The two best words in sports: Game. Seven.
After a thrilling World Series filled with momentum swings and victories for the road team in each of the first six contests, the Washington Nationals and Houston Astros will square off on Wednesday night in a winner-take-all Game 7 at Minute Maid Park.
Here are some things to watch for in what is sure to be another thriller.
How healthy is Max Scherzer?
Scherzer was supposed to start Game 5 of the series in Washington, but he was scratched that morning due to neck spasms. Scherzer told reporters he could not even lift his arms that morning, and the pain was simply too inhibitive for him to be able to start.
However, Nationals manager Dave Martinez noted that Scherzer was available for Game 6. The right-hander even warmed up for a stretch before Washington exploded for four runs in the last three innings.
Now, Scherzer will get the ball for Game 7. On paper, this could not have worked out better for the Nationals. Scherzer is the ultimate gamer, and he has battled through some gutsy starts this postseason. But the real question is this: how healthy will he be when he takes the mound?
Remember, Scherzer also missed extended time in July and August due to injuries. Contrary to the rest of his career, his body has not cooperated this season.
That is not to say that Scherzer cannot pitch through pain or adversity. He battled through five innings of work in Game 1 and earned the win in that game. Indeed, he seems geared up for this game:
Max Scherzer seems about as chill as you would expect rn
— Post Sports (@PostSports) October 30, 2019
However, the Astros are going to be aggressive against Scherzer, especially if they notice that his fastball lacks its usual life or if he is relying more on off-speed stuff. Will he once again be able to fight through the early innings and settle into his usual groove?
Can Zack Greinke command the zone?
Zack Greinke gets the ball for the Astros, which is quite fitting.
The Astros stunned the rest of the league when they acquired Greinke to create a three-headed monster in their rotation, and now they will be trusting him to perform in the biggest game of the season.
Greinke has not quite had his usual flair for command this postseason. He did not make it out of the fifth inning in each of his last two starts (Game 4 of the ALCS and Game 3 of the World Series), and he walked a combined seven batters in those outings.
The 36-year-old really relies on establishing the edge of the zone with the fastball so he can set up his power changeup and mix speeds. But if he faces a smaller strike zone, it is hard for him to navigate and go deep in games because he so rarely gives in to hitters.
Houston’s bullpen has been taxed perhaps more than manager A.J. Hinch would have liked in this series. Even Will Harris (who previously had not given up a run in the 2019 postseason) showed vulnerability when he served up a two-run homer to Anthony Rendon in Game 6.
The Astros would love for Greinke to be able to go deep, but Hinch is unlikely to let his starter ride it out in Game 7 if he is battling every inning. If Greinke can establish the fastball early, he should have more success. Otherwise, it could be a struggle against a disciplined Nationals lineup.
Also, there is this great soundbite:
Greinke summing up Game 7. 😂
— Rob Friedman (@PitchingNinja) October 30, 2019
Who comes out of the bullpen?
The Nationals will have two starters available — right-hander Anibal Sanchez and left-hander Patrick Corbin — and Dave Martinez will have to figure out when to deploy those guys in potentially crucial situations.
Otherwise, Sean Doolittle and Daniel Hudson should figure into the equation.
Meanwhile, Hinch is still figuring out his circle of trust. Despite his struggles in Game 6, we would likely see Harris yet again in another high-leverage spot. Sidewinder Joe Smith has been pretty lights-out as well, and he almost certainly will see at least one inning of work.
Outside of those two, it is sort of a mystery for the Astros. Ryan Pressly has recovered from an awful showing in Game 2, but there might still be concerns over his right knee. Josh James has hardly inspired a ton of confidence, though Jose Urquidy could certainly be available.
Of course, both managers would love for their starters to go out and dominate, but the bullpen configurations should play a vital role in how this one pans out.
Will Jose Altuve show up when it matters most?
On the surface, Altuve is having another fine series. He is hitting .321 and has tallied three extra-base hits. However, he is failing the Astros when it matters most: with runners in scoring position.
The 2017 AL MVP is 0-for-7 when he comes to the dish with a chance to drive home a run, which is extremely uncharacteristic for the guy who is unquestionably Houston’s best clutch hitter.
In many ways, this series has been defined by the team that most capitalizes on a big hit. The Nationals got all the big knocks over the first two games, but then they stranded a ton of runners in Washington as the Astros took the momentum. Yet Altuve has been eerily quiet in this regard.
The Astros really need their franchise stalwart to show up. George Springer is finally showing signs of life — four hits and three doubles in the last two games — and should continue to provide protection from the leadoff spot. Can Altuve be the hero just as he was in Game 6 of the ALCS?
Washington’s dynamic duo
It is no secret that Washington wins in the postseason when Rendon and Juan Soto have it going.
Rendon opened the scoring for the Nationals in the first inning of Game 6 and finished with three hits and five RBI, including that two-run shot off the seemingly unhittable Harris:
— Washington Nationals (@Nationals) October 30, 2019
Meanwhile, Soto delivered the go-ahead run with a moonshot off Justin Verlander shortly after Adam Eaton tied the game with a homer of his own.
The Nationals are almost unbeatable when the two are in rhythm, but they are woefully bad when the two of them struggle. The pair went 5-for-24 in Washington as the Nationals scored just three runs in three games.
Houston’s lineup is loaded with killers. The Nationals desperately need both Rendon and Soto to produce to have any chance of winning this game.
Trea Turner can make a huge impact at the top of the lineup, and Eaton has been so good that he might garner some MVP talk. Ultimately, however, Washington’s fate could very well lie in the hands of their superstar tandem.