We get two Game 5s today, and recent history suggests we're more likely to see a blowout than a tense, tight affair. Of the 17 Game 5s or Game 7s in the past 10 postseasons, only four were one-run games. There have been four shutouts, and only three times did the losing team score more than two runs.
Some random thoughts to preview today's games:
1. Stroman gets the start over David Price, either by design or because manager John Gibbons believed it was necessary to use Price for 50 pitches in Game 4 with a six-run lead. The theory is that Gibbons used Price merely to defuse a potential controversy over who would be the Game 5 starter or so as to not upset Price. There's an argument to be made, however, that even though Price might win the Cy Young Award, Stroman is the better pitcher. As Jeff Sullivan details at FanGraphs, over the past two seasons, Stroman has a lower OPS allowed than Price, in large part because of a high ground-ball rate that limits extra-base hits. Factor in that Stroman was better than Price in their first starts in the series, Stroman's excellent results since coming back from his knee surgery in September and Price's shaky postseason history, and maybe Stroman is the right choice. Or maybe Gibbons just thought it was necessary to use Price on Monday.
2. One reason Stroman is so difficult to hit: pitch selection. You never know what's coming. Including his playoff start, here is his pitch breakdown for 2015:
Fastball: 42 percent
Slider: 16 percent
Curveball: 12 percent
Cutter: 11 percent
Changeup: 11 percent
Sinker: 7 percent
The Rangers are stacked with left-handed hitters, but the quality of his off-speed stuff allows Stroman to match up well against lefties. In his young career, he's allowed a .611 OPS versus left-handers and .621 versus right-handers.
3. Hamels, of course, is no stranger to big games. This will be his 15th postseason start; he's 7-4 with a 3.05 ERA. This will be his first elimination-game start, however. The Blue Jays have all that right-handed power, but Hamels has that great changeup that has limited right-handers to a .199/.249/.311 batting line this season. Hamels only threw the change 17 times in his 114 pitches in Game 2, he also threw 26 cutters and 17 curveballs. It will be interesting to see if he sticks with the cutter more often as a way to get in on the hands of Josh Donaldson, Jose Bautista & Co.
4. If there's a key hitter for the Rangers, it has to be Prince Fielder. He's 1-for-15 in the series, but his playoff struggles go beyond that: He's gone 84 at-bats without a postseason RBI. In 43 postseason games, he's hitting .188/.276/.313. As the smart guys like to say, he's due.
5. How will Gibbons deploy his bullpen? Remember, he went one batter too long with Stroman in Game 2, letting him start the eighth inning only to surrender a 4-3 lead. The Jays have a tough late-game combo in Aaron Sanchez and Roberto Osuna, but not having lefty Brett Cecil, who tore a calf muscle earlier in the series, will hurt in matching up with Fielder, Shin-Soo Choo, Mitch Moreland, Josh Hamilton and Rougned Odor. Lefty Aaron Loup isn't available, but don't be surprised if Price comes on to face one of those left-handed batters.
6. If I'm Jeff Banister, I'm especially wary of Donaldson. Not only did he hit .330/.398/.647 at home, he hit .322/.408/.695 against left-handers at home. Yes, it's Hamels, but you still have to play the percentages, and late in the game in a big situation, I want a right-hander pitching to Donaldson, Bautista and Edwin Encarnacion. For the Rangers, I think the game might hinge on how long Banister sticks with Hamels and when he goes to his powerful bullpen foursome of Keone Kela, Sam Dyson, Jake Diekman and Shawn Tolleson; those four have combined to allow just seven hits in 14 innings in the series.
1. Yes, Game 4 was a heartbreaking loss for the Astros, but there is no momentum in baseball! McHugh and Cueto -- the way he's been pitching -- aren't on the same level as Stroman and Hamels, so this game is even more likely to turn on when managers A.J. Hinch and Ned Yost go to their bullpens. The big difference, of course: Yost has the better one. But Hinch isn't without options: The Royals are difficult to match up with since they go lefty-righty-lefty throughout the lineup, and they have switch-hitters Ben Zobrist and Kendrys Morales as well. Hinch has lefties Oliver Perez (a true lefty one-out guy, aka LOOGY) and Tony Sipp (he can face right-handers), but should also have starter Scott Kazmir available for late-game lefty-lefty matchups.
2. Houston's other weapon out of the bullpen could be Dallas Keuchel, who would be pitching on two days' rest after throwing 124 pitches in Game 3. Hinch obviously hasn't tipped his hand on Keuchel's availability, saying Tuesday that "I'm going to have all hands on deck. ... So whether or not Keuchel's available or what the plan is, we'll have to tune in tomorrow night and find out." My guess: We'll see Keuchel for an inning, maybe two.
3. Of course, McHugh is very capable of pitching deep into the game. He didn't win 19 games by accident. He was much better in the second half, posting a 3.11 ERA, as he allowed just five home runs in 14 starts. McHugh is a fastball/cutter/curveball pitcher with a very occasional changeup. In Game 1, he threw 31 cutters, 29 fastballs and 28 curveballs, throwing the curve a little more often than he did in the regular season. If he struggles early, Hinch could use Kazmir or Mike Fiers in long relief.
4. Cueto is the wild card. In Game 2, he gave up four runs through three innings -- Colby Rasmus tagged him for a home run -- but settled down and made it through six innings without further damage. Still, that's hardly a sign that he's pitched his way out of his two-month struggles. Since August 21, he has allowed 84 hits in 57.1 innings, a .343 average. Opponents have hit .407 off his cutter, a pitch that suddenly lacked the late movement it had when Cueto was with the Reds. He still threw it 23 times in Game 2, however, and the Astros went 1-for-5 against it with two walks.
5. Rasmus has been the hot hitter for the Astros, with three home runs, a double and six walks in the series (he also homered in the wild-card game). Two of his four playoff home runs have come on first pitches. Franklin Morales and Danny Duffy are the two lefties in the Kansas City bullpen, but Morales has yet to pitch and Yost might not trust Duffy in a key situation.
6. Strikeouts could be key, of course. The Astros have struck out 49 times in the first four games -- the Royals, a more reasonable 33 times. The Astros aren't about to change their game plan. Remember, despite all the home runs and strikeouts, the Astros aren't a plodding team of sluggers; they led the AL in stolen bases. Cueto, however, is one of the toughest pitchers in the game to run on and has allowed just two stolen bases all season. So if the Astros run, it will have to be against the bullpen.
7. I suspect Yost will once again work backward, planning on two innings from Wade Davis and at least one inning from Kelvin Herrera. If he wants to go Herrera-Ryan Madson-Davis again, then he might need just five innings from Cueto. But Yost shouldn't hesitate to go to the pen even earlier. There is no need to lose this game because Cueto blows up early.
Predictions? Two tight games, but I'm going with the home teams. Stroman pitches a gem as the Blue Jays win 3-1, and the Royals score a late run off the Houston bullpen to win 4-3.