Uncharted Waters: Down 2-1 in the World Series, What’s Next for the Houston Astros?
In a since debunked report, claims were made that the Philadelphia Phillies’ Game 3 bludgeoning of the Houston Astros registered as seismic activity.
Though the tectonic plates may not actually have shifted as a result of the Phillies’ five home runs, the tide of the series sure did, with Philadelphia seizing a 2-1 lead in the race to four wins.
And to be fair, you’ll have to forgive Greater Philadelphia Severe Weather for their mistake. While it may not have been the result of plate activity, the Astros likely did walk out of Game 3 with a severe case of whiplash, having repeatedly wheeled around to watch the Phils blast baseballs into the Pennsylvania sky all night long.
Much of the fanbase was left scratching their heads, asking how this could happen? They were coming off of a dominant Game 2 victory, had a proven postseason performer on the bump, and had shown they can touch up the Phillies’ co-aces. Surely Lance McCullers Jr. would shove, the offense would put up crooked numbers after crooked numbers, and the series odds would tilt in Houston’s favor.
Not hardly. The Phillies are seventh best in baseball in pitch value against the curve, sixth against the changeup, 11th against the slider and 11th against the fastball. On paper, this raw data shows a lineup without many holes, but the numbers are more nuanced than that.
With the exception of Schwarber and Segura, the Phillies lineup struggles against high heat. As a whole, they tend to be behind on fastballs upstairs in the zone, with higher whiff percentages and lower hard hit rates. The Phillies make their living crushing mistakes and offspeed down.
If you’re an Astros fan with LMJ walking to the bump, a team that crushes offspeed down in the zone sounds like a recipe for disaster.
We had just seen this play out exactly in Game 1. JV was perfect through 9 batters, pounding the Phillies with high fastballs, which they couldn’t touch. The second time through the order, he ditched the high heat, and like Lance, struggled to get his offspeed below the zone, and before we knew it, the ‘Stros five run lead had evaporated.
McCullers’ game plan was doomed from the beginning. With a fastball all but abandoned against left handers and an inability to spin off-speed below the middle third, McCullers Jr. was a sitting duck, as the Phillies were able to sit off-speed in a specific zone, barreling balls into the raucous Philadelphia fanbase.
Was he tipping pitches? Maybe. Had the Phillies just done their homework and knew they’d see a steady diet of curves and sliders? Of course.
At the end of the night, what was shown on paper had played out before our eyes–the Phillies’ lineup unloaded on breaking balls in the middle-third and below.
With their backs firmly against the wall, where does Houston go from here?
Tonight should reset the Astros’ rotation. In the Astros’ 10 playoff games, only Justin Verlander and McCullers have shown any susceptibility. The remainder of the rotation and bullpen have dominated whoever stands in the box across from them.
For as tough of a matchup as McCullers faced in the Phillies, Cristian Javier is the perfect pitcher in the situation to flip home-field advantage back to Houston. By pitch value, he has the seventh best fastball and 15th best slider in baseball (min. 100 innings pitched). His two strongest pitches expose Philadelphia’s weaknesses.
Javier’s fastball carries a .183 batting average against and a .277 weighted on base average, while his slider has a .121 batting average against and yields a .177 weighted on base average. With 11.74 K/9, his ability to miss bats should help keep the Phillies’ big bats from leaving the yard.
For his playoff career, Javier carries a 2.70 ERA, and is coming off of a dominant performance over the Yankees, mowing them down for 5 1/3 innings of shutout baseball. If Javier has command tonight, the cold-blooded pitcher known as “El Reptil” should have no issues with a Phillies team he is built to dismantle.
He’s been arguably the best Astros pitcher this year, with both eye-popping counting stats and expected stats. His dominance has made it more than astounding it has taken until Game 4 to get the ball into Javier’s hands.
But if we see a starter struggle again, two looming questions will again hover over Houston:
- What will it take for Dusty Baker to pull a struggling starter before the game is totally out-of-hand?
- When will the bats wake up?
McCullers, as discussed, didn’t have it last night. Nor did JV in Game 1. In both games Dusty left his starters on the hill as sacrificial lambs. Last night was even more questionable. With three starters available in the bullpen in proven World Series stud Jose Urquidy, Luis Garcia and Hunter Brown, at what point does Baker decide to pivot? 5-0? 7-0? 35-0?
A four-run deficit early is manageable. A seven-run deficit in the middle innings is not. Baker’s “defense” of saving the bullpen coming off of two off-days with another looming Friday was inexcusable.
If Philadelphia does manage to get to Javier, does Dusty again let a game unravel? Or does he finally have a quick hook?
That said, managerial malpractice or managerial excellence and starting pitching implosion or starting pitching dominance are all-for-naught if the bats don’t hit. Specifically, one very large bat in the middle of the order.
Since Game 2 of the ALDS, Yordan Alvarez is slashing .125/.282./.188. He’s struck out 12 times in 39 plate appearances. For as much as is said about how Altuve makes the team go, Yordan is the bat in the lineup fully capable of carrying a team on his back.
Alvarez took home 2021 ALCS MVP after the ‘Stros came back from a 2-1 series deficit to win in six. In games 1-3, the big lefty was 3/10 with no extra-base-hits and one RBI on a sacrifice fly.
It is no coincidence that Houston rattled off three straight wins in Games 4-6. Alvarez dominated, going 9-13 with a double, triple, home run and 5 RBI. For the series, Alvarez batted .522. In a series in which Altuve recorded a .589 OPS, Bregman a .656 and Brantley a .577, Yordan’s 1.408 lifted them to the World Series.
Coincidentally, the Astros struggled to push runs across in the World Series, as their slugger fell off the face of the earth, going 2-20 with 0 RBI and one extra-base-hit.
Alvarez played in 89 of the Astros 106 wins, slashing .359/.457/.737, good for an 1.193 OPS with 31 big flies. In their 46 losses in which Alvarez appeared, he hit a minuscule .200, posting a below league-average .661 OPS.
If Yordan doesn’t hit, Javier can spin 7 scoreless innings and the Astros will likely still struggle. If he does, he can single-handedly can offset any struggles from the ‘Stros staff and keep their lineup afloat.
This Golden Era of Astros baseball has been filled with moments of this team picking itself up off the mat, answering the bell and returning from the dead. They’ve got the pitcher on the mound to do it, backed by one of the best lineups in the game.
Now trailing 2-1 and needing three wins over the next four games, Houston is playing the unfamiliar role of underdog. The Phillies have shown all postseason a team can thrive in that role.