The Houston Astros lost Game 2 of the American League Championship Series on Saturday to the Boston Red Sox by a 9-5 margin (box score), thereby evening the best-of-seven series at 1-1 as the setting shifts to Fenway Park. More damaging to the Astros than the loss itself is what Game 2 did to their plans for the rest of the series.
Keep in mind, the Astros' pitching outlook was already compromised. Ace Lance McCullers Jr. had to be left off the roster after he suffered an arm injury during the decisive game of the divisional series. (Relievers Pedro Báez and Rafael Montero, though of lesser importance to Houston's title hopes, are also sidelined because of injuries.) It's not going to help Houston's problem that Game 2 starter Luis Garcia had to exit with an apparent knee injury, nor that the Astros had to burn their scheduled Game 4 starter, Jake Odorizzi, by asking him to throw 82 pitches in a boat race.
The Astros have their Game 3 starter, in José Urquidy; they have their Game 5 starter, in Framber Valdez. But what about Game 4? (To say nothing of a potential Game 6.) That's where things begin to get tricky. Let's examine their five paths forward.
1. Roll with a bullpen game
If the Los Angeles Dodgers can go with the Johnny Wholestaff approach to open a championship series, then why can't the Astros break it out in the middle of theirs?
This seems to be the most practical solution for the Astros. Houston has nine relievers on its ALCS roster, including the likes of Cristian Javier, who has thrown two innings or more in both of his appearances this postseason. Slotting Javier into the Dodgers' Tony Gonsolin role would ensure the Astros could mix and match around him without running the risk of exhausting their options should the game go into extras.
Heck, the Astros even have a veteran opener at their disposal, in Ryne Stanek, meaning they could design their Game 4 approach to look something like this:
- First inning: Stanek
- Second: Brooks Raley
- Third through fifth: Javier
- Sixth: Phil Maton
- Seventh: Yimi Garcia
- Eighth: Kendall Graveman
- Ninth: Ryan Pressly
You can play around with this script. Maybe Stanek can get an out or two into the second, shifting the timeline on everyone else. Or maybe the Astros would prefer to open with a left-hander in an attempt to force Alex Cora's hand. You get the point.
There are a few obvious drawbacks to this route. Using Javier in a multi-inning capacity in Game 4 means not using him at all in Games 3 and 5. Additionally, a bullpen game in the midst of three consecutive games could require some of Houston's relievers to work back-to-back-to-back nights. That's not the ideal scenario, but the Astros might not have a choice given the stakes.
What else could they do? Let's move on.
2. Bring back starters on short rest
Arguably the path of least resistance for the Astros entails them having their starters pitch on short rest heading forward. That would mean Valdez in Game 4, Garcia and/or Odorizzi in Game 5, Urquidy in Game 6, and so on -- all on three days' rest. That's a lot to ask for, however, and it seems unlikely to happen as a result.
3. Bring back Garcia on short rest
In theory, the Astros could treat Garcia's Game 2 as a side session. He threw just 33 pitches and he would have two days of rest by Game 4. Even if the Astros deployed Garcia in concert with the bullpen game laid out in the first subhead (perhaps slotting him in for one time through the order), it would reduce the burden placed upon the rest of their relievers.
We think it's unlikely, however, because of two reasons. One, there's no telling how Garcia's knee will respond to treatment between now and then; the Astros certainly don't want to get into a situation where they make the injury worse, either in the short or the long term. Two, Garcia seems like a poor matchup against the Red Sox because of how ineffective he is versus left-handed batters. Limiting his exposure could help, but as he proved on Saturday, it doesn't mean he'll leave the Astros in a good spot.
There is another approach the Astros could take with Garcia ….
4. Remove Garcia from the roster
Manager Dusty Baker said on Sunday that Garcia will remain on the roster. If his knee injury does worsen, or if the Astros develop concerns about his viability, they could just remove him from the roster and add a fresher arm in his place.
One catch is that the Astros don't have a great alternative available to them. They could throw Josh James or Peter Solomon or whomever into the fire, but that doesn't necessarily look like an upgrade on paper. Another is that the Astros would face a penalty for removing Garcia: he would be ruled ineligible for the World Series.
Of course, that downside matters only if the Astros actually get to the World Series in the first place. If having Garcia on the roster or not threatens that possibility, then the stakes look a lot different than they do in a vacuum.
With that in mind, let's hit on the final potential option.
5. Change plans with Greinke
Baker has been adamant that Zack Greinke won't be used as a starter this series, as he's stretched to only 40 pitches. Desperate times could call for desperate measures, though, and it's possible the Astros ask Greinke for a favor.
From this perspective, it seems more likely that the Astros would fold Greinke into a bullpen game scenario, having him throw as many innings as his 40 pitches would allow. Still, it's hard to rule out anything in October, the one month a year where teams get funky with their veteran arms with any regularity.
Whatever route the Astros take, it's guaranteed to look better with a win in Game 3 -- and a lot worse with another loss.