Astros now must 'take care of business at home'

October 19th, 2019

NEW YORK -- It would have made the Astros' lives much easier had they been able to finish off the Yankees in Game 5 of the American League Championship Series on Friday night at Yankee Stadium.

But behind a sterling effort from James Paxton and two early homers off an otherwise dominant Justin Verlander, the Bronx Bombers staved off elimination with a 4-1 win, setting the series up for a tricky return to Houston without a travel day before Game 6 on Saturday night at Minute Maid Park.

The odds are still in the Astros' favor. In all best-of-seven postseason series, teams holding a 3-2 lead have gone on to win 72 of 103 times (70%). In series with the current 2-3-2 format, clubs holding a 3-2 lead and heading home for Games 6 and 7 have gone on to win 34 of 45 times (76%).

“We are in the driver’s seat and we are going back to Houston, but that’s a great ballclub,” Verlander said. “[New York] is stacked. They gave me great at-bats in Houston and they continue to do so tonight. ... These boys are not going to lay down for us, and we have to go and take care of business at home.”

Saturday should provide a fairly novel game in more than one way. Not only will it mark the first game contested without a travel day in a best-of-seven series since the 2011 ALCS, but both teams plan to deploy some sort of bullpen game, marking the first time in postseason history that any team will rely on its relief corps by design in an elimination game of a best-of-seven series.

How much does Houston’s Game 5 loss and this unique scenario impact the Astros' World Series hopes? And if Houston is able to pull out the series win, how could those factors affect the chances of hoisting a championship banner at Minute Maid Park for the second time in three seasons?

Verlander kept the bullpen rested
If the series were to require a Game 7 on Sunday, the Astros will have contested four high-intensity games in four days to finish out the ALCS. In most such scenarios, bullpen overuse might be a concern -- but Verlander made sure that wasn’t a factor by lasting seven innings on Friday night.

The Astros only needed Brad Peacock out of their bullpen for one inning, meaning that Houston will almost certainly make it through the series without needing to pitch a reliever in three straight games. Roberto Osuna was the only Astros reliever to do so in the second half of the regular season when he appeared on Aug. 18-20.

“That game could have really sank us, and JV, the future Hall of Famer he is, gets back on track and just deals the rest of the way out,” reliever Joe Smith said. “We only ended up having to cover one of those innings. That really puts us in a great spot going into tomorrow. Even though, obviously, we would have loved to win it here and have that first inning go differently. But with the effort that he gave, he put us in a good position."

The Yankees still need to get through Cole
If the Yankees were to win the battle of the bullpens on Saturday night, they would still face a tall task in Game 7 against at Minute Maid Park. The right-hander pitched in a nearly identical situation in the must-win Game 5 of the AL Division Series against the Rays -- and allowed two hits in eight innings while striking out 10. Houston rather handily won that game, 6-1.

In Game 3 of the ALCS on Tuesday, Cole didn’t have his best stuff and matched a career high by walking five batters, but he still threw seven shutout innings and pitched Houston to a 4-1 win that set the tone for the three games in the Bronx. With Cole as a safety net in the elimination game against Luis Severino, who has completed five innings in only one of eight career playoff starts, the Astros had reason to feel good entering Game 4 -- difficult schedule or not.

"At that time, we had Zack [Greinke], JV, bullpen game and Gerrit Cole,” Smith said. “So I liked our odds."

Neither team has struggled after tough travel days
Though it’s relatively rare for teams to play in a new city without a travel day during the postseason, it happens plenty over the course of a 162-game regular-season schedule. Those turnarounds didn’t appear to get in the way of either the Astros or the Yankees in 2019, as Houston posted a 12-7 record and New York went 14-7 under such circumstances.

With that in mind, while the teams will likely be worse for the wear after a three-hour, 30-minute flight from New York to Houston into Saturday morning, it’s difficult to project if or how the schedule will play a factor.

Teams on short rest have fared well in the World Series
If the Astros win Game 6, they will have two days off before opening the World Series on Tuesday night at Minute Maid Park against the Nationals, who have been idle since they completed a sweep of the Cardinals on the National League side this past Tuesday. If the ALCS goes to a Game 7, that will cut the AL team’s rest to one day. What does history tell us about how such teams have fared against better-rested teams in the Fall Classic?

As it turns out, they have performed quite well.

For whatever reason, all five teams coming off LCS sweeps since the turn of the millennium have been defeated in the World Series, and the team coming off the shorter LCS has only won three of the 19 championships in that span. Among the five most recent teams (2018 Dodgers, ‘17 Astros, ‘12 Giants, ‘08 Rays, ‘07 Red Sox) to come off a seven-game LCS, only the ‘18 Dodgers appeared to experience significant pitching difficulty in Games 1 and 2 of the World Series, allowing 12 runs in those two games.

Greinke to begin the World Series? No problem
One more concern is that if the ALCS goes to a Game 7, the Astros would no longer be able to line up their one-two punch of Cole and Verlander for Games 1 and 2 of the World Series, if they were to advance, against some combination of Max Scherzer and Stephen Strasburg for the Nationals.

Cole in Game 1 would certainly be the best-case scenario, but don’t count out Greinke, who would likely assume the start to begin the World Series if Cole is needed in a potential Game 7. Greinke dominated the Nationals in 7 1/3 shutout innings on June 13 as a member of the D-backs, and he has a lifetime 1.27 ERA in nine starts against Washington.

Only Asdrúbal Cabrera (1.079 OPS), Adam Eaton (.900) and Kurt Suzuki (.829) have matched up well against Greinke in their careers, while Anthony Rendon is 1-for-12 with a homer and Juan Soto is hitless in only three at-bats against the right-hander.