HOUSTON -- As the Astros bring a 3-2 World Series lead back to Minute Maid Park, their path to a championship sure seems much cleaner than the challenge that faces the Phillies, who will now need to win two straight games on the road to come from behind for the title.
In fact, in all best-of-seven postseason series that have been tied after four games, the Game 5 winner has gone on to win the series 45 of 64 times (70%) -- but it does no good for the Astros or the Phillies to focus on the odds. In the two-day sprint to the finish to come, what should each team focus on to secure their best chance at victory?
1. Wield your pitching depth. Seriously.
Houston skipper Dusty Baker has approached his bullpen usage with much less urgency than his counterpart, clearly preferring to save relievers if possible by leaning on his starters to overcome high-stress situations. That very well may have cost the Astros in Game 1, when a shaky Justin Verlander was left in for five innings, allowing the Phillies to complete a comeback -- and again in Game 3, when Lance McCullers Jr. was left in to wear seven runs of damage.
But now, emerging from an off-day to reset the bullpen and with only two games to go, there’s no longer any excuse for saving the bullpen or anything of the sort. The Astros’ big advantage on the pitching side is that they have the depth to bring in a dominant relief pitcher at any sign of trouble and still have tons of depth left over.
Baker now needs to manage with that aggression -- and indicated on Thursday that he’d look to do so. Another ill-timed long leash could give the Phillies the opening to get right back into the Series.
2. Don’t let Schwarber or Harper beat you.
The top of the Philadelphia lineup has been a story of who’s hot and who’s not throughout this Series. Bryce Harper has continued his postseason-long tear with a .929 OPS in the Fall Classic, and Kyle Schwarber has a pair of homers, including his leadoff blast in Game 5. They’re locked in.
You know who’s not locked in? The guys around them. No. 2 hitter Rhys Hoskins is 3-for-21 and enters Game 6 on an 0-for-10 skid since homering off McCullers in Game 3 (including a four-strikeout performance in Game 5). J.T. Realmuto, possibly wearing the brunt of his immense workload, is also 3-for-21 overall and is 0-for-13 with nine strikeouts in the last three games. Nick Castellanos is 3-for-20, though he made contact more in Game 5 than the previous four games.
Hoskins, Realmuto and Castellanos have had a handful of productive hits, but it hasn’t been much compared to the damage that a locked-in Schwarber and Harper have been doing. If push comes to shove, don’t be afraid to work around the pair of lefties -- particularly when behind in counts -- and attack the others.
3. Unleash Urquidy (if the time comes).
If this Series comes down to a Game 7, it will be McCullers’ turn in the Houston rotation -- and we saw how that ended last time. Regardless of the right-hander’s postseason history, it’ll be a tough sell for the Astros to go back to McCullers -- particularly if things go awry -- especially considering the rumors of pitch tipping.
The Astros have a fully rested José Urquidy and Luis Garcia ready to go (and, if need be, Cristian Javier on short rest) -- and if they need to make a choice there, they shouldn’t try to tempt fate by hoping for a bounceback from McCullers. Urquidy has never lost a World Series game and looked strong in three shutout innings of relief in Game 3. The moment won’t be too big for him.
1. Get to the starter early.
Well, it’s easier said than done when the Game 6 starter in question is Framber Valdez, who shoved for 6 1/3 innings of one-run ball in Game 2 -- and hardly seemed to break a sweat in the process. But there are a few different factors at play here.
It’ll be the third time this month that this Phillies lineup will see Valdez, meaning they’ve seen everything that he’s got to offer -- twice over. Keep in mind, too, that Valdez threw an American League-leading 201 1/3 innings during the regular season and has added 19 more frames this postseason. It’s not hard to imagine fatigue becoming a factor, though he’ll have had plenty of rest since Game 2.
Though that’s no guarantee for success (the Astros had comeback wins against the Mariners and Yankees), it’s much easier to imagine that than a sustained comeback against the Astros’ bullpen, which has allowed two earned runs in 18 1/3 innings this Series -- and can replace any struggling reliever with another dominant arm behind him.
2. Ranger is the X-factor.
Phillies manager Rob Thomson had to ride his high-leverage relief corps hard in Games 4 and 5, with José Alvarado, David Robertson and Zach Eflin all appearing in both games and Seranthony Domínguez throwing 26 pitches in Game 5. Notably missing from that crew? Game 3 starter Ranger Suárez, who has been Thomson’s jack-of-all-trades bouncing between the rotation and bullpen as needed. It’s time for him to shine.
It’s impossible to tell how any starting pitcher will react to variable usage -- much less in pressure spots -- until he’s actually in those situations. Suárez has thrived, with his 5 2/3 scoreless frames in the Fall Classic encompassing a five-inning start and a two-out situation as a high-leverage bullpen lefty.
He appears lined up to start a possible Game 7, but Thomson said Suárez could pitch in Game 6 as a reliever if needed. In that case, Aaron Nola would start Game 7 on short rest -- and Suárez could still be available behind him. Suárez has been unaffected by any pressure test this postseason, and even if it comes to possibly pitching in consecutive games -- unheard of for a modern starting pitcher -- that might still be Philly’s best bet.
3. Wake up Realmuto and Castellanos.
Schwarber and Harper have done plenty of damage -- but if the Phillies are going to steal two games in Houston to claim a title, they'll need help from their teammates in big moments.
Realmuto was the hero of Game 1 with his game-tying double and eventual go-ahead homer in the 10th inning -- and he was poised for another clutch knock in the ninth inning of Game 5 before Astros center fielder Chas McCormick robbed him with the defensive play of the Series. Castellanos showed uncharacteristic discipline in several lengthy plate appearances in Game 5 and had a pair of hard-hit balls (over 95 mph) go for outs.
One might say they’re struggling. Considering their talent, perhaps one might say they’re due. They no longer need sustained success. All it’ll take is a big swing or two -- and Realmuto and Castellanos are certainly capable.