It's do-or-die for the Blue Jays and Royals, each of whom face elimination in their respective Games 4 on Monday. Can the Rangers and Astros finish the series?
Could Monday be the end of the road for the Blue Jays and Royals? Toronto staved off elimination by winning on Sunday night but still trails the Rangers, 2–1, in their series; Kansas City, meanwhile, has its back against the wall after losing Game 3 on Sunday afternoon. In postseason history, 73 teams have found themselves down 1–2 in a best-of-five series; eighteen of those teams, roughly 25%, have rallied to win that series. Meanwhile, of the 73 teams to be up 2–1 in a best-of-five series, 37, or just more than half, won the fourth game.
Based on those numbers, the chances of the Astros and Rangers wrapping things up today are twice as good as the chances off the Royals and Jays surviving to play Game 5 on Wednesday, though a closer look suggests Toronto’s odds may be better than that.
• Ventura returns to the mound on three days' rest after having his Game 1 start shortened by rain; he worked just two innings before a 48 minute delay ended his night. However, he gave up three runs on four hits and a walk in those two frames and threw 42 pitches. The Royals opted for a reset with Chris Young when play resumed in that game and are hoping for a reset on Ventura in this one. Only once in his career has Ventura made a start on anything less than full rest: ALDS Game 1 last year, which he started on just two days' rest after a disastrous 13-pitch relief outing in the wild-card game. Ventura beat the Angels by holding them to one run over seven efficient innings. If the Royals do force a Game 5 back in Kansas City, Game 2 starter Johnny Cueto will start that game on full rest, likely against Astros Game 1 starter Collin McHugh.
• McCullers is working on seven days' rest, having last pitched on the final day of the regular season, when he gave up three runs, two earned, in five innings against the Diamondbacks. Though he hasn’t been pitching deep into games, averaging less than 6 1/3 innings per start over those last eight, McCullers hasn’t allowed more than three runs in any of his last eight turns. Even more encouraging for Houston: The rookie went 4–1 with a 1.86 ERA in ten home starts during the regular season. Included among those was his only career start against the Royals, back on June 29, when the then-21-year-old held Kansas City to one run over seven innings.
• Neither manager should have any qualms about going to his bullpen early and often, if necessary. After Saturday’s off-day, each team used just two relievers in Game 3, with the Royals’ Luke Hochevar the only of the four to reach 20 pitches (he threw 22). None of the Royals’ Big Three appeared in the game, and though Astros closer Luke Gregerson was called on for a four-out save and gave up a solo home run to Alex Gordon in the process, he threw just 16 pitches.
• The Royals opted to pitch around red-hot Colby Rasmus in Game 3, walking him three times, once intentionally. The strategy largely worked, as Rasmus neither drove in nor scored a run in the game. Still, he singled in his only other at-bat and has now come to the plate 12 times in this series and made just three outs. Put another way, Rasmus has as many home runs as outs in this series. The only other player on any of this year’s ten playoff teams with multiple home runs is the Royals’ Kendrys Morales, who went deep in his first two at-bats against McHugh in Game 1 but has not had another extra-base hit since.
• With Sunday’s loss, the Rangers have now lost their last four postseason games in which they had an opportunity to eliminate their opponent, dating back to Game 6 of the 2011 World Series, when they famously got within one strike of the championship in two different innings. The starting pitcher in the last game in which they successfully clinched a series was Holland in Game 6 of the 2011 ALCS against the Tigers, though he was robbed of the win because he fell one out shy of completing the fifth inning in that game.
• Holland is a surprising choice to start this game. Not only is he a lefty drawing the start over the righthanded Colby Lewis against a Blue Jays lineup loaded with righthanded power, but he also had four lousy starts in a row prior to a bare-minimum quality start against the Angels in his final regular-season turn. Even with that quality start included, Holland posted a 7.62 ERA over his final five starts with 14 walks against just 16 strikeouts in 28 1/3 innings. That doesn’t include his lone start this season against the Blue Jays, which came in late August and saw him surrender three home runs (to Chris Colabello, Jose Bautista and Edwin Encarnacion). In addition to those three shots, Josh Donaldson has hit .300/.391/.700 with two home runs in 23 career plate appearances against Holland, and Encarnacion has homered twice off him in just 15 career PA.
• This is likely to be an emotional start for Dickey. Not only is the 40-year-old knuckleballer the oldest starting pitcher in major league history to be making his postseason debut, but he’s also doing it on the site of his worst major league moment: the career-altering start in April 2006 in which he allowed six home runs in 3 1/3 innings to the Tigers as a member of the Rangers. Texas famously drafted Dickey 18th overall in 1996, then slashed his singing bonus when their physical revealed that he had no anterior cruciate ligament in his pitching elbow. It took Dickey until 2001 to pitch his way to the majors, but he never successfully established himself in his ten years in the Rangers’ organization, posting a 5.72 ERA across 33 starts, 44 relief appearances and parts of five seasons with Texas, all of which came to a close with that six-homer game. Dickey’s experiments with the knuckleball had begun the previous year, but he wouldn’t find sustained major league success with the pitch until joining the Mets in 2010.
Dickey exorcised the ghost of the six-homer game with a dominant outing in Arlington as a Mariner in July 2008 and has made four other appearances in Texas since. In his five return trips to the Ballpark, Dickey has posted a 3.05 ERA in 20 2/3 innings, allowing just three more home runs; his last appearance there was a quality start in a losing effort last May. Despite those previous return trips, Dickey will likely relish the opportunity to prove himself on that mound in a playoff game, pitching to save his team’s season.
• Dickey will also relish the heat, as he has said that his knuckleball is more effective in warm, humid weather. That only make sense, as thicker, warmer air should create more resistance on the ball and thus make his knuckler move more. That could help explain his improvement once the calendar flipped to June this season. Dickey went 2–5 with a 5.77 ERA and just three quality starts in his first ten turns this year, but over his last 23, he posted a 3.11 ERA with 17 quality starts, including a 2.43 ERA with five quality starts in six tries in September.
• Chi Chi Gonzalez is unlikely to be available for the Rangers in this game after throwing 39 pitches in relief of Martin Perez in Game 3, but otherwise it should be all hands on deck for both teams. Blue Jays manager John Gibbons said that, with David Price his intended Game 5 starter, Game 2 starter Marcus Stroman will be available out of the bullpen if needed. The Rangers, meanwhile, could use Game 1 starter Yovani Gallardo should Holland falter early, as Cole Hamels will be on regular rest for a potential Game 5 on Wednesday.