 6-1 in Arlington during the regular season and with the two playoff wins, they have now won six straight at Globe Life Field. They were 51-30 on the road during the regular season, and they are 4-0 away from Minute Maid Park in the postseason.

The Rangers thought they finally got over the hump with those two wins in Houston. And here they are, fighting for their lives again.

Phillies at D-backs
Phillies lead 2-1
Cristopher Sánchez vs. Joe Mantiply
8:07 p.m. ET, TBS

Storyline No. 1: Wait … who’s starting this game?

As a whole, baseball fans have accepted that the sport is different than it was 40, 30 or even 20 years ago, that the way we deploy starting pitchers has evolved, that bullpen arms are more valuable than ever, that even the term “starting pitcher” means something different than it once did. Baseball shifts and grows! That’s life! That said, it sure is pretty wild to see Joe Mantiply and Cristopher Sánchez as the starting pitchers in a massively pivotal Game 4 of the NLCS.

Mantiply (a 2022 All-Star!) is a reliever by trade, though he did make three starts this year as an “opener,” and the Arizona lefty is certainly in there to try to neutralize left-handed sluggers Kyle Schwarber and Bryce Harper atop the Philadelphia lineup. Sánchez is a starter, and he had a 3.44 ERA in the regular season across 99 1/3 innings, but he’s far from a household name, especially on a team with as many big names as the Phillies have. He’s also getting the ball ahead of right-handed veteran Taijuan Walker, who was actually pretty good for Philly this year (4.38 ERA in 31 starts). He has yet to pitch this October, but don’t be surprised to see him in relief on Friday night.

It’s certainly up in the air how far either one of these starters is going to go in this one, but it’s fair to presume “not very far.” We are about to watch one of the most important baseball games of this entire season, and bullpens are going to play an enormous role from the jump. Strap in. It’s going to be a long night.

Storyline No. 2: How much do the Phillies trust Craig Kimbrel moving forward?

Hey, is possibly going to be in the Hall of Fame someday. He’s one of the best closers in baseball history: He’s Craig Kimbrel! No one here is disrespecting Craig Kimbrel. But if you’ve watched Craig Kimbrel this postseason, even as he has closed out games in increasingly perilous fashion, you’ve clearly wondered: Someone’s going to get this guy at some point, right? On Thursday, someone finally got him.

"He just couldn't find the zone consistently, and sometimes that happens to him,” Phillies manager Rob Thomson said postgame Thursday, and while that’s all fine and good, uh, it’s certainly not ideal that one of those “sometimes” happened in a tie game in Game 3 of the NLCS.

The Phillies’ bullpen improvements have been one of the primary reasons they’ve elevated themselves to where they are, just two wins away from the World Series. But Kimbrel is the guy who is supposed to finish these games off. Do Philadelphia fans trust him right now?

Storyline No. 3: When will the road team win a game?

After two nights in the Thunderdome that has been Citizens Bank Park in the postseason, you can be forgiven if you thought, “Oh, this thing is over.” Did you see those fans? It felt like Philadelphia itself was good for a run or two. But as usual, we all underestimated what’s going on in Phoenix. Fair to say, the Chase Field crowd was pretty riled up itself on Thursday, and by the time Ketel Marte -- who is having a monster postseason and is establishing once again just how underappreciated of a player he is -- walked Game 3 off, well, you couldn’t help but wonder: Are we sure this isn’t a “D-backs fans are just as amped up as Phillies fans are” series?

The D-backs could have rolled over in this series after those first two games. But they didn’t. And now it’s 2-1, and neither team has won a road game. If Arizona wins Game 4, well … maybe Chase Field becomes the new Thunderdome.