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This has been one of the most peculiar World Series ever played, largely owing to the road team winning all six games. If that continues tonight, the Washington Nationals are going to become a very unlikely champion. If it doesn’t, if we finally get to see an excited home crowd as the game draws to a close, the Houston Astros will win their second Series in three years and further their case as at least a minor dynasty.
At the fulcrum? A 35-year-old man who needed his wife to dress him three days ago.
Max Scherzer has done everything you can do in baseball except win a championship. He’s won awards, set records, been critical to pennant-winning teams. He’s been an All-Star seven times over. He’s respected by his peers and by fans outside of D.C. He’s been exceptionally durable in an era in which that’s the rarest of skills, starting 30 times every year for a decade. And at this moment, the one every kid dreams about, the seventh game of the World Series...no one knows what he has.
Scherzer took a cortisone shot Sunday, and showed enough in a throwing session yesterday to be tabbed the Nationals’ starting pitcher for tonight. He was up in the bullpen yesterday during the seventh inning, apparently healthy enough to relieve if the Nationals hadn’t broken open the game. Again, though, he woke up on Sunday unable to lift himself out of bed, and he faced the media that afternoon needing to turn his entire body to direct answers to questioners.
As of 4:30 p.m., Scherzer is in the starting lineup, and at this point it seems clear that he’ll take the mound in the first inning. Beyond that, though, we just don’t know what will happen. What kind of freedom of movement will Scherzer have, and if anything less than 100%, how will that effect his velocity and his command? Dave Martinez doesn’t get to put Scherzer’s Strat card on the mound; he’s asking a man who couldn’t pitch on Sunday to get outs in the biggest game in franchise history.
If it’s just about Max Scherzer the person or Max Scherzer the legend, you’re happy to be in this spot. It’s not, though. It’s about Max Scherzer the body, the right arm, the neck, all of which have been failing him this year. There aren’t five people who can tell you what Scherzer has in him tonight, facing one of the best offenses in baseball history, in a park built for home runs. There may not be one person.
The story of tonight’s Game Seven could go a lot of ways, but the most likely is that it will be determined by what Max Scherzer’s body allows him to do. Everything else is secondary to Scherzer’s ability to overcome on Wednesday that which was debilitating on Sunday.
If Scherzer can’t work deep, we’ll probably see Anibal Sanchez, the originally-scheduled Game Seven starter, for an inning or two. Depending on the spot in the lineup when Scherzer has to leave, we could see Patrick Corbin before or after Sanchez. Those three pitchers will handle the first 18 outs, and if you’re Dave Martinez, you want those three, Daniel Hudson, and Sean Doolittle to get the final nine. While Martinez has been dabbling with Fernando Rodney and Tanner Rainey in leveraged spots, it seems safe to say that if anyone other than the first five guys pitch tonight, the game has gotten away from the Nationals.
The Astros counter with Zack Greinke, the highest-paid pitcher in baseball, whose acquisition completed the Astros’ excellent top three. The catch is that Greinke hasn’t had anything like his usual command in October. In four postseason starts he’s failed to finish five innings three times. He served up five homers in his first two playoff starts, and then traded homers for walks -- seven in 43 batters -- in his last two. Greinke’s raw stuff isn’t on the same tier as that of Justin Verlander and Gerrit Cole, and that gap has been evident in these playoffs. He succeeds with exceptional command, with one of the great pitching minds we’ve ever seen, and with a deep repertoire.
You can expect A.J. Hinch to again have a quick hook with Greinke. He said before the game that everyone but Verlander is available, but I don’t necessarily believe that. We have seen pitchers come back in Game Seven after pitching Game Six, perhaps most famously Randy Johnson in 2001. If this game is close, I think Verlander at least goes down to the pen to throw. Gerrit Cole might be available on two days’ rest, with that being determined closer to gametime. Hinch has more and better options, even absent his two starters, than Martinez does. If this becomes some war of attrition, the Astros are better-equipped to win it.
Every World Series game, and more than two-thirds of postseason games this year, have been won by the team that has hit more home runs in the game. Maybe that’s too facile, maybe there should be some deeper analysis, but when teams that are this good at throwing strikes, this good at missing bats, this good at turning balls in play into outs face each other, the difference is going to be home runs, big swings that put runs on the board without needing other actions.
The Nationals’ sequencing in their three wins has been incredible. They’ve scored 24 runs on 43 baserunner events, which is amazing. They have eight homers in their three wins, one in their three losses. We don’t talk about them as a #ballgofar team, perhaps because they were an average one during the regular season -- sixth in the NL in homers, eighth in percentage of runs on homers -- but against the Astros, a team you have to beat by hitting the long ball, they have come through. Their path through tonight is the same as it’s been in their three wins: hit the ball out of the park.
The Astros have had more than enough chances in their three games in Houston, but have failed to capitalize. They’re 3-for-21 at Minute Maid Park with runners in scoring position. In the same games the Nationals have been banking more than half their baserunners, the Astros have been squandering 75% of theirs. They’ve been beaten in the games’ biggest moments by Scherzer, by Stephen Strasburg, by Hudson and Doolittle. That’s baseball. If you’re the Astros, you have to feel like you’ve gotten enough baserunners to win. Their path through tonight is the same as it’s been in their three losses: finally beat the Nationals in the highest-leverage spots.
It’s one game, and I won’t pretend to know exactly how it’s going to go. My hope, and I know I’ve said this before, is that in 12 hours we’re talking about Scherzer or Greinke, about Anthony Rendon or Alex Bregman, or even Robinson Chirinos or Victor Robles. Let’s all hope we’re not talking about Jim Wolf, or Joe Torre, or Rule 27.2(d)(ii)(4)(ç)(™). Let’s let this wild 2019 season be settled, once and for all, by the players.