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5 questions that will decide Game 7 of Series

November 1, 2017

For the second World Series in a row -- and for the first time in Dodger Stadium history -- we're fortunate enough to be treated to a Fall Classic that will head to a Game 7. Given how competitive and entertaining the Series has been so far, and that it's

For the second World Series in a row -- and for the first time in Dodger Stadium history -- we're fortunate enough to be treated to a Fall Classic that will head to a Game 7. Given how competitive and entertaining the Series has been so far, and that it's the first time since 1970 that two 100-plus-win teams are facing off in the Fall Classic, this feels like a fitting resolution. This Series always had to go the distance.
So we look ahead, doing our best to predict the unpredictable, knowing that the outcome of the entire 2017 season could hinge on a bad hop or a lucky bounce. These are the five big questions that will help decide Game 7.
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1. When does Clayton Kershaw enter?
Postseason baseball doesn't function like regular-season baseball, and Game 7 of the World Series doesn't function like the rest of the postseason. Everyone -- and we mean everyone, perhaps including Rich Hill and Justin Verlander, who both started Tuesday's Game 6 -- will be available.
There's no expectation that Dodgers starter Yu Darvish will go eight innings; there are no "starters" or "relievers." There are just pitchers and 27 outs (or possibly more) to get. That includes Kershaw, Los Angeles' ace who started Game 5 on Sunday.
"I know that he was up in the 'pen today," manager Dave Roberts said after Game 6. "So one reason I wanted to stay away from him is so we could get him a little bit more tomorrow. … When you're talking about Clayton Kershaw, Game 7, I think anything's within reason."
"I can give 27 innings," Kershaw said, perhaps taking Roberts's assertion that anything is within reason to an extreme. "Whatever they need. I'll be ready to go with whatever they need."
Much of this depends on whether we see the Darvish who was great for the Dodgers in the National League playoffs or the one who didn't get through the second inning in Game 3 of the Series. But even in last year's Game 7, we saw two great starters in the Indians' Corey Kluber and the Cubs' Kyle Hendricks not get through five innings.

Expect the same here -- getting seven to eight innings from Darvish and Kershaw without needing to go deeper into the bullpen would be Roberts' dream. With Brian McCann and Josh Reddick -- two left-handed hitters -- hitting sixth and eighth in the Astros' regular lineup, McCann's second (or possibly third) plate appearance would seem like a logical spot to bring in Kershaw for an extended relief appearance.
2. Does any Astros reliever appear in a big spot?
Houston starter Lance McCullers was so ready for Game 7 that he was seen warming up on the field immediately after Game 6 finished. Still, we know he's not going deep into this one, even aside from the inherently different strategies that a Game 7 brings on.
McCullers threw 87 pitches over 5 1/3 innings in Game 3, and he hasn't gone deeper than that since June 8. Even expecting that much on Wednesday is probably pushing it, so Astros manager A.J. Hinch likely has to find around 18 outs from other pitchers.

Normally, that would be a big problem, but the Astros are better suited than any team to run out "tandem starters," rather than turning to a leaky bullpen. Charlie Morton, who was impressive in Game 4, will be on three days' rest. Former American League Cy Young Award winner Dallas Keuchel will have two days' rest, and he threw only 86 pitches in Game 5.
Brad Peacock will be on two days' rest, as well. Even Verlander may be available for an out or two. (If you're looking for precedent, remember that Randy Johnson started Game 6 of the 2001 World Series for the D-backs, got the win with seven strong innings and then won again with 1 1/3 innings of relief in Game 7 the next night.)
"We'll evaluate everything," Hinch said after Game 6 when asked about Verlander. "It would take a big effort, but you never know."
Hinch is at least not ruling it out. McCullers won't go deep, but he won't need to. The entire rotation is on standby, and likely to be seen before Luke Gregerson, Ken Giles, Francisco Liriano or any other Houston reliever.
3. How much can the 'Big 3' Dodgers relievers offer?
One of the reasons an appearance from Kershaw (and, potentially, Alex Wood, who didn't get into Game 6) is actually more a necessity than a luxury is because L.A. has relied primarily on just three relievers for the entire postseason. And all three of them (Kenley Jansen, Brandon Morrow and Kenta Maeda) appeared in Game 6. That trio had combined to throw nearly 70 percent of all Dodgers postseason relief pitches entering Tuesday night, and then they threw 47 of the 59 bullpen pitches in relief of Hill.
They looked great, as Jansen, Morrow and Maeda combined to allow just two hits over four scoreless innings, but they also had the benefit of Monday's travel day. And you might remember how exhausted they all looked in Game 5, when each allowed runs.

Roberts' ideal scenario would be to go directly from Darvish to Kershaw to Jansen, but plans never seem to work out that smoothly, especially against a strong Astros offense.
4. Who can stop Astros outfielder George Springer?
How long ago does Springer's mid-October slump seem now? Springer is hitting a massive .375/.483/.958 in 24 World Series plate appearances, with six extra-base hits, despite striking out four times in Game 1. He's almost single-handedly making up for the fact that Reddick (.182/.250/.227) and Marwin Gonzalez (.143/.250/.333) have disappeared.
Springer pounded Darvish in Game 3 (a 111.3-mph double, per Statcast™, and a lineout at 104.9 mph), and he pounded each of Los Angeles' "Big 3" relievers in Game 2 (batted balls at 96.8, 102.8 and 110.6 mph, which doesn't even include his homer off Brandon McCarthy), plus he added a 111.9-mph home run off Morrow in Game 5. Per Statcast™, he has 14 "hard-hit" balls this Series (exit velocity of 95 mph or above), and no one else has more than Jose Altuve's 11.

Still, it was Kershaw who started Springer's hitless Game 1, and the one ball Springer put in play off Kershaw in Game 5 was at a mere 61.2 mph. While Houston has no shortage of talented hitters, whether or not Springer can be shut down may be the key.
5. How much impact, if any, will home-field advantage have?
There's no narrative quite like "home-field advantage in a deciding World Series game," and yet what we find here is an endless collection of narratives. In the regular season, home teams win approximately 54 percent of their games; in winner-take-all World Series games, it's an even 19-19.
The Dodgers were far better at home than on the road this year (.704 winning percentage to .580), while the Astros were far better on the road (.654 to .593). But the Astros have complicated that by the way they've performed in October. Houston has played 17 games in the postseason so far; they're 8-1 at home and just 2-6 on the road.
All of that conflicting information essentially means nothing in a winner-take-all Game 7 between baseball's two best teams, except for this, which will affect both teams equally: As we saw in Game 6, we finally have a "neutral" ballpark.
In the first two games in Los Angeles, record heat turned some fly balls into homers. At Minute Maid Park in Houston, we saw several Crawford Box specials, balls that wouldn't have been homers anywhere else, outside of maybe Fenway Park in Boston. Back in a cool Dodger Stadium for Game 6, everything just looked a little more "normal." Expect more of the same for Game 7.

Mike Petriello is an analyst for and the host of the Statcast podcast.