Must-Wins Day for Jays, Cubs; KC, Mets can clinch
Hump day could be clinch day on the postseason calendar, if the Royals and Mets have their way today.
As a result of impressive victories by Kansas City and New York on Tuesday night, both Game 5 of the American League Championship Series (3 p.m. ET air time, 4 ET game time on FOX Sports 1/Sportsnet) and Game 4 of the National League Championship Series (7:30 p.m. air time, 8 p.m. game time on TBS) offer the opportunity for a team to punch its ticket to the World Series. It's up to the Blue Jays and Cubs to change that script.
Toronto, with Marco Estrada on the mound opposite Edinson Volquez, is trying to become just the eighth team in 37 tries, and the first since the 2012 Giants, to come back from a 3-1 deficit to win a best-of-seven LCS.
The Cubs, meanwhile, will send Jason Hammel to the mound against Steven Matz, and try to join the 2004 Red Sox to become just the second team ever to come back from a 3-0 hole and win it.
Here are four pertinent questions for today, as two clubs look for the finishing touches to their Fall Classic bids, while two others try to keep their seasons alive.
1. Will we see David Price out of the Toronto 'pen?
Despite holding a 9-2 lead after three innings, the Blue Jays wound up having to use Aaron Sanchez and Roberto Osuna in Game 3. In Game 4, they got less than two innings out of R.A. Dickey, forcing John Gibbons to summon Liam Hendriks (who also pitched in Game 3) for 4 1/3 innings, and Ryan Tepera for 1 1/3, in addition to using Mark Lowe for the fourth time in four games this series and LaTroy Hawkins. Also during Game 4, Aaron Loup had to leave the team for a family medical situation.
Bottom line: Toronto's bullpen has a shortage of fresh arms, and the mess is compounded by Osuna's cracked nail and Sanchez's blister. If Estrada can't go the distance in Game 5, we can't rule out Gibbons going to Price in this elimination game, just as he did when trying to preserve a big lead in Texas in Game 4 of the AL Division Series.
That would possibly eliminate Price from the Game 6 starting assignment, but, well, you've got to get to Game 6 first. And if Gibbons was willing to turn to Price out of the 'pen with a 7-1 lead on the Rangers, who knows what scenario might unfold Wednesday?
Another option: Preserving Price for a potential Game 6, and summoning Marcus Stroman out of the bullpen.
2. Is there any slowing the top of the Royals' order?
After taking an 0-for-4 in Game 1 of the ALDS against the Astros, Alcides Escobar is 15-for-32 over the past eight games, scoring nine runs in that span. He's the latest Royal to make Ned Yost look like a savant. The Royals had the third-lowest leadoff on-base percentage (.295) in the Majors this season, with Escobar (.296 in 131 games as the leadoff man) as the biggest contributor to that dubious distinction. Yost demoted Escobar from No. 1 to No. 9 in early September, only to give him another shot for the last five games of the regular season. The Royals are 11-3 since.
Escobar is all the more dangerous because of the way Ben Zobrist is swinging the bat in the two-hole. Zobrist is 7-for-18 this series.
In this postseason, the visiting team has scored first 78.6 percent of the time, compared with 54 percent in the regular season. With their backs to the wall, the Blue Jays can ill-afford to let that trend continue, and it has to start with stopping the Royals' top-of-the-order threats.
3. Can Daniel Murphy do it again?
Hey, at this point, why not? This story has already trended well past ridiculous, and the fact that his last name doubles as the name of the notorious billy goat just further begs for Murphy to complete the process of breaking every heart on the North Side. If he goes deep in Game 4, that will give him the outright record for consecutive postseason games with a homer, at six.
But hey, even if he doesn't, Murphy has already altered this series, altered his free-agent value and altered the fate of a Mets club that appears World Series-bound for the first time since 2000. By subscribing to a more pull-happy mindset, he's unlocked power potential that once went largely untapped.
"Who is this guy?" Mets manager Terry Collins asked aloud, and the rest of us join that chorus.
If there's any superstition at play here -- a certain bat, a certain pregame meal, a certain pair of underwear -- Murphy would be wise to keep it going for at least one more day.
4. Can the Cubs' hitters make a major adjustment?
This young, dynamic Cubs lineup has been neutered by the Mets' power arms, logging just a .158 average in the first three games of the NLCS. The Cubs are struggling to bring the heat against the heat, and Mets' pitchers are doing a tremendous job of exploiting the Cubs' guys down in the zone.
The Cubs had the league's highest swing-and-miss percentage (34.0) against pitches down in the zone and beneath the zone this season, and Mets pitchers have been able to locate more than half of their pitches in those areas. Jacob deGrom got all but three of his 21 outs on pitches in the lower-third of the zone or below the zone in Game 3.
Matz has a pretty obvious game plan for Game 4. And the Cubbies have a pretty obvious area for improvement if they're going to generate the runs it will take to extend this series to a Game 5.