ATLANTA -- The Astros are in a hostile environment in the World Series, needing a victory in the middle game of a three-game set at Truist Park, where the Braves have not lost this postseason (6-0). With the Braves smelling an opportunity to take command, Houston could use the steady hand of a veteran pitcher who has made a career out of clutch performances in critical situations.
If Game 4 of the World Series ends up being Zack Greinke’s final appearance as an Astro, it’s certainly a fitting backdrop for his swan song.
“It's super valuable to have a future Hall of Famer throwing for you,” Alex Bregman said as he looked beyond Friday’s 2-0 loss and ahead to a fascinating Saturday night matchup with the Astros trailing in the Series, 2-1. “He's pitched in big situations. He's pitched great for us in the World Series before. So we have a ton of confidence in him, and we want to play good defense behind him and give him some run support.”
Indeed, Greinke has some history with the World Series. That will be part of the fun.
The last time Greinke was on the mound in a Fall Classic, he had the Astros within eight outs of their second title in three years, having held down the Nationals on one hit for 6 1/3 innings in Game 7 of the 2019 World Series at Minute Maid Park. Then Anthony Rendon homered, Juan Soto walked to put the tying run on base and then-Astros manager A.J. Hinch went to his bullpen.
The rest, of course, is history. Will Harris replaced Greinke, Howie Kendrick hit a go-ahead two-run homer, and the Nationals won their first title. It was arguably the most scrutinized managerial pitching move in modern World Series memory until Rays manager Kevin Cash pulled Blake Snell after 5 1/3 innings under similar circumstances in Game 6 of last year’s Fall Classic.
Fast forward two years, and it’s difficult to find such a scenario for second-guessing. Dusty Baker showed tremendous confidence in Greinke last October as he helped lead Houston to within a game of the World Series. With injuries and a stint on the COVID injured list having limited Greinke down the stretch this year, though, he wouldn’t seem to be an option to pitch deep.
Greinke hasn’t hit the 40-pitch mark in a game since his return from the injured list on the final day of the regular season. His only start so far this postseason was in a similar situation, but he lasted just 37 pitches and four outs in Game 4 of the ALCS on Oct. 19 in Boston. He drew no swings and misses, struggled to locate anything other than his fastball and drew only one called strike off his secondary pitches.
Greinke has had nine days since then to work on his mechanics and command. He threw a 50-pitch simulated game last Sunday at Minute Maid Park to not only work on his pitches, but stretch out his arm a bit. Still, even if Baker doesn’t want to bring a quick hook for the 38-year-old on Saturday night, his health and endurance could force the issue.
On the flip side, even if Greinke has only so many pitches to deliver Saturday, and maybe not even his best, arguably no one on Houston’s staff has the guile to get outs out of whatever he has in this type of setting.
“If anybody knows how to pitch in a big game, it's Greinke,” Baker said of the soon-to-be free agent after Friday’s loss. “We don't know how long he's going to go. Just give us as much quality as you can, and then we'll turn it over to somebody else.”
That could mean Cristian Javier, who contributed three scoreless innings in Greinke’s ALCS start to keep the Astros in a low-scoring duel before they pulled away late. It could mean a procession of relievers, many of them on two days’ rest. Whatever the scenario, it probably won’t draw the second-guessing and critiquing that Greinke’s last World Series exit did. But for one more time, the Astros’ best path to victory rides at least a little while on Greinke’s right arm.