There are few words more magical to baseball fans than “Game 7,” and here we are, with the World Series between the Washington Nationals and Houston Astros reaching this final clash. The 40th Game 7 in World Series history could involve a number of firsts: The first title for the Nationals franchise, in a series with all seven games won by the road team. Or, if Houston wins, it could involve crowning baseball’s first real dynasty since the Yankees of the late 1990s.
• Where and when: Minute Maid Park in Houston, 8:08 p.m. ET.
• Follow the action: Catch it on Fox on TV, and the ESPN Radio broadcast on the air.
• The matchup: Max Scherzer of the Nationals (11-7, 2.92 ERA in the regular season; 3-0, 2.16 ERA in the postseason) vs. Zack Greinke of the Astros (18-5, 2.93 ERA in the regular season; 0-2, 5.30 ERA in the postseason).
• The odds: The opening price of Game 7 is Houston -136, and the total is 7.5 under -120. The runline is Houston -1.5, +155.
David Schoenfield: Key questions for the Nationals going into Game 7
1. Max Scherzer is starting. How long do you expect him to go?
In the words of Scherzer after Game 6, “It’s Game 7. Let’s go.”
Of course, this is no ordinary Game 7 start, considering that three days ago, Scherzer couldn’t move his right arm. He got a cortisone shot that relieved pressure on the nerve that was causing the pain. He got treatment from the team’s chiropractor. He threw in the outfield before Game 6 and even started getting ready in the bullpen at one point during the game. “Even when I was warming up tonight, I felt really good,” Scherzer said. “So I’m good to go.”
It could become the stuff of legends, the World Series equivalent of Willis Reed limping onto the court in Game 7 of the 1970 NBA Finals. “It’s going to be crazy,” Nationals outfielder Adam Eaton said. “Max was almost pronounced dead, he’s now been revived by our medical staff. It’s been quite the road, but to end in Game 7 and hopefully well-scripted.”
Scherzer has twice topped out at seven innings in his four postseason starts, but those were relatively efficient, dominant efforts against the Dodgers and Cardinals. In Game 1 against the Astros, Scherzer threw 112 pitches in five innings. He escaped with two runs, but that game showed how the Astros can be effective in running up pitch counts.
It all presents a tricky scenario for manager Dave Martinez. He has to not just monitor Scherzer’s effectiveness but also weigh that with everything else. Given Scherzer’s status and the shaky nature of the Nationals’ bullpen, there might be a tendency to leave Scherzer in too long, even in a Game 7, although the injury perhaps mitigates the chance of that happening a little bit.
2. Who else should be available for the Nats out of the bullpen?
Martinez will likely employ just four relievers. If somebody besides Patrick Corbin, Anibal Sanchez, Daniel Hudson or Sean Doolittle pitches, something has gone very wrong — unless Stephen Strasburg can pull off a Randy Johnson and pitch in relief after starting in Game 6 (and throwing 104 pitches). That seems unlikely, as after Game 6, Strasburg said, “I just gave it everything I had. I’m pretty tired.”
The good news for Martinez is that if Scherzer’s injury manifests itself early in the game, Sanchez will be available on full rest after starting Game 3. Corbin started Game 4 and got up in the bullpen at one point in Game 6, but he would be working on three days of rest after throwing 96 pitches in that start.
In envisioning relief scenarios, the lefties Corbin and Doolittle could face the 3-4-5-6 part of the Houston lineup that features lefties Michael Brantley batting third and Yordan Alvarez batting sixth. Brantley in particular has a sizable platoon split, with a .928 OPS vs. right-handers and a .740 OPS against lefties.
Alvarez actually had an OPS above 1.000 against both sides, but Corbin held lefties to a .190 average in the regular season, and Doolittle held lefties to a .221 average. Sanchez is much better against righties, so while Houston obviously has a tough lineup to navigate, Martinez can try to exploit some of the platoon edges.
As far as the two primary relievers, Doolittle and Hudson, Doolittle is the one who has looked better in the postseason with six hits in 10⅓ innings, but Martinez has used both to close out games.
3. What were the Nats saying about Game 7 after winning Game 6 in Houston?
My favorite quote came from Doolittle, referencing the slow start and the dramatic comebacks in the wild-card game and in the division series against the Dodgers: “It’s the most 2019 Nationals thing for this to come down to Game 7.”
Doolittle says the players will know it’s not just any other game — as much as their pregame routines will remain the same. “I think you’re lying to yourself if you really approach it like any other game,” he said. “I think you have to be aware that the energy is going to be different, and once you kind of acknowledge that, and kind of process that energy, and start to deal with it and get yourself ready for the game.”
Veteran Ryan Zimmerman said he wouldn’t know what to expect. “I don’t know, to be honest with you,” he said. “I’ve never done it.”
They liked that the bats came alive again after struggling in the three losses in D.C. “It’s going to be fun,” Juan Soto said. “It’s going to be loud. We came back again playing really good baseball. We’re going to be good.”
4. What are the Nats doing so well at the plate in Houston that wasn’t working for them at home?
It’s just weird, random baseball stuff. Don’t try to explain something that can’t be explained. In the first two games in Houston, they went 7-for-21 with runners in scoring position. In the three games in Washington, they went 1-for-21 with runners in scoring position. In Game 6, they went 2-for-6.
The most obvious prediction about Game 7: The team that hits the most home runs will win. The Nationals hit three in Game 6, and the Astros hit one. The team that hits the most home runs in a game is now 26-6 this postseason.
On the pitching side, that may mean keeping George Springer off the board. He has seven home runs in 13 World Series games, including a big one back in Game 7 in 2017 against the Dodgers. He’s hitting .348/.483/.783 in this series. Alex Bregman has three home runs in the series, but Springer has four two-hit games, six extra-base hits and six walks. The Nats have to keep him off the bases and in the park.
5. What is one under-the-radar factor that could win Game 7 for the Nationals?
Before Game 6, Eaton described Scherzer like this: “You want to talk about a guy that absolutely puts everything in his work, into just his life of just baseball. I don’t know how he’s ever going to function outside of baseball because he’s literally part of baseball in the sense of how everything he does is wrapped around his starts, his work.”
Then you have Greinke, when asked if he’s ever dreamed of pitching in a Game 7 of the World Series: “Probably. I can’t remember doing that at the moment, but probably.” Of course, maybe Scherzer will be too hyped up, too intense with everything on the line. Maybe Greinke’s slow heartbeat will be a benefit. Let’s play it out and see what happens.
Bradford Doolittle: Key questions for the Astros going into Game 7
1. Zack Greinke is starting. How long do you expect him to go?
Let’s start with the headliner: Greinke spoke to the media after Game 6, and his answers actually included at least three or four full sentences. He made a joke. He smiled. It was like watching David Letterman in his prime.
When asked his general thoughts about Game 7, Greinke said, “Yeah, it’s going to be a big game.”
Laughter ensued. Greinke smiled. Best anyone could tell, it was totally improvised. Then Greinke was asked to describe his emotions.
“A little excited about it, but we’ll see,” Greinke said. “Wish it was in a National League park.”
Another joke! About hitting! It’s like he was channeling Bill Murray.
OK. Enough revelry. Here’s the thing: Greinke won’t pitch for long, at least not in the classic ace starter sense. The Astros have limited Greinke’s exposure the entire postseason, even when he’s been doing well. And it’s Game 7 — AJ Hinch will have the entire Houston pitching staff ready to go in back of Greinke. There’s just no reason to push him.
So far in the postseason, Greinke has been pulled before getting through five innings in three of his four starts. In the last two, he was replaced even though he’d given up just one run. Expect something like that in Game 7.
If we’re looking for omens, here’s one Astros fans don’t want to know about. According to ESPN Stats & Information, Greinke will be the fourth pitcher to start a winner-take-all game in the World Series for a team that he didn’t begin the season with. None of the previous three made it through the second inning.
The last such pitcher is fondly remembered in Houston: It was Yu Darvish, starting for the Dodgers against the Astros in the 2017 World Series. Those in orange can only hope to remember Greinke’s start so fondly.
2. Who else should be available for the Astros out of the bullpen? Gerrit Cole?
Everyone is available. Even Game 6 starter Justin Verlander declared himself available.
“It’s Game 7, all hands on deck,” Verlander said. “If AJ asks, I’m sure I’ll figure out a way.”
The real intrigue surrounds Gerrit Cole. He’ll have two days’ rest under his belt going into Game 7, after throwing 110 pitches Sunday. But before that start, Cole was asked whether he had any thoughts about the possibility of coming out of the pen for Game 7.
“You’re always just so inspired to get in the game and try to contribute any way you can,” Cole said. “You just want to be prepared for a situation like that. I would just rather anticipate having my card called as opposed to not, so especially when you’re on this stage. This is a blast.”
After Game 6, Hinch was asked about the possibility and said, “We’ll talk about it tomorrow.”
Spoiler alert: We’re going to see Gerrit Cole in Game 7. There will be a nice chunk in the middle of the game after Greinke is pulled and before Hinch can really line up his top relievers. If Cole is prepared to go — as he says he will be — and you have to choose between him or Ryan Pressly, what would you do?
Old-timers out there are probably clamoring for Cole to start the game, recalling the famous two-days-of-rest shutout by Sandy Koufax to clinch the 1965 World Series. Let it go, fellas. A better paradigm is Madison Bumgarner in 2014. You remember: He came out of the bullpen on two days’ rest after shutting out the Royals on 117 pitches in Game 5.
Bumgarner was supposed to give Bruce Bochy only an inning. He gave him five shutout innings, recording the longest save in World Series history to lift the Giants to the title. That’s how it could start for Cole. Give me an inning, Hinch says. Cole gives him an inning and, dang, he looked pretty good. Give him another. Before you know it, there’s Cole closing out the World Series with a four-inning save.
3. What were the Astros saying about Game 7 after losing Game 6?
Strasburg was good.
“His curveball has a lot of spin,” Carlos Correa said. “Almost feels like it is going to hit you in the face until it lands for a strike. The changeup looks like a fastball off the hand and you swing at it and you’re like, ‘Damn.’ So yeah, he had really good stuff tonight.”
“He’s incredible, he’s one of the best pitchers in the game,” Alex Bregman said. “He was unbelievable today, he’s been unbelievable all postseason and he was really tough on us for the entire game.”
“I saw an incredible pitcher,” Hinch said. “He was really good. And as I said before the game, he has an uncanny ability to slow the game down when he’s under any duress. We didn’t put a lot of stress on him.”
So that’s why they lost Game 6, and it’s hard to argue with that. As for Game 7, hey, if you told them that they’d have one game to win the championship, who wouldn’t take that?
“If you told me that in the beginning of the year we only had to win one game to be champions, I’ll take the chances,” Correa said. “Tomorrow we have to go out there and play our best game.”
“This is what it’s all about, Game 7 tomorrow,” Bregman said. “We’re excited. It’s going to be a lot of fun, and we can’t wait to come out tomorrow and compete.”
The thing with most teams, you might hear stuff like that and think that they’re just sounding off for the cameras and microphones, but underneath it all, they might have stomachs fluttering with butterflies. With the Astros, though, when you’ve spent a bit of time around them, you realize that their bravado is simply that … bravado. There’s nothing false about it.
4. Why are the Astros struggling to score at home, and how do they break out it?
There have been three games thus far at Minute Maid Park. The three starters for the Nationals in those games: Max Scherzer, Stephen Strasburg and Stephen Strasburg. The three starters at Nationals Park: Anibal Sanchez, Patrick Corbin and Joe Ross. See what I’m getting at?
The bizarre home-road deal in this series is obviously a storyline. We’ve never seen anything like this — six road wins in six games. Not just in baseball, either. This just doesn’t happen.
“It is crazy,” Correa said. “You don’t see that very often. But tomorrow we have to change that if we want to be champions.”
The Astros won nearly three-quarters of their home games during the regular season. They hit .284/.362/.516 as a team at Minute Maid Park. You’ve probably seen that stat where Houston’s overall wRC+ (125) ranks second all time to the 1927 Yankees. Its wRC+ at home was 136.
The bottom line is that there is no logical or tangible reason the Astros haven’t scored runs at home in this series beyond the fact that they’ve been facing great pitchers. With Scherzer going Wednesday, they’ll have to beat the best. And isn’t that what the best do?
5. What is one under-the-radar factor that could win Game 7 for the Astros?
With Strasburg presumably off the board for relief work, beyond maybe a batter or two, the Washington bullpen could be exposed if Scherzer can’t go deep. And that’s where you really worry about his neck spasms. When he gets into the intensity of a full-bore start with the World Series on the line, will his body withstand it?
Will there be residual issues in terms of stuff or even command? After all, he was talking about a problem with a nerve. What if he doesn’t have the right feel on his breaking pitches? Clearly, one way or another, Scherzer is the story of Game 7 going into it.
But for the Astros, the unsung key will be to get four or five runs on the board early, just as they did in Game 7 of the 2017 World Series at Dodger Stadium. Not only would that allow Greinke to pitch from ahead, but it creates a buffer against the Nats’ offense for their own bullpen.
From everything we’ve seen from Washington this October, it’s a team that refuses to die. If the Astros let the Nationals hang around within one or two runs into the last third of the game, all bets are off. And we could be set up for a doozy of a finish.
Could we ask for anything more?
“We have a great opportunity tomorrow to play a home game, Game 7 of the World Series,” Hinch said. “Maybe not how we drew it up in terms of how we got there, but it doesn’t take away the opportunity we have to win the World Series.”