Pitching wins championships. In Game 7 of the American League Championship Series, the champion may rise in spite of the overall pitching performance.
The Yankees and Astros have battled to a 3-3 tie in the ALCS amid some incredible pitching displays. However, as middle of the rotation starters take the mound, combined with either depleted and/or underperforming bullpens, Game 7 could turn into a battle of attrition.
The Yankees - with good reason - are happy with CC Sabathia starting Game 7. Sabathia has been tremendous when pitching after a Yankees' loss this season, including the playoffs, going 10-0 with a 1.69 ERA in such starts. Sabathia also started the Yankees last winner-take-all affair against the Indians in the ALDS, hurling 4 1/3 innings of two-run ball, while striking out nine. The Yankees finished off that game using David Robertson and Aroldis Chapman for eight outs and six outs respectively.
The Yankees would be thrilled to have that formula today, except there is a problem. Robertson threw 12 pitches in Game 6 and gave up four runs in the process. Worse, the Yanks' other "fireman," Chad Green, threw 38 pitches in Game 6 and is most likely unavailable.
That leaves the Yankees with Adam Warren, Tommy Kahnle and Chapman as the team's fresh backend of the bullpen options. The Yankees could go to Robertson, but he looked completely gassed in Game 6. It's entirely possible that all the extra innings have caught up to Robertson, but even if it was a blip on the radar, he will not have more than an inning in him tonight. And, no, Dellin Betances will not hold the ball in a pressure situation unless this game goes well into extra innings.
The Yankees goal, of course, is to stay close or grab a lead against the Astros pitching staff, which is not in any better shape in the decisive Game 7.
Houston's manager A.J. Hinch is ready to empty the pitching staff's tank.
"We'll use every pitcher in Game 7 if we have to," Hinch told the media after Game 6.
Charlie Morton, Houston's Game 3's starter, was tagged for seven runs by the Yankees. There were bloops and a blast off Morton in Game 3, but he's pitched much better in Houston in 2017 - 10-3, 3.34 ERA with 106 strikeouts in 97 innings.
Houston's problems on the mound extend beyond what Morton may or may not provide his club. If the Yankees do manage to knock him out, the first pitcher in probably won't be one of Hinch's middle relievers, but rather one of this two available starters, Dallas Keuchel and Lance McCullers, Jr.
Typically, seeing Keuchel as an opponent could bring some apprehension to the Yankees. Up until their four-run effort against him in Game 5, the Yankees had scored a total of eight runs (seven earned) in 57 2/3 innings against him in his career.
Keuchel would be working on two days rest, so the number of bullets may not be significant, but it's the type of pressure situation that he's accustomed to have success in. Keuchel coming in to "save" Houston's season would bring a huge rush for the home crowd and boost his teammate's psyche in their quest for the pennant.
The rub -- a significant one -- for the Astros is that Keuchel, like all starters, is used to his routine. Asking a pitcher to come in on two days rest, after a stressful 86 pitches in just 4 2/3 innings, is not exactly a simple proposition. Further, the Yankees, regardless of the venue, have to feel a bit of comfort in the fact that they have had recent success against Keuchel and he might not be as sharp as he normally would be for a start on regular rest. Plus, this would be the third time seeing him in the series. Keuchel is great, but the Yankees have seen everything he has to offer.
Similarly, McCullers would be working on short rest (three days) and is described as a pitcher that thrives on his routine. Coming into a game as a reliever without the benefit of his customary work habits could cause him to be off his game.
If a trio of Morton, Keuchel and McCullers cannot carry the load, the Astros will turn to a lackluster bullpen. Houston relievers own a 5.93 ERA in 13 2/3 innings in this series. Astros' closer, Ken Giles, threw 23 pitches in Game 6 and while it was a scoreless effort, it was anything but easy despite the six-run cushion he enjoyed.
There are no assurances on either side. Sabathia's incredible run could end. Kahnle and Chapman could suffer the same fate as Robertson did in Game 6. Morton might get roughed up. Keuchel and McCullers may not be sharp. The Astros relievers could be, well, the Astros relievers.
In the end, whichever team wins Game 7, it could come down to this messy scenario; which starter outlasts the other, which depleted, tired and/or underperforming pitchers pitching in relief falter the least. Game 7s are wild affairs and tonight's between the Yankees and Astros is on course to be no different.