Seven game series between closely matched teams are like three-dimensional chess. Here’s another metaphor: individual games swing momentum, but below the surface, pitching matchups and bullpen usage do the work of tectonic plates. Nowhere was this more obvious than the 2017 WS. Roberts used up his best guys (remember Brandon Morrow, who was lights out in the NLDS and CS, and then pitched every game in the WS and was toast by Game 4?), and Hinch had Charlie Morton and Brad Peacock to get big outs and keep the foot on the throat. Thus was the WS won.
Which brings us to Game 4 of the 2023 ALDS. Both teams put up Game 4 starters who had had recent success, but whose regular season warranted a short leash. Andrew Heaney’s leash got several strong tugs in the first inning and he was out after retiring only two batters. Jose Urquidy, meanwhile, fought through bad luck but was only able to set down seven Rangers (the expected batting average on the Lowe double was .020, and Carter’s single in the 3rd had an EV of 67 mph). Still, Urquidy coughed up a three-run lead and Dusty turned to Stanek. After Stanke delivered one perfect pitch, Dusty decided he’d seen enough and he opted for Hunter Brown in the bottom of the fourth with a four-run lead. Brown looked electric in his first inning, as he touched 99 and delivered the five fastest pitches thrown all night. His velo dropped in the 5th though, and he barely escaped damage. Dusty felt good enough about Brown to give him the 6th, when he easily mowed through the Rangers’ lineup. Maton and Montero took care of the last nine outs.
In the 7th though, with the score stuck at 7-3, Dusty began warming up Abreu. Chas delivered a two-run blow to stretch the lead to 9-3, Abreu sat down, and the Astros got through the game without using any of the “Big Three.”
In the playoffs, it’s not just about whether guys have their best stuff, it’s also about exposure. Abreu pitched in every game before Game 4, and Neris has now had two blowups in the playoffs. Hunter Brown and Chas McCormick saved Dusty from needing any of those guys. Beyond the series getting tied, those plates shifted in important ways.
Bochy has also saved his guys. He’s kept Chapman, Sborz, and LeClerc on the shelf since their Monday closing act. Before Wednesday, Leclerc had pitched in every game this postseason, and has given up only 1 ER in 7.1 innings. Of Rangers, only Eovaldi and Montgomery have thrown more postseason innings. Chapman we know is a mess who is still capable of making batters look silly. And since coming off the IL on 9/28, Sborz has given up 1 hit and 0 runs in 7 innings. But the rest of the ‘pen is in shambles. It took Dunning 63 pitches to get 8 outs. The other four relievers (Smith, Bradford, Stratton, Perez) who got the last 17 outs threw between 20 and 28 pitches. Those were the same four Bochy used to try to keep the game close on Wednesday. They’re done (I could see a lefty deployed to close an inning against Tucker or Brantley, but that’s still very risky with the three batter minimum).
Which puts an awful lot on Jordan Montgomery’s shoulders. Yesterday the Astros had three runs after the first ten pitches. Will the Astros try to work counts against Montgomery? Monty has not exactly been Curt Schilling in 2003; he’s thrown more than 95 pitches in one start since coming over. But he’s been efficient, and, to put it plainly, downright dominant since a rough patch in late August/early September. He’s allowed one run or fewer in six of seven starts.
JV, meanwhile, has been dialed in of late. But if the Astros need to soak outs, then have JP France, Blanco, and Stanek. In other words, they still have long-relief depth. You don’t think you’ll need it with your ace, but it’s nice to have options.
Can the Astros squeeze Bochy? Will they try to work counts? I’d prefer that Dusty go with the same lineup as in Game 1, with Dubon in the 7-hole. Dubon is too much of a free-swinger and less likely to work a count. Montgomery was both elite and efficient in Game 1. If the Astros can get to Montgomery early and work up his pitch count, Bochy’s hand will be forced and his cards are not plenty.
Saturday will provide some relief for both teams, but Bochy has already emptied his relief chamber in order to save his three high leverage guys. Everyone with eyes can see the script he wants to put into action. This afternoon we’ll see if the Astros can revise it. In the meantime, let’s thank Hunter and Chas for keeping it clean both above and below surface.