HOUSTON -- Houston’s scramble started Sunday, not long after Jose Altuve sent it back to the World Series for the second time in three years.
Clearing the haze from a postgame celebration came first. Next was a crash course in what the Astros were about to tangle with: the Nationals’ starting pitchers.
Any argument suggesting the Nationals have a chance in the 115th World Series centers on their rotation. If those pitchers can obtain 21 -- or more -- outs, Washington will have a solid chance. Staying away from the center of the bullpen remains paramount. Managing pitch counts to last as long as possible is crucial. It’s so important, Max Scherzer is throwing softer in the first inning simply to manage his in-game workload.
Houston knows this. The Nationals know this. Somehow, Washington has survived to this point with the worst regular-season bullpen in postseason history. The starters have relieved in order to stay away from hole on the team. Tanner Rainey is now the third option out of the bullpen. Fernando Rodney is next. They back up Sean Doolittle and Daniel Hudson. That’s the end of Davey Martinez’s trustworthy pitcher list.
The challenge for Houston is learning as much as possible about Scherzer, Stephen Strasburg, Patrick Corbin and Aníbal Sánchez in a short period. The Astros’ analytics department is touted as one of the best, if not the best, in baseball. There’s no information shortage. But there is a real-life experience gap.
Outfielder Michael Brantley faced Scherzer and Sánchez often when all three played in the American League Central Division. However, that was more than five years ago. Both Scherzer and Sánchez are different now.
“You can’t take too much information from something that was a few years ago,” Brantley said. “They’re great pitchers in their own right. They’re still evolving and making adjustments. We’ll watch video, we’ll study them, we’ll look at some video from the previous years, got to have a different gameplan going against them because they’re going to make adjustments just like I need to make adjustments.”
Houston’s World Series roster has faced Scherzer 92 times, Sánchez 83 times, Corbin 43 times and Strasburg just 27 times. Brantley owns more than half of those at-bats. Charts and information from the team will operate as the baseline for information. Players will also use their own preferred process to figure out Washington’s strength.
MVP-candidate Alex Bregman watched every postseason game the Nationals played. He paid particular attention to sequencing against players he felt are similar to him (he wouldn’t specify beyond middle-of-the-order, right-handed power bats).
He watched more video Sunday, then more Monday. He also grabbed his cell phone, because being in the box is so much different than watching a monitor.
“You can also call around the league and ask what other guys have seen and what they felt in the box, what they thought went wrong for them or what went right for them -- kind of pick their brain like that,” Bregman said.
Players use this tactic through the regular and postseason. As much as baseball has shifted to mathematical equations to expose tendencies and obtain advantage, players still prefer to hear from others performing the same job.
Bregman wants to hear about sequencing and how pitches acted when coming toward a batter. Brantley is focused on tendencies against left-handed hitters, He wants to discover patterns in video from a most-recent start, as well as earlier in the year, noting an uptick in slider usage by Scherzer against left-handed hitters. He synthesizes the data next.
“I want all the information I can, and I’ll break it down to what I actually want to apply,” Brantley said. “I don’t need all the information, but I do need a lot of it to come up with my gameplan and what I want to do.”
Unlike Bregman, and many others, he will not call other players.
“Because I want to see it through my own eyes and I want to trust my ability once I get to the plate and not have too many thought processes,” Brantley said. “Just want to be prepared.”
General philosophies apply, too. George Springer is more concerned about adjusting to what happens in real-time, or “on the fly” as he put it.
“In order to be successful, you have to understand what happened to you in that at-bat, whether it’s bad or good,” Springer said. “The good news is, you see the ball, you see what they may be doing. You know how hard they’re throwing. I know that these guys are that don’t necessarily throw their hardest in the first inning. They’re throwing 94, 95, which is still fast. By the eighth, they’re still throwing 99. You just understand kind of what the ball is going to be doing, then you have to adjust from there.”
Is he excited to face them?
“I wouldn’t say ‘excited’ is the right word to face a guy like Max Scherzer or Stephen Strasburg,” Springer said with a smile. “It’s a fight. It’s a grind.”
Houston’s first chance is Tuesday night against Scherzer. Strasburg follows. Corbin or Sánchez is next.
“It definitely is an advantage to have faced people before,” Ryan Zimmerman said. “But with the guys that team has, I’m not going to discount them at all. I’m pretty sure they’ll have a pretty good plan. But, yeah, I think if you’ve seen Max or Stras a hundred times or zero times, it’s not going to be fun.”
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