Keys That Will Decide Rangers vs. Blue Jays, Astros vs. Royals ALDS Game 5s
The do-or-die, win-or-go-home sporting event is the pinnacle of athletic drama.
It creates undeniable excitement before kickoff, tipoff, the puck drop and first pitch. Pins, needles, sweaty palms and butterflies are all in play when one game defines an entire season.
On Wednesday, Major League Baseball gives us two such contests.
Both American League Division Series have improbable Game 5s to decide who meets in the Championship Series—fates that seemed entirely unlikely at certain points during both series. Yet, here we are with the slates wiped clean and the brink of elimination tangible for all four teams.
The Texas Rangers go back to Toronto to face the Blue Jays, a team they beat twice there to start this series, but then lost to at home, failing to close it out. Later, the Houston Astros, who at one point in the seventh inning of Game 4 in their own park had a 98.4 percent win probability, according to FanGraphs, will try to beat the Kansas City Royals and expunge their missed opportunity.
There are distinct keys for each team’s victory. While they might not ensure a trip to the ALCS, they certainly would go a long way in helping.
Cole Hamels Keeping Blue Jays in the Ballpark
Cole Hamels was a postseason star with the Philadelphia Phillies, and the Rangers will need a performance worthy of that moniker against a lineup that can devastate even the best pitchers.
The Blue Jays led the majors in home runs in the regular season and have hit six in the first four games of this series, with three coming in the Game 4 win. This lineup is capable of doubling its postseason total in one game, which makes Hamels’ task a test in sidestepping land mines.
Hamels pitched seven innings and allowed four runs, two earned, in his Game 2 start, and he gave up a homer to American League MVP favorite Josh Donaldson. For the season, Hamels gave up less than one home run per nine innings, though in almost 84 innings with the Rangers, the number jumped to 1.1.
For Hamels to neutralize the Blue Jays’ power, his running changeup might be the weapon he leans on against the right-handed sluggers. Over the season he used that pitch at the second-highest rate against righties and had great success with it as they hit .203 and slugged .318 against it, according to BrooksBaseball.net.
"The best pitch in my mind is his changeup," former Colorado Rockies executive Dan O’Dowd said on MLB Network. "When he can get to his changeup and it’s got that late arm-side run, he can neutralize any right-hand hitting lineup. So I feel really, really good about the Rangers’ chances with Cole on the mound in this game."
Marcus Stroman Being Bigger Than His Moment
Twenty-four regular-season starts and one postseason start into his promising career, Marcus Stroman is about to have his defining moment.
He is 24 years old and was the Toronto Blue Jays' first-round pick (22nd overall) in the 2012 draft. He's made meaningful starts, including late this season after he came back from an ACL tear suffered in spring training, and his first playoff start in Game 2 was adequate, as he gave up four runs, three earned, in seven innings.
But this is a series-deciding start—and against one of the game's aces in Cole Hamels. Stroman's stuff and makeup have long proved to be outstanding. But these are the kinds of moments that can overwhelm a young player who has never experienced one.
"I'm pretty excited. Probably say it's around a 10 right now, and I can only imagine tomorrow," Stroman told reporters in his Tuesday press conference. "It's going to be a lot of deep breaths out there on the mound, do everything I can just to keep my emotions in check while still being myself."
If he can accomplish those occasionally difficult tasks, Stroman has the ability to carry the Blue Jays into the ALCS.
Johnny Cueto Justifying His Trade
When the Kansas City Royals traded for Johnny Cueto before the July non-waiver deadline, they did so with the belief they were getting a bona fide ace who could start their critical postseason games. Well, the game doesn’t get any more critical than this Game 5 against the Houston Astros. However, Cueto has not necessarily been what the team expected.
In his 13 starts with the Royals, Cueto had a 4.76 ERA, 4.06 FIP and 1.451 WHIP. In his final nine starts of the season, his ERA was 6.49, and opponents hit .348 against him.
He struggled early in his Game 2 start in this series, allowing four runs in his first three innings. He did manage to settle in and retire 12 of the last 14 batters he faced, though, finishing with three consecutive scoreless innings.
"I'll tell you I did like the way that we came out aggressive against him," Astros manager A.J. Hinch told reporters. "Against good pitchers and notable pitchers, you do have to try to get them early. If you allow them to settle in, it can be very, very difficult for you."
Cueto is a free agent after the season, and he has been good enough in the past to be priced out of Kansas City’s budget. That means he will most likely leave his mark on the franchise in this Game 5, and if it is to be a good one and if the trade is going to be looked at favorably, he has to pitch well, and the Royals have to win.
Astros’ Bullpen Rebounding
For most of the season the Houston Astros possessed one of the best bullpens in the majors. They put up a 1.11 WHIP, good for 12th-lowest in the sport since 1920.
However, the group took a massive downturn down the stretch. The bullpen’s September/October ERA was the worst in the American League, and things have not gotten any better in the playoffs, as it has a 5.40 ERA in 13.1 innings (eight earned runs). That mess hurt the Astros in Game 4 when the relievers allowed five runs in 2.2 innings and cost the team the series-clinching win.
"These guys have been nails all year," Astros Game 5 starter Collin McHugh told reporters in his Tuesday press conference. "They’ve been one of the best bullpens in the major leagues. They’ve been around and they know what they’re up against. One bad day is not going to make or break their season. They don’t need a hug or a pat on the butt. They’re professionals. I wouldn’t take anybody else behind me."
Chances are the bullpen will need to get itself together, because in a do-or-die game, manager A.J. Hinch might have a quick hook for McHugh and will have to rely on a to-this-point shaky group to keep the Kansas City Royals off the scoreboard and out of the ALCS.
Stars Playing Like Stars
You can count on every big game having an X-factor or a player no one expected to come up big in a high-leverage spot. But when all the bets are in, all four of these teams need their stars to shine like stars.
All four starting pitchers. The Rangers' Prince Fielder and Adrian Beltre. The Astros' Carlos Correa and Jose Altuve. The Blue Jays' Josh Donaldson and Jose Bautista. The Royals' Eric Hosmer and Lorenzo Cain. The closers.
And the list goes on.
The biggest players have to show up in the biggest games of the season, and Game 5 in a best-of-five series is exactly that. Here's to betting that one of them plays a major role in his team winning on Wednesday.