How Wednesday's ALCS rainout could shuffle Astros', Yankees' pitching plans

ByBradford Doolittle ESPN logo
Wednesday, October 16, 2019

NEW YORK -- Game 3 of the ALCS began under a clear, azure, late-afternoon sky on Tuesday in the Bronx. It ended under a clear, darkened sky on a crisp evening with a mostly full moon shining high above Yankee Stadium.

But the weatherman had bad news, and Wednesday's Game 4 was postponed to Thursday. So, who benefits more: the Houston Astros and their power-trio rotation, or the New York Yankees and their deep but heavily used bullpen?

Neither side offered much on Tuesday in terms of concrete plans, wanting to see what the final weather verdict turned out to be. On Wednesday, the managers shed a little more light on their pitching plans, though neither wanted to look too far ahead ... where the real intrigue might be found.

Houston manager AJ Hinch made the easy call to go with Game 1 starter Zack Greinke in the rescheduled Game 4 on Thursday, followed by Justin Verlander in Friday's Game 5. All plans after that are up in the air.

"Very easy for us," Hinch said of the short-term plan. "It was our plan if this happened. It's Zack's normal day. He was going to pitch on Thursday no matter what game number it was. JV on a regular rest in Game 5. The sooner we can use our best pitchers, the better for us. It was an easy decision."

Yankees manager Aaron Boone hinted at his part of the scenario before Game 3, saying, "Tanaka would be in play." He confirmed those plans Wednesday

Boone's Game 1 starter,Masahiro Tanaka, blanked the Astros over six innings Saturday while throwing just 68 pitches to get through the Houston lineup exactly two times. With Wednesday's game postponed, Tanaka will take the mound Thursday working on a normal four days' rest.

Boone said that Yankees Game 2 starterJames Paxtonwould take the hill in Game 5 to face Verlander for the second time during the ALCS.

"I plan on [Paxton] pitching Game 5," Boone said. "We've prepared him for that. He threw a side yesterday, so that's our thought."

On Tuesday, Hinch was more circumspect when asked about weather scenarios, saying that his focus was on Game 3. Now, he's keeping his focus on Games 4 and 5, where it probably should be.

"Very easy to start to map things out and a lot of what-ifs," Hinch said. "Now that our pitching is set, we know we're going to have pretty good weather. I think it's important for us not to look too far ahead."

Both managers on Monday announced plans to go with bullpen days for Game 4 in lieu of a reliable No. 4 starter for either club. That bullpen day is no longer necessary -- for now.

"It gives everybody a day off and an opportunity to collect ourselves before Game 4," Hinch said. "It changes our pitching a little bit. How beneficial [that is will] probably be easier to answer after I see how guys perform and how the pitching plays out."

As for the players, hey, sometimes it rains, and the life of the ballplayer is to show up for work and play when they tell you to.

"I don't know how it's going to work, but we're going to show up ready to play tomorrow," Astros third baseman Alex Bregman said, likely speaking for all 50 players on both ALCS rosters. "If we're rained out, we'll get ready for the next day."

For days, the weather apps agreed it was going to rain all afternoon Wednesday and into Thursday morning. Finally, in midafternoon, the showers started beneath skies that had been growing increasingly overcast all day. But even before the rains came, someone in the MLB office, in late morning, had already said something along the lines of "Bag it."

Now that that has happened, Game 4 will move to Thursday and Game 5 will be played Friday at Yankee Stadium. Unless Houston wins both of those games, the series will return to Minute Maid Park for Game 6 on Saturday. Then, if a Game 7 is necessary, the Astros will host that series decider Sunday.

That means that, although the weather will provide a temporary reprieve for the pitchers on Wednesday, the consequences later in the series will impact both teams as they try to traverse a potential four-games-in-four-days-in-two-cities scenario to decide the American League champion.

Are there other possible consequences from the rainout? Barring a player going off the rails with his night off and ending up in the slammer, it would seem that it's all about the pitching staffs. Having the unplanned day off could benefit the Yankees by giving outfielder Giancarlo Stanton an extra day to rest his ailing quad.It could benefit the Astros, as center fielderGeorge Springerbattled some leg cramps during Game 2, though Hinch insisted Springer was healthy.

But, really, it's the pitching designs that will be impacted most by Mother Nature. Given that the teams aren't saying much yet about what might happen later in the series, they leave it to us to game this thing out.

The easy part seems to be that both managers will come back with their Game 1 starters on Thursday, Tanaka for New York and Greinke for Houston. Both will be going on normal rest, and both teams would enter the game with rested bullpens. Only New York's Luis Cessa, who threw 35 pitches in relief in Game 3, would likely be affected by his usage Tuesday. But Cessa is the second-lowest-leveraged reliever in Boone's 10-man ALCS bullpen, based on regular-season numbers.

In Game 5 on Friday, things could get somewhat more interesting. Both managers will bring back their Game 2 starters, Verlander for Houston and Paxton for New York. Both would be on normal rest. Without the rainout, Greinke and Tanaka would likely have been slotted for Game 5, with Verlander and Paxton going in Game 6.

This is also a fairly simple scenario except that with the previously scheduled travel day lost, the managers might have to monitor their bullpens a little more carefully. But the mantra in the playoffs is always "win today," so reliever fatigue is a consequence both managers might have to live with. Obviously, given New York's greater reliance on its bullpen, that would favor the Astros.

The ideal scenario for Houston in the wake of the rainout is this: Greinke beats Tanaka in the rescheduled Game 4, and Verlander beats Paxton on Friday. The Astros would then return to Houston -- but not to face the Yankees. They'd be getting ready for the Washington Nationals and the start of the World Series.

"We're here to win and win as fast as we can," Hinch said. "If it takes all four [remaining] games and our bullpen gets used a lot and our pitching gets used a lot, then that's what it is going to take to get the World Series."

Beyond finishing the series quickly and lining up his rotation for a rested Nationals pitching staff, Hinch would also be sidestepping a difficult decision for a potential Game 6: whether to bring Cole back on short rest (three days between Tuesday and Saturday) to either save Houston's season or clinch the pennant, depending on how the next two games go. Without the rainout, the Astros would have had Verlander lined up for Game 6, as mentioned, and a fully rested Cole to go in Game 7. Cole has never started a game on short rest in his big league career.

"We'll look into whatever Game 6 is going to bring," Hinch said, "But there's so much baseball that has to be played we haven't begun discussions on if or when, or whether or not that would even be important or relevant at this point."

If Hinch wants to avoid using Cole on three days' rest, he will be back to where he would've been Wednesday if not for the rain: a bullpen day. Whether he'd be willing to go that route with Houston trailing 3-2 is hard to say, but most likely, he'd take his chances with Cole. You can't leave him on the shelf for a tomorrow that might never come with the season on the line.

But what if Houston is up 3-2? Does Hinch go for the kill and roll the dice with a possibly fatigued Cole, who threw 112 pitches on Tuesday? Or does he view Cole as a fail-safe option for Game 7, knowing that if he has to win one game at home to go to the World Series, there is no one anyone in baseball would rather see take the mound for their team?

One final option Hinch already decided against: stick with his plan to make Game 4 a bullpen day despite the day off. Then have Greinke, Verlander and Cole lined up for the last three games. That might work in theory, but in practice you don't want to assume a Game 7 and risk not getting a second outing from Cole.

As for New York, the starter scenarios seem less urgent. Boone has pieced together a successful campaign all season by leveraging one of the game's best bullpens and getting what he can from the starters. The big questions here are whether he can keep his high-leverage relievers sharp for four games in four days and what kind of effect might come from Houston's hitters seeing the relievers multiple times in a short span.

"We're going to have to get some innings out of our starters, there's no question about it," Boone said. "Masa is coming off a real good start in Game 1, where he was able to give us six innings. Between him and Paxton the next two days, they're going to need to give us some innings if we're going to be successful. But we got to go out and win a game, so you know I'll be aggressive in that sense, but we do have to get some bulk innings out of some people, there's no question."

This is all good stuff! Rain stinks when it comes to playoff baseball, but it also adds intrigue. Mother Nature has had her say, meaning Wednesday will be a quiet day before a stormy few days between New York and Houston. And that storm will have nothing to do with the weather.

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