MLB Playoff Picture 2021: Most Important X-Factors for World Series Games
The Atlanta and Houston bullpens were always going to play a major role in determining the World Series, but two pitchers that are not in the high-leverage roles could be the true difference-makers in relief as the series shifts toward Atlanta.
Houston's Cristian Javier delivered 1.1 innings of solid relief in Game 2 after Jose Urquidy exited the ball game.
Javier has starting experience, but he has been used a long man out of the bullpen in the postseason. His pitching could be vital to Houston's success as it approaches a potential bullpen game in Game 4 and if one of the starters fails to get into the fifth inning.
Atlanta's Kyle Wright made his World Series debut in the ninth inning of Game 2. Wright's appearance may not have been significant to some, but he could end up as a huge piece in Atlanta's pitching puzzle as it tries to figure out who will start in Games 4 and 5.
Houston's pitching strategy through two games suggests that Javier will be used in the middle innings to get outs over multiple frames.
Javier has not given up a run in four appearances this postseason. Game 2's 1.1-inning outing was his shortest of the four.
The right-handed hurler has been used to stabilize things on the mound when Houston's starters have failed to go long distances.
On Wednesday, Javier was called on to bridge the gap between Urquidy and the bullpen trio of Phil Maton, Ryan Pressly and Kendall Graveman.
Maton, Pressly, Graveman and Ryne Stanek will be asked to focus on one inning each for most of the series. They will not come on until the sixth inning at the earliest in most situations.
If Luis Garcia, Framber Valdez or Houston's unannounced Game 4 starter get into trouble, Javier will be asked to clean up the damage over multiple innings.
Javier has done that job to perfection so far in the postseason and he could shift the tide of one or two more games if he remains dominant on the hill.
Kyle Wright's scoreless ninth inning in Game 2 may not mean much to some, but it was important for Atlanta's pitching approach moving forward.
Wright retired three batters on 12 pitches to gain some much-needed confidence. He conceded seven earned runs in NLCS Game 3 in his last postseason appearance in 2020.
Wright was at Triple-A Gwinnett for most of the regular season. He made two major-league appearances. He went 10-5 in 24 starts at the highest minor league level.
With Charlie Morton out for the season, Atlanta needs to find a starter or opener for Games 4 and 5. Max Fried will likely come back on full rest in Game 6.
Drew Smyly and Jesse Chavez are among the options for those roles. Smyly was a starter for most of the regular season and Chavez has been an opener in the postseason.
Wright may be best suited to step in and make a four or five inning start at Truist Park. He is coming off a solid Triple-A season and he has some experience from two postseason starts in 2020.
Atlanta manager Brian Snitker would be taking a risk by starting Wright in Game 4 or 5, but it may be the best option he has to bridge the gap to Fried and Ian Anderson in potential Games 6 and 7.
Yuli Gurriel has been tucked in an important role in the back half of the Houston order.
The first baseman hit seventh behind Carlos Correa and Kyle Tucker in the first two games. His importance in that role will become larger as the Astros lose the designated hitter in Atlanta.
Gurriel might be sacrificed for Yordan Alvarez in the Houston order. The normal DH could also take up the spot that Chas McCormick or Jose Siri occupied in the outfield.
Gurriel should stay in the order for at least in Game 3 since he has the second-most hits on the Houston roster through two games. He is 3-for-8 with a run scored and a RBI.
The Cuban first baseman will be vital to Houston's approach if Correa and Tucker continue to reach base. Correa has been on base twice, while Tucker reached on four occasions.
Houston needs Gurriel to drive in one or two runs when the No. 5 and No. 6 hitters reach because the top half of the order is struggling a bit.
Jose Altuve woke up in Game 2 with two hits and a home run, but Alex Bregman and Alvarez have one hit between them.
If Houston's top half continues to struggle, the pressure will be on the bottom half to drive in runs. Gurriel could find himself in the most pressure-packed scenarios because of how often Correa and Tucker can reach base.
Travis d'Arnaud was responsible for one of Atlanta's two runs in Game 2.
The catcher rocked a home run off Urquidy in the second inning to tie the contest for a brief moment before Houston broke it open in the bottom half of that frame.
D'Arnaud is not the best power hitter in the Atlanta lineup, but if he can provide some pop at the plate on home soil, Atlanta can string together a few more rallies to take the pressure off its young pitchers.
He was a key bat at the start of last postseason, as he delivered home runs in back-to-back games to start the NLDS against the Miami Marlins, but he has not done a ton at the plate since then.
D'Arnaud picked up five hits in the first nine postseason games this year. He comes into Game 3 on a mild three-game hitting streak.
If he swings the bat well, Atlanta could set up Eddie Rosario or Jorge Soler for RBI opportunities out of the leadoff spot.
D'Arnaud will be even more important behind the plate, as he works with the young Atlanta pitchers in crucial situations.
He should be a calming force for Anderson in Game 3 and then whomever starts after that point. If he calls a good game defensively, d'Arnaud could help Atlanta weather its unfortunate pitching situation with Morton out.
Statistics obtained from Baseball Reference.