WASHINGTON -- Before Alex Bregman's big swing, before the guaranteed plane tickets back to Houston were booked, before the Astros raced away with their 8-1 World Series Game 4 victory over the Nationals on Saturday night at Nationals Park, two sets of middle-inning managerial decisions further altered the complexion of this now-even best-of-seven set.
Consider the way Astros manager AJ Hinch and Nats manager Dave Martinez handled the sixth and seventh innings, respectively, while accounting for context. Down 4-1 at the time and cradling a 2-1 series lead, Martinez called on Tanner Rainey and Fernando Rodney to follow Patrick Corbin, while his two highest-leverage relievers -- Daniel Hudson and Sean Doolittle -- didn’t stir.
Up 4-0 one half-inning earlier but down in the series, Hinch saw things getting shaky with Josh James and tossed his most trusted arm into the game for the second straight game.
At this critical juncture, that trusted reliever is not Roberto Osuna or Ryan Pressly, as it was at times during the regular season. It’s Will Harris, who allowed an inherited runner to score on Juan Soto's grounder but recorded two huge outs to end the inning and keep Houston’s lead from spiraling away. It was the latest in a postseason full of escape acts for Harris, who continues to put together an October for the ages. And this one was punctuated by what came next: a four-run outburst against Rainey and Rodney that turned a tense game into a rout and set the Astros up perfectly for Sunday’s Game 5.
“I felt like it was some insurance that our pitching staff deserved,” Bregman said. “They were fantastic all day. I think they deserved some run support.”
What Bregman left unsaid is how that run support now provides trickle-down benefits for the Astros. They’ll have Gerrit Cole on the bump against Max Scherzer on Sunday night -- and presumably anyone Hinch wants behind his co-ace. That’s because those seventh-inning runs allowed Hinch to cobble together Saturday’s final nine outs without Smith or Osuna, eliminating the chance he’d enter Game 5 with each of his top relievers already having pitched on back-to-back days.
The only pitchers that applies to are James and Harris; Osuna and Smith will be on a full day of rest. Hudson and Doolittle will both be on four, with neither having touched the mound since Game 1 on Tuesday. All of which is to say that while Game 5 will be widely billed as a Cole-Scherzer rematch, both teams enter Sunday in position to deploy two of their best relievers aggressively.
“For me, you don't chase wins,” Martinez said, adding he would’ve pitched either Doolittle or Hudson had Washington scrapped more against Harris in the sixth. “Come tomorrow we're up 2-0, and all of a sudden we're in the seventh inning, you have to use Hudson for two innings, you have to use Doolittle for two innings. You want those guys ready to pitch. I know we got a day off the next day. All this was talked about before the game.”
Asked about his decision to pull starter Jose Urquidy after five, which immediately preceded the Nationals' threat in the sixth, Hinch said “here comes Will Harris again to the rescue.”
Before we dig deeper into how that positioned Houston’s ’pen for Game 5, a glimpse into Harris’ postseason:
• Batters faced: 32
• Hits: 5
• ERA: 0.00 in 9 innings pitched
• Inherited runners stranded: 11 of 12
• Consecutive scoreless appearances: 10, one shy off Jeremy Affeldt’s record (2014 Giants) for finishing a postseason without an earned run allowed (all pitchers).
• Rest of the Houston bullpen’s ERA: 4.15
“He’s been unbelievable,” Martinez said. “Lights out.”
Who did Hinch use in Game 4, and how much did he ask from them?
James (one out), Harris (two outs), Héctor Rondón (two), Brad Peacock (four) and Chris Devenski (three), with James, Harris and Peacock working their second consecutive day. Rondon and Devenski are not high-leverage options, while James has emerged as one in place of the struggling Pressly.
Who is available in Game 5?
In theory, everybody, given what’s at stake. The question is whether Hinch will push Harris or James, or both, if necessary. Harris addressed the possibility after Game 4.
“We’ll be fine, I’ll get a good night’s sleep tonight,” said Harris, who threw just seven pitches to get his two key outs. “I’m ready. Adrenaline is a neat thing.”
How have Astros relievers fared pitching three days in a row before?
James, a rookie, has never done so. Peacock, a swingman, never has either. Harris has done it seven times, but six of those occurrences came in 2016 or earlier. The exception is this past April 27, when Harris allowed two runs and recorded just one out in a 4-3 win over the Indians. They were the first runs of the season surrendered by Harris, who opened '19 with 10 consecutive scoreless appearances and would string together 11 straight scoreless outings immediately afterward.
What’s the situation with Pressly?
Pressly remains active and available, but he seems to have fallen out of Hinch’s circle of trust. Despite Hinch’s public defense of Pressly earlier in the week, he’s shielded the All-Star righty from high- and low-leverage situations alike since.
Pressly last pitched in Game 2 on Wednesday, when he allowed four runs (three earned) in the pivotal seventh inning of Houston’s 12-3 loss. The outing swelled his postseason ERA to 18.90; he pitched to a 2.32 mark during the regular season. The fact that Pressly will be on three days' rest probably increases the chances he will see the mound Sunday (more likely in place of James than Harris), but as we saw in Game 4, Hinch will take no chances with a lead, and if better options are available, he’ll use them.