It’s elimination Monday in the championship series round of the 2023 MLB playoffs.
First, the Arizona Diamondbacks will attempt to stay alive against the Philadelphia Phillies as the National League Championship Series shifts back to Citizens Bank Park for Game 6. Then, it’s time for the two best words in sports: Game 7! This time, it’s Texas style, with the Texas Rangers and Houston Astros meeting one more time with a World Series trip on the line in the American League Championship Series.
To get ready for all of the excitement in Philly and Houston, we asked the ESPN MLB experts covering these series to answer the biggest question for each team vying to make it through to the Fall Classic.
Arizona Diamondbacks vs. Philadelphia Phillies
What can the D-backs do to avoid being overwhelmed by the atmosphere in Philly?
David Schoenfield: Well, the easy answer is to score in the top of the first inning and then keep the Phillies off the board in the bottom of the first. In Game 1, Kyle Schwarber and Bryce Harper homered in the first inning. In Game 2, Trea Turner homered in the first off Merrill Kelly, who gets the ball again in Game 6. But the noise is going to be there regardless.
If there is a key for the Diamondbacks, I’m looking at Corbin Carroll. He’s just 2-for-19 with one walk in the series, and after going 54-for-59 in stolen bases in the regular season, he hasn’t attempted a steal in the NLCS. He needs to get on base and needs to be aggressive. The Diamondbacks aren’t going to win two games here playing it safe.
Jeff Passan: Get back to who they are. During the regular season, the Diamondbacks’ offense thrived when it dared opponents to stop its running game. So far in the NLCS, Arizona has swiped just one bag — by Lourdes Gurriel Jr. in Game 3. Neutralizing Arizona’s base-stealing presence — especially from Corbin Carroll, who took 54 bags in the regular season — has been a priority of the Phillies and one they’ve executed well, from their pitchers’ fast times to the plate and quickened deliveries to the play of Phillies catcher J.T. Realmuto, whose pop times are the best in the big leagues.
The Diamondbacks usually won’t outslug the Phillies, so when they get runners on, they need to do their best to beat Philadelphia and better embody the word they’ve embraced all year: chaos.
Jesse Rogers: Learn from Games 1 and 2. It has to mean something having been through it already. Really, it all comes down to Merrill Kelly. The D-backs have been down early in games way too often in this series. This isn’t the Milwaukee Brewers they’re playing here. Kelly has to give them three to five solid innings in Game 6, and then Arizona’s lefty relievers simply have to shut down some of the best left-handed sluggers on the planet. If ever the cliché “one inning at a time” applies, it’s now. And it starts with Kelly.
How should the Phillies set up their bullpen for the rest of this series?
Schoenfield: It seems pretty clear that Craig Kimbrel has probably pitched himself out of high-leverage situations. It’s not just that he lost Games 3 and 4 with poor outings, but even including four earlier scoreless appearances in the postseason, he has induced just nine swinging strikes out of 111 pitches, a very low total for a high-leverage reliever. Rob Thomson still has plenty of good options, though, and he’ll rely on Jeff Hoffman and lefties Matt Strahm and Jose Alvarado as his top three guys, with Seranthony Dominguez and Gregory Soto as deeper reserves. That’s still a lot of depth to deploy.
Thomson should use Alvarado and Hoffman against the top half of the order, matching up lefties with Carroll as he’s been doing, and use them as needed based on the situation and allow Strahm or Soto to close if necessary. A good manager is flexible with the bullpen, and Thomson should proceed with closer-by-committee at this point. That group has been good this postseason: In 25 innings, just one home run and five runs allowed.
Passan: With duct tape and superglue. Yes, Kimbrel and Orion Kerkering would be going on two days’ rest if they take the mound in Game 6, but does Rob Thomson trust either? If not, it’s likely going to be the Aaron Nola Show for as long as possible, with Hoffman entering if a leverage situation reveals itself early — Thomson has used him in a fireman role — and likely a heavy dose of Alvarado in the late innings.
Thomson seems to trust left-hander Strahm and right-hander Dominguez, so if he needs to match up, he’s got options. But the prospect of throwing Taijuan Walker or Michael Lorenzen for the first time this postseason in Game 6 of the NLCS seems reserved for only if they’re behind and need innings eaten to preserve those in the circle of trust for a potential Game 7. Ranger Suarez, the projected starter for a Tuesday game, is not an option out of the bullpen in Game 6, Thomson said Sunday.
Rogers: Unlike the Diamondbacks’ bullpen, the Phillies don’t have to play the matchup game all that often. Other than perhaps making sure Carroll faces Alvarado or Strahm, Thomson can deploy his righties as he sees fit while staying away from Kimbrel. And frankly, if there’s a time to send Walker or Lorenzen to the mound, it should come in Game 6. Not that the Phillies can mess around, but it seems like Thomson has missed an opportunity or two to utilize them so far. He wouldn’t have that luxury in a win-or-go-home Game 7, but with a one-game cushion, it’s a possibility — especially if Aaron Nola has a shorter-than-expected start. Kerkering could probably use a high-leverage moment off as well. Otherwise, it’ll be Hoffman, Dominguez, Strahm and Alvarado to bring home the pennant.
Texas Rangers at Houston Astros
What will be Bruce Bochy’s plan for his pitchers?
Bradford Doolittle: Nathan Eovaldi getting into the seventh on Sunday was huge as it allowed Bruce Bochy to deploy his standard late-inning contingent without overextending any of them. Now for Game 7, he hopes to do the same thing — only the path from Inning 1 to Inning 7 is likely to be less clear than letting Eovaldi roll three times through the Houston lineup. Max Scherzer will be on a short leash, and even if he’s on — around his typical velo, with a better slider than in Game 3 — you’d think 80-85 pitches would be his ceiling.
Bochy has a number of rested options to get from Scherzer to his high-leverage crew. Sorting out who matches up best with who, well, that’s an open question, but it’s one that Bochy has answered correctly so many times during his playoff career. If Scherzer’s outing is short, then it gets dicey and Bochy will have to get multiple innings from someone, whether it’s Cody Bradford, Martin Perez, Jon Gray or somebody else. Gray, for one, is someone I thought might play a little more of a role than he has in the ALCS, so maybe Game 7 will be his time.
Alden Gonzalez: That top of the ninth, when Adolis Garcia hit the grand slam that sent Astros fans filing for the exits, was one of the best things that could have happened for the Rangers — it meant Jose Leclerc didn’t have to return for the bottom half to record three more outs. It has become increasingly clear as this postseason has played out that Bochy doesn’t trust much of his bullpen. It was never more evident than in Game 6, when he had Eovaldi begin to tackle the Astros’ lineup a fourth time and then turned to Josh Sborz and Leclerc for the rest of the game (not even using Aroldis Chapman to face Yordan Alvarez). Leclerc and Sborz will probably be counted on heavily again in Game 7. And if the Rangers need a big out against Alvarez, it’ll be interesting to see whether Bochy turns to fellow lefty Jordan Montgomery, who started Game 5 — recording 16 outs and throwing 82 pitches — but could technically make a relief appearance rather than his typical between-starts bullpen session.
Buster Olney: It’s true, the circle of trust for Rangers manager Bruce Bochy seems to be small, and what occurred in Game 6 really sets him up well to respond if Scherzer struggles. If he needs to summon a reliever mid-inning, maybe he calls on Sborz. If he needs a reliever to face Kyle Tucker, maybe that’ll be Chapman. If he needs multiple innings, he could give Jordan Montgomery the ball at the start of an inning after Scherzer departs. And it seems Bochy will not hesitate to use Leclerc for three to six outs, either — and keep in mind that no manager has manipulated a bullpen with more success over the past 15 years than Bochy.
Can the Astros turn around their offensive woes at home?
Doolittle: They can — but their home offensive woes don’t really make any sense, so who knows? There are a lot of struggling hitters in Houston’s lineup right now, which makes it a lot easier to navigate if you can survive the Jose Altuve–Alex Bregman-Alvarez gauntlet. I’m guessing we’ll see a tight game that will be decided by two or three key sequences, as most postseason games are. But these being the Astros, would we really be shocked if they hang five runs on Scherzer right off the bat and roll on from there? I just don’t think Houston’s bizarre home-road inversion is anything more than an interesting fluke. Still, the way these teams are coming out of Game 6, the Rangers seem more explosive right now. Houston needs to change this narrative, whether it’s real or not.
Gonzalez: It’s more so about certain hitters getting right for the Astros — and nobody represents that better than Kyle Tucker, who will get some down-ballot MVP love this year but has struggled mightily throughout the postseason, with five hits in 35 at-bats and one RBI through 10 games. Tucker, Jeremy Pena and Martin Maldonado — the Nos. 6, 8 and 9 hitters in the Astros’ Game 6 lineup, respectively — have combined to slash .165/.277/.206 in these playoffs and have accumulated eight hits in 56 at-bats in this series, only two of them for extra bases. The Astros need more production from the bottom half of their lineup. But Tucker is the one who can change the dynamic of their offense. And one at-bat in Game 6 might have provided a window into his confidence at the moment. There were runners on first and second with none out, with the Astros trailing by two, and Tucker squared to bunt for a hit on the first pitch from Eovaldi, whom he had already seen twice. The next pitch produced a half-swing that resulted in a harmless ground out. This is far from the Tucker who surged through the summer — but it can turn at any minute.
Olney: Scherzer believes that his slider was better than portrayed in Game 3, but the bottom line is that if he does not have that pitch, he will be extremely vulnerable to the Houston hitters, who figure to be very aggressive against him. Regardless of Scherzer’s feel, the Rangers will be very wary of Altuve, Bregman and Alvarez, so there will likely be some opportunity for those who follow them: The key hitters in this lineup might turn out to be Jose Abreu and Tucker. Tucker has gotten some hits and drawn some walks in this series, but he hasn’t looked at all close to the sort of confident, dangerous hitter that he was during the regular season. As Dusty Baker has said, that could all change with one swing.