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How does the rain delay in Game 4 affect the ALCS?

Both the Astros and Yankees figured to have a bullpen day for Game 4, but a rain delay has altered the complexion of the ALCS.

League Championship Series - Houston Astros v New York Yankees - Game Three Photo by Elsa/Getty Images

“Rain, rain, go away”

“Come again another day”

We officially have a rain postponement for Game 4 of the ALCS, everyone.

For the Astros and Yankees, the ramifications of this postponement will be interesting to see unfold. Both teams were scheduled to go with a bullpen game for Game 4 followed by a fully rested Zack Greinke and Masahiro Tanaka for a repeat of the series opener in Game 5 on Thursday. With Game 4 now pushed back to Thursday instead, those plans change a bit.

In a bit of a surprise move, the Astros went ahead announced their starters for the next two games, Greinke in Game 4 (expected) and Justin Verlander in Game 5 (bold choice).

The Astros are obviously hoping to end this series on the road in just five games. With the Nationals already awaiting the victor of the ALCS, it seems like manager A.J. Hinch is trying end this series quickly to optimize his rotation configuration. Of course, we’re getting ahead of ourselves as the Astros still have to win two more games against the Yankees, who were among the top three teams in baseball this season in overall record. The Bronx Bombers were also very good at Yankee Stadium this season, with a 57-24 record at home.

With the gauntlet already dropped, there is an obvious best- and worst-case scenarios to consider. I would even contend that a third scenario exists, which falls in between the most optimal and the worst possible outcomes.

Best Case Scenario: Take the series now!

With Greinke and Verlander in line to start the next two games, the Astros have clearly decided to go for it at Yankee Stadium. A bold choice, I say. If Houston wins both games, then the series is over and the Astros are heading back to the World Series. That would be most optimal conclusion as far I am concern.

However, Game 4 is likely a rematch of Game 1 with Tanaka on the mound for the Yankees, who primarily kept the Astros lineup quiet last Saturday. He will undoubtedly look for an encore performance, in what could be his most important start this season. For context, Tanaka has a career 1.32 ERA in 41 postseason innings. If the Astros hope to take Game 4, they would have to finally figure out Tanaka to some degree.

For Game 5, it is likely that Yankees choose to start James Paxton and roll the dice on a potential bullpen day in Game 6, if necessary. The Astros did a decent job of getting to Paxton early in Game 2, but the lack of production with runners in scoring position has been their Achilles heel in the postseason. The odds of a Houston victory likely increases if they force New York to resort to their bullpen often and early as the series progresses.

In regard to the decision, the rationale to start Greinke and Verlander next looks to have come down to having your best pitchers on the mound as soon as possible.

There is a part of me that agrees with the logic, however, there are pitfalls that remain if the result doesn’t goes the Astros way. Without knowing the outcome right now, it is admirable to see Hinch going for it. We also can’t ignore the optics that it does appear that the Astros had the World Series and how their rotation lines up in mind. I won’t break it down too much as the Yankees are still a very real threat to a World Series berth, but ending the ALCS in five games would also allow Hinch to set his rotation in a optimal position against the Nationals.

Worst Case Scenario: Facing a Game 6 elimination on a potential bullpen day

Let’s be honest for a second: A possible Game 6 elimination at home with either Jose Urquidy and the bullpen, or Gerrit Cole on short rest, isn’t the most ideal situation. But it is a possibility, thanks to the management’s decision to pencil Verlander in as the starter in Game 5. If the rain delay didn’t occur, then the bullpen day would’ve likely occurred in Game 4. Greinke, Verlander, and Cole would’ve been set for Game’s 5 through 7, if necessary. That now isn’t the case.

Sure, the Yankees will have tough task in beating both Greinke and Verlander in the next two games, but the series still resides at Yankee Stadium. Much has been made of Houston’s home record (60-21), but New York was only three games worse (57-24). Either way, it isn’t easy to win at Yankee Stadium.

While it is possible to lose the next two games and still win the series, the road would be much more treacherous for the Astros in the process. One possible silver lining to possible Game 6: The Yankees may also roll with a bullpen day. If the decision to essentially flip Game 4 and 6 as a bullpen day for both clubs, then the Astros may like their chances better at home.

If the Astros win the ALCS, they wouldn’t have their most optimal rotation set up for the World Series. If they lose and the Yankees advance, then we’ll spend all offseason second-guessing in what will be the most controversial decision for the club in all of 2019. The longer the ALCS goes, the more likely that the Astros will experience some sort of pitfall.

Middle of the Road Scenario: Game 7

If this series goes to a Game 7, then all bets are off. Gerrit Cole would be the likely starter in this scenario, although we’re not sure how Game 6, if necessary, will unfold. But if Cole is starting, then the Astros have to feel good about their chances, especially at Minute Maid Park. It would also mean that they possibly survived a bullpen day. A win would propel Houston to their second World Series appearance in three years, but a loss would mean...well, you already know.

One last point: The Astros, as a lineup, have hit .173/.274/.316 in the first three games of the ALCS. In five games against the Rays in the ALDS, they slashed .242/.249/.406. Only the recently eliminated Cardinals (.588) has a lower OPS in the postseason than the Astros (.659). While the pitching staff has to perform well, the lack of offense, especially with runners in scoring position, is staggering. If there is a “true” key to the series, it may be Houston’s missing offense.