Really, we might as well consider Game 6 of the World Series to be a must-win for both teams. It's self-evident for the Nationals, who are down 3-2 in this best-of-seven affair and have no more room for losses this season. As for the Astros, they have no interest in seeing this series advance to a seventh game, which, health permitting, would put Max Scherzer on the mound and searching for redemption .
So the stakes are higher than they've ever been in 2019, and we have a Game 6 pitching matchup that rises to meet them. Stephen Strasburg and Justin Verlander. Each is seeking to pitch his team to victory, of course, and each goes in with different relationships with recent history.
Take Verlander, for instance. He's probably going to be the deserving choice for the AL Cy Young Award this season, and one day he's very likely going to be a Hall of Famer. Insofar as Game 6 is concerned however, Verlander is trying to regain that vintage form. In Game 2, also opposite Strasburg, Verlander allowed four runs and 10 baserunners in six innings. In his previous start, he permitted four runs in seven innings in the ALCS against the Yankees. In both of those starts, Verlander ran into trouble in the first inning before settling in, at least for a while. Over his last four starts this postseason, he has an ERA of 5.40 with six home runs allowed.
In related matters, his velocity is down a bit, and he has had trouble commanding his fastball at times. And his slider hasn't looked as sharp at times either. Maybe it's a matter of mounting innings -- the 36-year-old right-hander has 30 1/3 innings in the playoffs after working an MLB-leading 223 frames in the regular season. And maybe it's also a matter of necessarily running into playoff-caliber lineups this time of year. Whatever the case, Verlander, against a Nationals lineup that's scored a total of three runs over the last three games, needs to find the results that have eluded him since his Game 1 start against the Rays in the ALDS. That starts, of course, with working a clean first inning for the first time in more than two weeks.
Speaking of which, here's this observation from Verlander's manager, A.J. Hinch:
"I think with a lot of elite pitchers, and power pitchers specifically, for them to catch their rhythm and their timing is very critical and sometimes if you don't get them early you never get them.
. . .
"J.V. has had a little bit of a similar pressure put on him at the top of the order and a couple of big hits have changed the narrative. Now, once he does find all three of his pitches and he finds his slot where he likes where he's throwing specifically his slider, watch out, because he can rattle off a lot of outs in a row in a couple of these playoff starts."
Maybe there's something to this notion. Over the course of his career, the first inning has consistently been one of Verlander's worst, at least from the standpoint of OPS allowed. So on Tuesday night when he runs headlong into Trea Turner, Adam Eaton, Anthony Rendon, and if someone reaches Juan Soto (yes, Soto should be batting higher in Davey Martinez's lineup), it'll be telling to see whether he's able to locate the fastball and whether he's able to snap off his slider for two-place movement. It could define his start.
Beyond that, there's this uncomfortable reality for Verlander:
Frankly put, Verlander has been one of the least effective starting pitchers in World Series history. That's so thoroughly out of step with the remainder of Verlander's oeuvre that it sticks out like a second nose on his face ... except this second nose is blue. You get the idea.
There's no surer way to scrub away the memories of that -- and take bite out of that World Series ERA you see above -- than by shoving against the Nationals in Game 6 and getting the win in a World Series clincher. As noted, Verlander is 36, and as well positioned as the Astros are for the long-term it's entirely possible that Tuesday will occasion Verlander's seventh and final World Series start. It's not entirely fair to weigh his legacy down with a "yeah, but" that leads into a recounting of his World Series miseries, but it's going to happen if Verlander doesn't deliver something close to peak results in Game 6.
And then there's Strasburg. For a long time, the narrative surrounding Strasburg was that he was soft and perhaps not able to find the mental wherewithal to meet the potential you can so plainly see in his raw stuff. This surely has something to do with injuries,, and so forth. It's also something of a foul-smelling load, especially this season, when he led the NL in innings and made 30 or more starts for the third time in his career. And any notions of his not having the toughness or the stuff between the ears to handle the pressure should bow and tremble before the following sports fact:
Even though his 2 ER in 6 innings allowed moved his career #Postseason ERA up from 1.10, Stephen Strasburg still ranks 5th on this list thanks to a superb effort to help keep it tied before his @Nationals exploded offensively Wednesday pic.twitter.com/ngoxVuF9C8— StatsCentre (@StatsCentre) October 24, 2019
Yes, the supposed hothouse flower of note has in reality been one of the best postseason moundsmen ever. Over those 47 playoff innings, Strasburg has struck out 64 batters against just five unintentional walks. He's been dominant at every facet.
Insofar as the present is concerned, Strasburg has been on a roll and then some. Since his start on Aug. 20 and including the current playoffs, he's put up a 1.73 ERA with six times more strikeouts than walks. In Game 2 against Houston, he allowed two runs in six innings while striking out seven and walking one. Truth be told, that's actually struggling by his recent standards.
What's interesting about Strasburg's start in Game 2 was that he compressed his pitch mix more than he usually does. He's in essence a four-pitch guy, and against the Astros that night he threw none of his pitches more than 29.8 percent of the time (his sinker). Will he go with that approach again, or will he lean on his four-seamer, which is his most common approach? Or will he lead with the changeup, as he did against the Cardinals in the NLCS? He'll throw the changeup to either side, and it's one of the nastiest pitches in all of baseball. The Astros hit his changeup pretty hard in Game 2, so maybe an early tell is whether Stasburg is getting the steep drop and late arm-side movement that define what's perhaps his best offering. Regardless of what kind of stuff you bring the ballpark, the Astros' lineup with the DH spot in tow is almost always a test.
Strasburg's task is to keep doing what he's doing and keep the slumbering Washington lineup in striking distance. Verlander, in contrast, must tame those early batters, give a lead to his bullpen, and flip the World Series script that's presently in place for him. The starting pitchers and how they fare is always the most essential subplot of any given game, and that's acutely the case in Game 6 of the World Series.
Odd as it sounds given their respective reputations, Verlander is trying to become what Strasburg has thus far proved to be -- a big-game pitcher who brings his best self to the biggest moments.