Astros at Dodgers Series Preview

Astros at Dodgers Series Preview
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The Dodgers are finally clear of the soft middle of their schedule. From August 14 through this past Thursday, September 10, the Dodgers went 19-6 (.760) against the weaker members of the National and American Leagues’ western divisions. Over that stretch, they won seven of eight series and went 4-2 against the only team to win a series against them over that stretch (or at any point in 2020), the Colorado Rockies.

Now things get serious. After a pair of games at home against the Astros this weekend, the Dodgers head to San Diego for three, to Denver for four, then host the A’s, who currently boast the second-best record in the majors, before finishing up the season, two weekends from now, with a three-game set against the lowly Angels.

That Angels series will be a brief respite before the playoffs, for which the Dodgers are a lock. With 15 games remaining in the season, L.A.’s magic number to clinch a playoff berth is seven. If the Dodgers win just three of their remaining 15, and the Brewers (the NL team with the fewest losses not currently in a playoff position) lose just four of their remaining 18, the Dodgers will still make the playoffs.

The Dodgers’ magic number to clinch the division is 12. If they win just one game in each of their remaining series, and the Padres lose just one in each of theirs, that’s 10 of those 12. By the time the Dodgers clinch the division, they likely will have already clinched the top seed in the NL (their magic number for posting a better record than the other division winners is 10, but they have to win their own division to claim the number-one seed).

Still, in terms of quality of opponent, the next dozen games are the toughest stretch of the regular season for L.A. I say that knowing full well that the Astros enter this weekend’s series a game below .500.

The Astros have had a rough season. Not that anyone is shedding any tears for them, but they have been gutted by injuries. Their disabled list currently includes José Altuve, Yordan Álvarez, Justin Verlander, Lance McCullers Jr., Roberto Osuna, Chris Devenski, and five others. Among those who have returned from injury in the last week are Alex Bregman, Josh James, Brad Peacock, and José Urquidy. Despite that, Houston has still managed to be roughly league average on both sides of the ball. The Astros enter Saturday’s game with a +10 run differential, and they have the advantage in this weekend’s pitching matchups.

Part of that advantage stems from catching the Dodgers at the right time. With Walker Buehler back on the IL due to his blister issue, and Tony Gonsolin pressed into emergency duty on Thursday after a comebacker off Dustin May’s foot forced the Dodgers’ other rookie starter out after just one inning of work, the Dodgers will likely have to improvise their pitching plan for the second time in three games on Sunday. Julio Urías will start on an extra day’s rest in Saturday’s opener, but Clayton Kershaw would be on short rest for Sunday, Gonsolin threw 80 pitches on Thursday, Alex Wood pitched in that game, as well, and we still don’t know the full details on the injury to May, as his x-rays were reportedly inconclusive on Thursday.

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In his press conference after Thursday’s game, Dave Roberts suggested that Sunday could be another bullpen game. If so, it seems more likely to be a true bullpen game, without someone available to eat five innings the way Gonsolin did on Thursday. The trick there is that, immediately after that game, they head to San Diego to face the second-best team in the league and the one chasing them for the division title. Also, they’re playing short one pitcher as they replaced Buehler on the active roster by activating Joe Kelly, who, before he can return to action, has to serve the last four games of his five-game suspension for throwing at the Astros the last time these two teams met. All of that, plus Zack Greinke starting for Houston, makes Sunday a game that the Dodgers might be willing to sacrifice to avoid a bullpen hangover heading into the Padres series.

Here are the pitching matchups and game times for this weekend’s set against the Astros:

Sat. 9/12, 5:07 p.m. PT: LHP Framber Valdéz (3.61 ERA, 52 1/3 IP) vs. LHP Julio Urías (3.86 ERA, 37 1/3 IP)

Sun 9/13, 5:08 p.m. PT: RHP Zack Greinke (3.27 ERA, 52 1/3 IP) vs. TBD

Stocky 26-year-old lefty groundballer Framber Valdéz made his first start of the year against the Dodgers way back on July 28. He allowed three runs over 4 1/3 innings in that game, then went on to peel off quality starts in five of his next six turns. His only real stinker on the season was his last outing, in which he allowed eight runs in seven innings against the Angels in Anaheim, three of those runs scoring in the eighth inning, two after he left the game. As that suggests, Valdéz has been an innings-eater for Houston this year, despite his relative inexperience, completing at least seven frames in five his last six starts.

The Dodgers will have to string some basrunners together against Valdéz, as he has allowed just three home runs all year, and he won’t helping out with walks, either, as he has cutting his walk rate by more than half from his career mark. Valdéz throws his sinker more than half the time and has almost completely backed off his fourseamer, replacing it with additional curves and changeups. Most of what the Dodgers will see from him will be mid-90s sinkers and low-80s curves.

As for old pal Zack Greinke, since the start of 2017, his second season after leaving the Dodgers, Greinke has posted a 143 ERA+, 1.04 WHIP, and 5.17 strikeout-to-walk ratio, which is roughly what he’s been up to over nine starts thus far this season. He has allowed just three home runs and eight walks in 52 1/3 innings and allowed more than three runs in a start just once all year. He’s now a full-time soft-tosser, with none of his pitches averaging better than 88 miles per hour, but is still able to avoid hard contact via his deep repertoire and veteran wiles. I just hope we get to see a few of those 60 mile per hour slow curves on Sunday.

Here’s how the Dodgers tend to line up regardless of the handedness of the opposing pitcher:

R – George Springer (CF)

R – Alex Bregman (3B)

L – Michael Brantley (DH)

R – Yuli Gurriel (1B)

L – Kyle Tucker (LF)

R – Carlos Correa (SS)

L – Josh Reddick (RF)

R – Almedys Díaz (2B)

R – Martín Maldonado (C)

Ryan Pressly is closing games for Houston while Osuna is out with a sore elbow. On the season, the Astros bullpen—currently staffed by Pressly, the recently-activated Peacock and James, and six rookies—has averaged nearly six walks per nine innings, so don’t be surprised if we see a little more late-inning thunder from a Dodgers team that his hitting a collective .286/.378/.549 in the eighth inning this season. Given the relative quality of the Astros starters in these two games, they may need it.

Cliff Corcoran covers baseball for The Athletic and is a former lead baseball writer for SI.com. The co-author or editor of 13 baseball books, including seven Baseball Prospectus annuals, he has also written for USA Today, SB Nation, Baseball Prospectus, Sports on Earth, The Hardball Times, and Boston.com, among others. He has been a semi-regular guest analyst on the MLB Network and can be heard more regularly on The Infinite Inning podcast with Steven Goldman. Follow Cliff on Twitter @CliffCorcoran.