Dallas Keuchel, pitching on short rest for the first time as a professional, continued his mastery of the Yankees by pitching six scoreless innings. The bullpen shut New York down the rest of the way. The offense, built on hitting home runs all season, got solo shots from Colby Rasmus and Carlos Gomez to give them the early 2-0 lead.
For the Astros to beat the Kansas City Royals in their best-of-five game ALDS matchup, they will need to have two things go their way in terms of starting pitching.
First, they will need to take advantage of the Royals’ starting rotation, the club’s weakest link. Kansas City’s starters posted a 4.34 ERA in 2015, 22nd in baseball and the highest of any playoff team. It is vitally important that the Astros’ hitters score early and often against the starters since the Royals’ bullpen is one of the deepest and best in baseball. They finished the season second in baseball with a 2.72 ERA and led MLB with a batting average against of .214.
The Royals do have one thing going in their favor when it comes to the rotation. Unlike the Astros, who were forced to use their ace Keuchel in the AL Wild Card game, the Royals have been able to set their rotation for this series. They will be able to send out their best starter, Yordano Ventura, twice in the series, starting with Thursday’s night Game 1.
After a miserable first half of the season that saw him go 4-7 with a 5.19 ERA in his first 14 starts, Ventura has been the ace of the staff down the stretch. In his final 14 starts, he went 9-1 with a 3.10 ERA and 91 strikeouts in 87 innings.
The Royals have already announced that Johnny Cueto (11-13, 3.44 ERA) will start Game 2 and Edinson Volquez (13-9, 3.55 ERA) Game 3. Neither has pitched very well recently. Volquez was 1-2 with a 5.18 ERA in six September starts while Cueto was even worse, going 1-4 with a 6.11 ERA in his six September starts.
Cueto, in fact, has been a disappointment since being acquired from the Cincinnati Reds ahead of the non-waiver trade deadline in late July. Cueto was 7-6 with a 2.62 ERA for the Reds but only 4-7 with a 4.76 ERA with the Royals.
The Astros have problems of their own with their rotation. Which brings us to the second part of their equation to win the series. They will need to find a third starter to step up and make his presence felt against the Royals. Collin McHugh (19-7, 3.89 ERA) is the Game 1 starter but it isn’t a surprise that the Astros haven’t named anybody to start Game 2 or Game 3 yet.
The odds are pretty good that Keuchel will start Game 3 on Sunday, given that he will be back on his normal four days rest between starts. But who will start Game 2? The rest of the rotation at season’s end featured Scott Kazmir, Mike Fiers and Lance McCullers.
The key could be Kazmir, who like Cueto was brought in as a hired hand at the July trade deadline. Like Cueto, he has been a bust for his new club. After arriving from the Oakland Athletics with a 5-5 record and 2.38 ERA, he could only manage a 2-6 record with an ERA of 4.17 for the Astros. He was even worse in September, going 0-2 in six starts with a 6.52 ERA.
Should the Astros roll the dice and start him over Fiers or McCullers? Since throwing his no-hitter against the Los Angeles Dodgers on August 21, Fiers has gone 1-1 in six starts with a 3.96 ERA. McCullers is 1-2 in his last six starts but with a solid ERA of 3.25. The rookie also just turned 22 years old a few days ago.
Astros manager A.J. Hinch has a big decision to make.
Gerard Farek is a senior writer at OutsidePitchMLB.com. Follow and/or chat with him on Twitter here.
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