LOS ANGELES — It was a slip of the tongue, but it also speaks volumes to what has transpired in the first five games of this World Series.
Asked about the state of his bullpen heading into Game 6, Astros manager A.J. Hinch responded, “Well, we have two innings of bullpen left,” before correcting himself and saying, “I’m sorry, two games’ worth of bullpen left, and our guys will be ready.”
Of course, that first answer might be the more accurate one. In 19 innings in this World Series, the Houston bullpen has allowed 16 hits, 16 runs and five home runs. For the entire postseason, it has a 5.94 ERA with 13 home runs surrendered in 53 innings, and that includes a couple of stellar outings from guys who spent most of the season in the rotation.
Then again, the Dodgers bullpen, after dominating the first two rounds, hasn’t exactly been locking things down either. That group has given up 15 runs in 23⅔ innings with nine home runs and just 13 strikeouts. If closer Kenley Jansen, who blew just one save in the regular season, had done his job, this World Series would likely be over, but he blew a save in Game 2 and took the loss in Game 5. He has given up runs in three consecutive outings and has certainly lost his aura of invincibility.
As we map out what might develop these next two games, however, Jansen is probably the one guy to be least concerned about. At the minimum, we know he’s still the guy manager Dave Roberts will go to in the ninth inning, and probably the eighth.
“Our confidence in Kenley hasn’t changed,” Roberts said Monday. “He’ll be available [Tuesday] night, as this is an elimination game for us. And I think the most important thing is his confidence hasn’t changed.”
What has changed is everything else. Hinch didn’t use Ken Giles in Game 5 even as six relievers combined to allow eight runs in 6⅓ innings. Giles was a top-five closer in the regular season, but after allowing runs in six of his seven postseason appearances, he appears to be buried so deep right now that he’s not even in the doghouse, but sleeping out behind the fence with the feral cats.
Here are some ideas on how these final two games might unfold:
Justin Verlander won’t throw a complete game
Obviously, the dream scenario for the Astros is for Verlander to match his ALCS Game 2 performance against the Yankees, when he threw 124 pitches and went the distance, and celebrate the winning World Series by leaping into Brian McCann‘s beefy arms in the bottom of the ninth.
The more realistic scenario, however, is that Verlander doesn’t go all nine. There have been just five complete games in the World Series since 2000. It certainly makes sense for Hinch to push Verlander as deep as possible since he’s leading in the series, but you also don’t want to create a Matt Harvey-like situation from the 2015 World Series and leave Verlander in too long.
The question: If you’re leading, who comes out of the bullpen? If Verlander goes seven, maybe Lance McCullers Jr., who would be throwing on three days’ rest after going 87 pitches in Game 3. Or maybe you simply hold back McCullers and Game 4 starter Charlie Morton for Game 7, no matter what.
Brad Peacock, after throwing 92 pitches in two games in Houston, almost certainly isn’t an option in Game 6. If you end up using McCullers in Game 6 and there ends up being a Game 7, you could still start Morton on three days of rest, with Peacock and probably Dallas Keuchel available in relief.
If Hinch doesn’t want to risk Morton on short rest in a possible Game 7, maybe Giles gets another chance. Or Joe Musgrove, who got the win in Game 5 with a scoreless 10th inning. No matter what, Musgrove says there are no excuses this time of year.
“Everyone’s ready to throw every day,” he said after Game 5. “I try to keep every day as normal as possible. You’re more mentally tired than physically tired.”
Another question: Where’s Francisco Liriano? He warmed up several times in Game 5 but hasn’t pitched in the series after appearing just once in the ALCS. It seems strange that Hinch hasn’t brought him to face lefties Corey Seager and/or Cody Bellinger at some point. Given how little he has used his bench, Hinch is kind of playing with a 17-man roster. If Seager and Bellinger hit second and fourth, using Liriano to face that part of the order is a possibility as well.
How deep will Rich Hill go?
Roberts pulled Hill after four innings pitched, 60 pitches thrown and just one run allowed in Game 2, not wanting him to face the top of the lineup for a third time. Look, that has been Roberts’ strategy all postseason: quick hooks with the starters and hope Kenta Maeda, Brandon Morrow and Jansen can finish it off, with maybe a couple of outs from lefties Tony Watson and Tony Cingrani.
Trouble is: Now the Dodgers bullpen has fatigue issues. Maeda threw 77 pitches over Games 3 and 5. Morrow has pitched in all five games of the World Series. The right-handed-heavy lineup for the Astros means it’s difficult to use Watson and Cingrani for more than individual matchups, and Roberts has basically tried to avoid Ross Stripling, let alone Game 2 goats Josh Fields and Brandon McCarthy.
This is why the whole “bullpenning” issue is almost impossible to pull off in the offseason. The effectiveness of relievers in the regular season is tied to the fact that they’re not used all that often. Morrow rarely pitched back-to-back days in the regular season, and you saw what happened when he pitched for the third day in a row in Game 5 — he threw six pitches and gave up four hits, including two home runs (after not allowing a home run in the regular season).
It worked last year for Andrew Miller, in part because the Indians had some short series and not every game was close. He pitched back-to-back days just twice and with different rest periods of three days, three days, five days and two days. Jansen has pitched back-to-back days four times and had only three rest periods of longer than one day. Morrow has pitched back-to-back days five times — something he did only seven times all regular season. Factor in that these are all high-stress, high-intensity outings and no wonder he got bombed the other night.
As for Jansen, he has thrown 190 pitches this month, which isn’t necessarily that extreme of a workload, until you again factor in the intensity of the moments. His pitch totals each month this season:
Again, it’s easy to be dominant when you’re throwing 10 innings a month. Pitching more often — especially against an offense like Houston’s — can expose some of these relievers.
So, sure, Roberts would love a longer outing from Hill, but he’s trailing in the series and has no margin.
“I think if you look at the Alex Wood start and what he did for us in Game 4, I think that’s the kind of blueprint, where you obviously have to watch the game and see how’s he throwing the baseball,” Roberts said.
(I can hear a million statheads screaming about how what happened earlier in the game for a pitcher isn’t predictive of what will come next.)
Just guessing here: Roberts would probably love to stick to Hill, maybe Watson and Morrow for an inning and then Jansen for two. Stripling is probably the long man out of the pen over Maeda, with Roberts saying Wood is a possibility (he said Clayton Kershaw and Game 7 starter Yu Darvish are the two pitchers unavailable).
We ran down the Astros’ scenario. The Dodgers will likely be in a tougher position, unless Hill pitches really deep into the game. If Roberts is lucky, he can somehow avoid using Morrow in Game 6. If anybody could use a second day of rest, it’s Morrow. If Roberts can avoid using Wood, even better.
But if those two are both forced to pitch in Game 6, that leaves this scenario for Game 7: Kershaw coming out of the bullpen as Dodger Stadium goes absolutely bonkers. This is basically the Joe Maddon plan from Game 7 of the World Series last year, when he mapped out the three pitchers he wanted to use: Kyle Hendricks, Jon Lester and Aroldis Chapman. Like Kershaw, Lester had started Game 5 and entered in relief on two days of rest.
Oh, I forgot one thing: We’re back in the National League park, which means no designated hitter. Which, umm, complicates things even more. Let’s just say this: There is a very good chance for complete chaos the next two days. Because we haven’t had enough yet.