Game 7 is always special. In the case of the 2023 American League Championship Series, it’s only fitting that the first postseason meeting between the Astros and Rangers will be decided in a winner-take-all contest for the AL pennant. After all, as they say: Everything is bigger in Texas.
As we approach the conclusion of what has been a tremendous series so far, we took a shot at predicting the answers to five key questions that loom large with a World Series berth on the line at Minute Maid Park on Monday night:
1. How many outs will Max Scherzer record?
Mike Petriello: 13
It’s Game 7. We’d all like to think that if any pitcher on the planet is going to offer a “Jack Morris goes 10 innings!” event, it’s Scherzer, but A) that world simply does not exist any longer, and B) Scherzer is 39 and doesn’t exactly seem at the height of his powers these days.
Anyway, 13 outs is four innings plus one out, and in an all-hands-on-deck situation, Rangers manager Bruce Bochy will make all the aggressive moves he needs to make.
It’s Game 7. You’re available, or you’re not breathing.
David Adler: 18
Sometimes magical performances do happen. And Scherzer's been here before. The last time he faced the Astros in a Game 7, he gutted through neck spasms to deliver five innings of two-run ball and help his team win the World Series.
With that kind of history in mind, do you think a shoulder strain and one rocky start against Houston is gonna stop him? Mad Max will show up in Game 7, and he'll keep the Rangers' shaky bullpen out of this game for as long as possible. He's going six.
Manny Randhawa: 7
You’d be hard-pressed to find anyone with as much intensity on the mound as Scherzer. But after being roughed up for 12 runs in seven innings over his last two starts against Houston, including five in the Rangers’ 8-5 loss to the Astros in Game 3, the decorated veteran right-hander has a lot to figure out against the defending World Series champs.
That Game 5 start was Scherzer’s first in more than a month because of that lingering shoulder injury, another factor that can’t be ignored. Nor can the fact that he’s 39 years old, and time eventually catches up with everyone. Bochy will be loath to turn to a Rangers bullpen that was unreliable in the regular season, particularly so early in a winner-take-all postseason game -- but with how well the Astros have hit Scherzer of late, he’ll have no choice.
2. In what inning will the winning run score?
Mike Petriello: 8th.
David Adler: 1st.
This is going to be the game where the Rangers offense finally solves Javier's disappearing fastball. They're going to ambush Javier early and hold on. There are going to be runs scored after the first inning. The Astros and Rangers might even go back and forth until the very end.
But a big inning early is going to make the difference for Texas. The Rangers are going break through vs. Javier and silence the crowd in Houston.
Manny Randhawa: 7th.
Scherzer’s early struggles won’t stop Texas from clawing back with its powerful lineup. The Rangers will get back into this game in the middle innings with a World Series berth hanging in the balance. But as evenly matched as this ALCS has been, it’s tough to imagine a team with as much postseason experience and success over the past seven years as the Astros not finding a way to get it done in the later innings -- even if it is a home game for Houston.
In this case, Scherzer gets seven outs, the Astros break through in the seventh against the Rangers’ bullpen and Houston reaches the World Series for the fifth time in seven years.
3. Which star will make his mark on the game?
Mike Petriello: Seager
Through six games, he hasn’t done a whole lot. The hit-by-pitch he took off the ankle late in Game 6 ought to lead to a whole lot of fun narratives and stories should he limp around the park on Monday and do some damage.
David Adler: García
García has homered in three straight games in this series. Let's make it four, and save the biggest blast for last. If there's one player who can crush a home run against an outstanding fastball, it's the Rangers' slugger. He's done that two games in a row, after all, off Justin Verlander and Ryne Stanek. García will take the Astros deep again in a big spot in Game 7 -- maybe Javier, maybe one of the power arms in the bullpen -- and his home run trot is going to match the moment.
Manny Randhawa: Yordan Alvarez
Yes, really going out on a limb here. But the Astros' young slugger is having a postseason for the ages and he’ll cap off a prolific ALCS with one final prodigious performance at the plate in Game 7 to capture his second career ALCS MVP Award.
4. Who will be a surprise hero?
Mike Petriello: Travis Jankowski
Unless you’re thinking about Grae Kessinger or Austin Hedges, there’s not really that many surprise players on these very well-known rosters. (Even Jon Singleton is famous for not being famous.) So we’ll go with Jankowski coming off the bench in a big spot to take advantage of his one real plus skill: speed. In the year where the stolen base started to come back to the game, let’s go for some real 2004 Dave Roberts vibes.
David Adler: Leody Taveras
There are no real surprises in this Texas lineup anymore. So let's pick someone who could make a game-changing play on defense: Taveras in center field. Maybe he robs a home run. Maybe he runs down a ball in the gap. Maybe he makes a diving catch to take extra bases away from Yordan Alvarez. Who knows? The point is, Taveras is an excellent defensive outfielder (+8 outs above average in 2023), and can make the type of play that can sway Game 7.
Manny Randhawa: Michael Brantley
And he’ll strike early. No one on the Astros’ roster has even half as many career plate appearances against Scherzer as the veteran left fielder, who is only 2-for-12 in this ALCS so far.
In 54 plate appearances against Scherzer, Brantley owns a .367/.389/.755 slash line with three homers. Better late than never -- the sweet-swinging lefty will make his mark in Game 7.
5. Which pitcher will record the final out of the game?
Mike Petriello: Leclerc
As you might have guessed, I’m cautiously taking the Rangers here, not because I think they have the pitching advantage -- they do not -- but just because it would be poetic for the Astros, owners of the weakest home winning percentage of any full-season playoff team in history, to win three on the road yet fail to win a single game at home. For that to happen, the Texas bullpen has to show up.
It’s quite clear there’s only one reliever Bochy trusts. That Leclerc was not asked to come out for a second inning in Game 6 might end up being huge.
David Adler: Chapman
This is a tightrope walk no matter who's closing for the Rangers. But after Leclerc blew Game 5 and barely escaped a bases-loaded jam in Game 6, maybe Chapman gets the ninth inning in Game 7. It'll certainly be all hands on deck for Texas, but Chapman is fresher than Leclerc after not pitching in Game 6.
The lefty flamethrower will close out this series with triple-digit heat, send the Rangers to the World Series and exorcise some of his postseason demons against the Astros in the process.
Manny Randhawa: Ryan Pressly
One year to the day he closed out Game 4 of the 2022 ALCS against the Yankees, Pressly will find himself in the same position against the Rangers this time around, albeit in a series that is pushed to its limit rather than a sweep like last year.
The 34-year-old right-hander has quietly put together one of the great postseason careers by a reliever -- when he throws the final pitch of Game 7, he’ll be completing his 47th career playoff appearance and, if it’s a save situation, he’ll convert his 15th straight postseason save opportunity, adding to his MLB record to begin a playoff career without a blown save.