Last Updated: 2017-10-29
One of the cruel things about the playoffs in any major sport is that the season comes down to just a few games. Whether it is a six-game run through March Madness, a three or four-game run to the Super Bowl, or the series format in the NHL and NBA, how a team is remembered and its legacy is shaped by a small number of games. Take the 2017 World Series, for example, which is now a best-of-three in the first Fall Classic with two teams that each won at least 100 games since 1970.
Clayton Kershaw will take the mound at Minute Maid Park after silencing his postseason critics in Game 1. Dallas Keuchel will try to once again go pitch-for-pitch with the best pitcher on the planet in this enormous swing game. The winner will need one victory to be a champion. The loser will have to avoid elimination twice. The Dodgers are favored anywhere from -140 to -150 in the marketplace and appear to be the early sharp side in this one.
While the Kershaw vs. Keuchel rematch draws most of the storylines and attention, the Astros bullpen is right there under the interrogation lamp. A debacle of a display from closer Ken Giles took the team from the penthouse to the outhouse with a chance to take a commanding 3-1 series lead. At this point, Giles, who only threw eight pitches and wound up allowing three runs, is virtually unusable for AJ Hinch. If the Astros can scratch out a late lead in a game started by Kershaw, it is imperative that they finish it, but there are more questions than answers with this Houston pen.
Before we get to that point, though, we’ll have to see how these offenses handle a couple of tough customers. I felt it was a little bit of a surprising decision by the Dodgers to not use Kershaw on short rest in Game 4, but he’ll get the Game 5 nod on a healthy amount of rest after seven dazzling innings in Game 1. Kershaw allowed one run on three hits and struck out 11 on just 83 pitches. It was efficiency at its core. Kershaw has allowed a home run in each of his postseason starts, but he allowed just four runs on 10 hits with a 20/2 K/BB ratio over his last three starts. The narratives died right before our eyes in that Game 1 start, but you can bet that they’ll pop up again if Kershaw runs into problems this evening. In his regular season career covering 1,935 innings, he has a 2.36 ERA with a 2.60 FIP and a 2.92 xFIP. In his postseason career of 113.1 innings, he has a 4.21 ERA with a 3.60 FIP and a 3.12 xFIP, even though he has a higher K% than in the regular season.
It is always interesting to see how pitchers and the opposition adjust over the course of a series. This is unique in that you may see the same pitcher twice in the span of 10 days or 20 days, but not twice in a week. The Astros walked into a Game 1 buzzsaw, but they also hadn’t seen Kershaw in quite some time. Now they have a better idea of his arm slot and should be able to decipher his pitches a little bit quicker with a second look. Kershaw only had eight swings and misses in Game 1. He had 24 called strikes, so it was clear that Houston hitters weren’t picking him up very well. On the other hand, if Kershaw executes, nobody can touch him. The chess match in this game will be a lot of fun to follow.
Dallas Keuchel didn’t have the swing-and-miss stuff in Game 1 that he showed in some of his other postseason starts, but he induced 13 ground balls. The problem is that two of the three fly balls he allowed left the ballpark, including a leadoff home run to Chris Taylor. Keuchel had 11 swings and misses in his first start in the series, so he got some whiffs, but the problem was the two home runs. For Keuchel, everything hinges on command. Some pitchers have a greater margin for error because of their velocity or the depth of their arsenal. Keuchel needs to spot his pitches low in the zone and accurately work in and out.
Like Kershaw, Keuchel was limited to 84 pitches, which was a sound move by AJ Hinch. Keuchel had to work harder through the ALCS than Kershaw did through the NLCS, so attempting to level the playing field as much as possible by limiting Keuchel’s workload was a quality decision. Like the Astros with Kershaw, the Dodgers haven’t seen Keuchel a whole lot. Unfamiliar lefties can give teams fits and that was mostly the case in Game 1. There were three home runs hit off of these two guys and only six hits otherwise and only one walk.
Both pitchers are facing a lot of pressure here, albeit for different reasons. Kershaw knows the narratives. He knows what’s at stake and what it means if the Dodgers fall short again. Keuchel knows what’s at stake if he leaves this bullpen in a compromising position or sends his team back to Los Angeles down 3-2. That can lead to mistakes. That can lead to a lack of execution. The total is 7 for this game once again, which is the same number that it was at Dodger Stadium, which is generally better for pitchers, though the triple-degree weather didn’t help either guy in Game 1.
With a lot of the focus on Ken Giles, we need to talk about Kenley Jansen. The previously unhittable cutter artist gave up a solo dong to Alex Bregman in the ninth inning and has now allowed a run in back-to-back appearances for the first time since July 31-August 1, 2015. No, that’s not a typo. Yes, I triple-checked. Two games is hardly a predictive sample size, but it’s entirely possible that the Astros have found something useful against him. I don’t know what, if anything, it will mean tonight, but it is something to keep an eye on.
Free Pick: Los Angeles Dodgers
I’m not stepping in front of Clayton Kershaw. Also, the Astros bullpen is a bit of a mess and I wouldn’t think that Lance McCullers is available yet, though he may have to start Game 7, so who know show AJ Hinch will handle that dynamic. Of course, there may not even be a Game 7, so his usage will depend on the situation. I like Dallas Keuchel and I think that there’s some value in the under with a good amount of soft contact likely coming in this one.