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How Game 4 postponement could alter course of Astros-Yankees ALCS

AJ Hinch, Astros, Aaron Boone, Yankees

The possibility that Game 4 of the ALCS would be postponed was discussed even prior to the start of Game 3. After all, this is the playoffs. Managers are always thinking ahead in order to give their teams a slight advantage or planning bullpen usage around off days.

With rain in the forecast on Wednesday in New York, Yankees manager Aaron Boone was not afraid to insert Chad Green — who likely would have been the opener in Game 4 — into another key spot. Once again, Boone leaned heavily on his bullpen, albeit in a losing effort.

Meanwhile, Astros manager AJ Hinch contemplated whether or not to send Gerrit Cole out for the eighth inning. After all, Cole was settling into his groove in the later innings, having retired the Yankees in order in the sixth and seventh innings. However, Cole’s pitch count would force the issue, and Hinch also likely had comfort knowing that he could use his big guns (Joe Smith, Will Harris and Roberto Osuna) with the likelihood of a rainout on Wednesday.

Indeed, MLB Commissioner Rob Manfred made the call to postpone Game 4 early on Wednesday morning. Instead of playing on Wednesday evening, Game 4 will be on Thursday in New York. Game 5 will follow on Friday in The Bronx, and then — if necessary — the teams would immediately travel to Houston for the remainder of the series.

In other words, there is a possibility that both teams could play four games in four straight days, if the series were to reach a decisive seventh game.

With this in mind, the postponement has already altered the course of the ALCS.

Reshuffled pitching matchups

First and foremost, this saves both bullpens from a lot of work.

Both teams were likely to deploy openers and use the bullpen extensively in Game 4 due to a lack of depth in the rotation. For the Yankees, that could have looked something like Chad Green handing off to CC Sabathia or J.A. Happ (or both) before reaching the back end. Houston likely would have turned to Jose Urquidy and Brad Peacock in the early innings.

Instead, the extra day off means that the Game 1 starters will be on full rest ahead of Thursday’s matchup. The question is, which team benefits the most from the reshuffling?

The Yankees tagged Astros starter Zack Greinke for three runs on six hits, taking advantage of middle-middle fastballs and changeups that Greinke left up in the zone. Gleyber Torres in particular had a field day against Greinke, going 2-for-3 with a homer and a double.

New York also has the luxury of leaning on Masahiro Tanaka to even the series. Tanaka dominated the Astros in Game 1, giving up just one hit in six innings of work. Tanaka kept hitters off balance all game by throwing his splitter to both sides of the plate and mixing in more of his slider.

More importantly, Tanaka has been an absolute menace at Yankee Stadium in the postseason.

In 2017, he tossed a pair of scoreless outings — one of which was against Houston in the ALCS — in New York, scattering six hits across 14 innings of work while also notching 15 strikeouts. Tanaka also strung together five innings of one-run ball against the Minnesota Twins in Game 2 of the ALDS. There is nobody that the Yankees would rather have taking the ball to try to square the series at two games apiece.

The opener dilemma

However, it is not quite so cut-and-dried. Yes, Greinke has struggled in each of his two starts during the postseason, but he is still one of the best pitchers in baseball, and he does not give in to opposing hitters.

Greinke also offers a much better alternative to the Astros’ usage of an opener. Although Urquidy made seven starts during the regular season, they were rather uninspiring in totality. Meanwhile, Peacock is just returning from injury, and he has mostly been converted to a bullpen arm anyway.

Hinch would have had to grapple with using some of his late-game options — like Josh James, Smith or Harris — in the first couple of innings to supplement Urquidy or Peacock, and the Astros just do not have a ton of experience using that kind of strategy.

Conversely, the Yankees used openers throughout the regular season. Green made 15 starts for the Yankees this year, and Boone’s willingness to deploy him as an opener is likely what got his season back on track after an atrocious April that resulted in him being demoted to Triple-A.

New York also has a pair of veterans in Sabathia and Happ who can stretch the game out in the middle innings and go deep if necessary.

The Yankees are better equipped to manage their lack of starting depth. Boone has done it numerous times, and there is a level of comfort that Hinch and the Astros do not possess.

Weighing Game 3 versus a potential Game 6

This is all to say that the Yankees may have preferred the schedule to remain the same. Sure, they get to move Tanaka up in the pecking order. But if Greinke rebounds and helps Houston to a victory in Game 4, they will have gained a 3-1 lead in the series with Justin Verlander taking the hill in Game 5. The series could be over even before both teams would hypothetically have to resort to openers in Game 6.

Given that the Yankees likely have the upper hand in structuring their bullpen around an opener, it seems likelier that they would have preferred to play on Wednesday.

Playing this game would have forced Hinch and the Astros to empty the bullpen and rely on Urquidy or Peacock for heavy usage, which naturally favors the Yankees. In that scenario, the Yankees tie the series on Wednesday and have Tanaka on the hill for Game 5 with the chance to give the Yankees the series lead heading back to Houston.

Instead, New York will need to get to either Greinke or Verlander just to be able to save the season and have the chance at forcing a potential Game 6, where the pitching would get wacky again.

Will Stanton be healthy?

Gincarlo Stanton’s health status has suddenly become a major talking point during this series.

Stanton played in just 18 games during the regular season due to torn bicep muscles and a knee sprain, but he returned in September and figured to hit in the middle of New York’s playoff lineup.

Although he was less than spectacular against the Twins in the ALDS (.167/.455/.167), Stanton drew four free passes and was far more disciplined against breaking balls. Then in Game 1 of the ALCS, Stanton clubbed an opposite-field homer off Greinke to give the Yankees a 3-0 lead in the sixth inning.

However, Stanton was a surprise scratch from the lineup in Game 2. Boone revealed that Stanton had suffered a quad strain in the first inning of Game 1 (when he legged out an infield single), but he elected to stay in the game.

Stanton was deemed day-to-day by the team, but he was scratched again ahead of Game 3. Though the former NL MVP reportedly told Boone he wanted the play, the team is taking every precaution to prevent any long-term damage, and there is concern over his ability to play the outfield.

Will Stanton make adequate progress with the added off day? Can he play in the field, or has he been relegated to pinch-hitting status? Might the Yankees consider removing Stanton from the ALCS roster? If New York decides to displace Stanton, he would then be ineligible for the World Series.

However, Yankees general manager Brian Cashman revealed that Mike Tauchman is healthy and eligible to play in the ALCS. Tauchman could offer versatility while still bringing slugging to the lineup.

Regardless, Stanton’s status is certainly something to watch ahead of Thursday’s game.