Because the Toronto Blue Jays staved off elimination, we’ve got another day with two MLB playoff games. Things will start with Game 5 of the ALCS between the Indians and Blue Jays and wrap up with Game 4 of the NLCS between the Chicago Cubs and the Los Angeles Dodgers. We’ll break these two games down and see if we can find any edges for you in the betting market.
The Blue Jays were indeed the right side and they added on against the Cleveland bullpen to avoid elimination with a 5-1 win. The Cubs, however, were not the right side, as they lost 6-0 to the Dodgers to fall behind 2-1 in the series.
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Cleveland at Toronto (-185); Total: 8
I was miffed by the opening number on this game and then the overnight action put it where it should have been. My best guess is actually that this number keeps rising, as public players put the Blue Jays in a money line parlay with the Cubs later today when a line opens on that game. Bookmaker actually opened Toronto -160 and this number was as low as -157 out there in the marketplace before the early crowd bet it up into the -180 to -185 range across the industry.
It was unfathomable to me that this number for Ryan Merritt vs. Marco Estrada actually opened lower than the Trevor Bauer vs. Marcus Stroman number on Monday. Now that the value has largely been extracted from this line, it’s hard to see which side to take. It’s also hard to know what the blueprint will be from Terry Francona.
My expectation for Ryan Merritt is that he’ll work three innings at most and they’ll need to be pretty clean. Merritt, as you’ve heard by now, has one MLB start and 11 career innings under his belt. He’s a soft-tossing, pitch-to-contact southpaw, which seems like a raw steak to these predators in the Toronto lineup. Merritt only struck out 92 in 143.1 innings of work at the Triple-A level. He only walked 23, but he gave up 156 hits and 15 dingers. His margin for error is eyelash-thin. It’s a bad spot for the Indians to be in this position, where Merritt could very well bury them before they get a chance to hit for a second time. It’s all about location for Merritt and nerves certainly hurt the ability to locate. Batted ball luck will have to be his friend. I posited on Twitter that the Indians should start Rajai Davis in center field over Tyler Naquin, solely to maximize defense, but they won’t.
The silver lining in all of this is that the Indians can conceivably try to get three innings from Andrew Miller and two innings from Cody Allen if they get a lead. With tomorrow’s off day, they can afford to be more aggressive with their two best relievers. Dan Otero and Bryan Shaw both struggled on Tuesday, so they will have to have bounce back outings if their numbers are called. All hands are definitely on deck here in this spot and it’ll take a magic act that would make Houdini’s pants fit too tight for Francona to navigate through this one.
The Indians do get their second look at Marco Estrada. Estrada pounded the zone with his fastball/changeup arsenal in Game 1 and looked exceptional in the process. He only gave up two runs and threw a complete game, but he took the loss because Corey Kluber was better. It will be interesting to see how the Indians make adjustments here in this spot. Estrada had nine swings and misses out of 29 changeups. Five of the six Indians hits came off of the fastball. Cleveland only swung and missed at four of the 43 fastballs from Estrada. It seemed like the gameplan was to attack the fastball early in the count to try and take the changeup out of play. In 15 of the 30 plate appearances, Estrada had a result within three pitches or less and he only threw 101 pitches overall.
The advance scouting for the Indians has done an excellent job with pitcher sequencing and planning, but the hitters have really struggled. Cleveland has nine runs in five games in this series. They haven’t been able to manufacture innings and string hits together. They’ve hit some home runs or have had a lone hit after a runner advanced on a wild pitch or a stolen base or something. Estrada isn’t the type of guy that you can string hits together against because of that excellent changeup. Hopefully the Indians are able to pick it out better here seeing it for a second time.
The Blue Jays bullpen is in fine shape, although John Gibbons inexplicably threw Roberto Osuna in Game 4, so he’d have to work his third straight day and fourth time in five days if he’s asked to enter the game. We’ll have to see how he bounces back from that. He looked good in the mop-up ninth yesterday, but the Indians were already on to the next day given their plate appearances.
The only way you can really look at this game is to go with Toronto because Ryan Merritt could bury the Indians early. A first inning run prop bet may be a good way to go as well. Perhaps the over hits, but the Indians had a lot of bad swings and weak results against Estrada the first time around.
Chicago at Los Angeles (OFF)
At time of writing, there was no line for Game 4 featuring John Lackey and Julio Urias. This seems like a tough spot for both pitchers. Lackey had a solid season overall and mostly kept lefties in the ballpark, but he had just a 67/30 K/BB ratio against them on the season. Righties hit 17 of the 23 home runs that he allowed, but Dodger Stadium isn’t going to give up a lot of long balls on most nights. As the season went on, Lackey stopped going for as many strikeouts and started pitching to contact with the Cubs defense. That wound up being a wise decision. He still missed his fair share of bats, but his walk rate dropped 1.6 percent. The Cubs defense has to be a factor in this game for them to have success.
Lackey has a ton of playoff experience, so you can read into that what you will. As I mentioned prior to the postseason, Russell Carleton did some work on whether or not playoff experience matters and the end result was that it doesn’t. Lackey is a very emotional guy, so we’ll see if that helps him or hurts him here in this spot because this is a huge swing game. A best-of-three is certainly a far better scenario than a 3-1 deficit, so there’s some pressure on the Cubs here in this one.
With the depth of the bullpen, Joe Maddon has a lot of options. One thing I do worry about is the insistence on sticking with a veteran for too long in the postseason. I’m not sure the relationship between Lackey and Maddon and whether or not he’ll be understanding and respectful of the decision to pull him early. It’s not the time to be concerned with player feelings, but if Lackey does struggle in the fourth or fifth, what will Maddon do?
Julio Urias’s first playoff experience came in relief during Game 5 against the Washington Nationals. He actually earned the win from the official scorer for his two innings. He allowed a hit, walked two, struck out one, and elevated the ball a bit too much for my liking. He wasn’t finishing off his delivery. Fourteen of his 30 pitches were balls and he gave up three fly balls and two line drives. There were way too many pitches up out of the zone and in the upper quadrants of the strike zone.
With his velocity, it may be possible to get away with some mistakes in the upper half of the zone. Perhaps he actively tries to work up there with the fastball to set up his other stuff down in the zone. That’s what the PITCHf/x data would suggest with the heat maps in the middle and upper portions of the zone. That can be a sound strategy against some teams, but the Cubs should really work some counts against him and it could be a very short day for Urias. He’ll have to get the upper half of the zone from the umpire and he’ll have to get it up above the belt enough to keep hitters from turning on it.
I’m really interested to see how far Urias will be allowed to go. He’s pitched once since the end of the season and he’s a very important arm for the future. One other element about this game that could be intriguing is how well Urias can control the run game. He has an excellent pickoff move, but it toes the line between legal and illegal. There has been a lot of talk lately that it is a balk. He was not called for a balk during the regular season and he picked off Bryce Harper in Game 5 in a fairly big spot with Jayson Werth at the plate.
The thing that concerns me the most for the Dodgers here is how far Urias can go and how quickly that patchwork middle relief corps has to come in. Los Angeles got a good outing from Joe Blanton in Game 3, but he had a cushion. The middle relievers haven’t been forced into action since Game 1, so there’s an unknown element there regarding those guys.
Without a line, I can’t really speculate on what I’d play. I’m not even sure where to put this line, to be honest. My guess is that the Cubs open a very small favorite. If that’s the case, my slight lean is to Chicago, but it wouldn’t be that strong of an opinion.