How a Wednesday ALCS rainout could shuffle Astros’, Yankees’ pitching plans

NEW YORK — Game 3 of the ALCS began under a clear, azure, late-afternoon sky on Tuesday in the Bronx. It ended under a clear, darkened sky on a crisp evening with a mostly full moon shining high above Yankee Stadium.

But the weatherman has bad news, and Wednesday’s Game 4 looks likely to be played either in very different conditions or not at all. If it’s the latter, who benefits more: the Houston Astros and their power-trio rotation, or the New York Yankees and their deep but heavily used bullpen?

Neither side offered much in terms of concrete plans should Game 4 get bagged, a decision that is likely to be made early Wednesday unless the forecast improves markedly.

“I think that would be possible,” Yankees manager Aaron Boone said when asked if he thought MLB would make an early decision.

Boone also hinted at the only other concrete part of the scenario, saying, “Tanaka would be in play.”

Boone’s Game 1 starter, Masahiro Tanaka, blanked the Astros over six innings Saturday while throwing just 68 pitches to get through the Houston lineup exactly two times. If Wednesday’s game is postponed, Tanaka could take the mound Thursday working on a normal four days’ rest.

“Good chance of that,” Boone said. “That’s something we’ll talk through also. But a good chance of that, yes.”

Boone’s counterpart, Houston manager AJ Hinch, was more circumspect when asked about weather scenarios, saying that his focus was on Game 3. He was not quizzed on the topic again after the 4-1 win that put Houston up 2-1 in the series Tuesday.

Both managers on Monday announced plans to go with bullpen days for Game 4 in lieu of a reliable No. 4 starter for either club. That bullpen day might no longer be necessary.

“I don’t know,” Boone said before Game 3. “It potentially moves our starters up a little bit. But we’ll have to evaluate it after the fact.”

As for the players, hey, sometimes it rains, and the life of the ballplayer is to show up for work and play when they tell you to.

“I don’t know how it’s going to work, but we’re going to show up ready to play tomorrow,” Astros third baseman Alex Bregman said, likely speaking for all 50 players on both ALCS rosters. “If we’re rained out, we’ll get ready for the next day.”

Even though every weather app seems to agree that it’s going to rain all afternoon Wednesday and into Thursday morning, no one can take anything for granted — at least not until the right person in the MLB office says, “Bag it.”

When and if that happens, Game 4 will move to Thursday, and Game 5 will be played Friday at Yankee Stadium. Unless Houston wins both of those games, the series will return to Minute Maid Park for Game 6 on Saturday. Then, if a Game 7 is necessary, the Astros will host that series-decider on Sunday.

That means that although the weather might provide a temporary reprieve for the pitchers on Wednesday, the consequences later in the series might impact both teams as they try to traverse a possible four-games-in-four-days-in-two-cities scenario to decide the American League champion.

Are there other possible consequences from a rainout? Barring a player going berserk with his night off and ending up in the slammer, it would seem that it’s all about the pitching staffs. Having an unplanned day off could benefit the Yankees by giving outfielder Giancarlo Stanton an extra day to rest his ailing quad.

But, really, it’s the pitching designs that would most be impacted by Mother Nature. Given that the teams aren’t saying much, they leave it to us to game this thing out.

The easy part seems to be that if Wednesday is washed out, both managers will come back with their Game 1 starters on Thursday, Tanaka for New York and Zack Greinke for Houston. Both would be going on normal rest, and both teams would enter the game with rested bullpens. Only New York’s Luis Cessa, who threw 35 pitches in relief in Game 3, would likely be affected by his usage Tuesday. But Cessa is the second-lowest-leveraged reliever in Boone’s 10-man ALCS bullpen, based on regular-season numbers.

In a Game 5 on Friday, things could get somewhat more interesting. Both managers would almost certainly bring back their Game 2 starters, Justin Verlander for Houston and James Paxton for New York. Both would be on normal rest. Without the rainout, Greinke and Tanaka would likely have been slotted for Game 5, with Verlander and Paxton going in Game 6.

This is also a fairly simple scenario except that with the previously scheduled travel day lost, the managers might have to monitor their bullpens a little more carefully. But the mantra in the playoffs is always “win today,” so reliever fatigue is a consequence both managers might have to live with. Obviously, given New York’s greater reliance on its bullpen, that would favor the Astros.

The ideal scenario for Houston in the wake of a rainout is this: Greinke beats Tanaka in the rescheduled Game 4, and Verlander beats Paxton on Friday. The Astros would then return to Houston — but not to face the Yankees. They’d be getting ready for the Washington Nationals and the start of the World Series.

Beyond finishing the series quickly and lining up his rotation for a rested Nationals pitching staff, Hinch would also be sidestepping a difficult decision for a potential Game 6: Whether to bring Cole back on short rest (three days between Tuesday and Saturday) to either save Houston’s season or clinch the pennant, depending on how the next two games go. Without a rainout, the Astros would have Verlander lined up for Game 6, as mentioned, and a fully rested Cole to go in Game 7. Cole has never started a game on short rest in his big league career.

If Hinch wants to avoid using Cole on three days’ rest, he will be back to where he would’ve been Wednesday if not for the rain: a bullpen day. Whether he’d be willing to go that route with Houston trailing 3-2 is hard to say, but most likely, he’d take his chances with Cole. You can’t leave him on the shelf for a tomorrow that might never come with the season on the line.

But what if Houston is up 3-2? Does Hinch go for the kill and roll the dice with a possibly-fatigued Cole, who threw 112 pitches on Tuesday? Or does he view Cole as a fail-safe option for Game 7, knowing that if he has to win one game at home to go to the World Series, there is no one anyone in baseball would rather see take the mound for their team?

One final option for Hinch: Stick with his plan to make Game 4 a bullpen day despite the day off. Then have Greinke, Verlander and Cole lined up for the last three games. That might work in theory, but in practice you don’t want to assume a Game 7 and risk not getting a second outing from Cole.

As for New York, the starter scenarios seem less urgent. Boone has pieced together a successful campaign all season by leveraging one of the game’s best bullpens and getting what he can from the starters. The big questions here are whether he can keep his high-leverage relievers sharp for four games in four days and what kind of effect might come from Houston’s hitters seeing the relievers multiple times in a short span.

This is all good stuff! Rain stinks when it comes to playoff baseball, but it also adds intrigue. If Mother Nature has her say on Wednesday, it will be a quiet day before a stormy few days between New York and Houston. And that storm will have nothing to do with the weather.

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