HOUSTON -- Somewhere, early Saturday morning, maybe 35,000 feet over Nashville or Birmingham or Shreveport, Aaron Boone and his Astros’ counterpart, AJ Hinch, exchanged text messages from their respective team charters.
We’re not sure of the particulars. If emojis were used, or GIFs sent. But with Game 6 of the ALCS at Minute Maid Mark scheduled to be a bullpen contest -- worked by “Johnny Wholestaff” -- the two managers finally ended the suspense and anted up for what figured to be a high-stakes poker match, with a trip to the World Series potentially hanging in the balance.
Hinch messaged the name Brad Peacock.
Boone replied with Chad Green.
Beyond that, the pitching plans of both teams remained a mystery.
Such is the state of Major League Baseball in 2019, a time when Game 6 of the ALCS will be pieced together from literal bullpen pieces rather than relying on a No. 4 starter. No longer is the concept of an “opener” limited to small-market think factories in Tampa Bay and Oakland. The Astros won 107 games, the Yankees 103, and the biggest game of their seasons will be started by a pitcher that is designed to max out at two or three innings.
It’s a way of life now. The bullpen game isn’t a panic move or meant to act as a bridge to the front end of the rotation. Both teams planned to do this, and seemed perfectly comfortable with the idea in the hours leading up to Peacock’s opening pitch. Mostly OK, anyway. Sort of.
“No, it’s miserable,” Hinch said, smiling. “I love when Justin [Verlander] or Gerrit [Cole] goes out there and throws nine scoreless. Those are the fun ones. It’s more entertaining and more agonizing with our decisions.
“So it’s entertaining. It’s curious. It’s going to build a lot of drama. Every decision is going to be scrutinized, and based on the results -- trust me -- I’m going to scrutinize myself before you guys have a chance or any fans. It’s crazy. Thinking we’re in Game 6 of the ALCS and we’re going to have upwards of double-digit number of pitchers pitching in a game of such magnitude.”
Crazy is right. The Yankees stayed alive Friday night with a 4-1 victory in Game 5, a Bronx duel between Verlander and James Paxton that required 2 hours, 59 minutes to complete. We expect Saturday’s Reliever Fest to go for nearly twice that, as Boone and Hinch manipulate their bullpens like a chess board, pressing for data-supported matchups that have been six months in the making.
In terms of the exhaustive preparation, from the front-office analysts down to the dugout staff, Game 6 should be the ultimate battle of wits, as each team’s brainpower factors heavily into the manager’s decisions. But if anyone had an advantage, we’d give it to the Yankees, who deployed an “opener” for 20 starts during the regular season and finished 13-7 in those games. They won the first 11, too.
Overall, the openers had a 5.72 ERA, but had scoreless appearances in 12 of those 20 outings. Green himself posted a 3.72 ERA in 15 starts, with a 14.9 K/9 ratio and 1.345 WHIP. Given the depth of the Yankees’ relief corps, and Boone’s experience with bullpen games, that familiarity seemed to be an edge.
“I think the fact that we have done it a number of times is probably a little bit helpful,” Boone said before Game 6. “You know guys are prepared for it and used to it. But it’s about putting guys in the best position to have their stuff match up well.”
And the Astros? Hinch went the opener route only three times during the regular season and Houston lost all three games. Hinch said he chose Peacock for the Game 6 assignment because, in part, he has “one of the calmest heartbeats” on the team. As for how far Hinch planned to ride him on “the chaos” of a bullpen day, the manager offered no clues.
“As much as you can script them and match them out, I have no idea,” Hinch said. “I love that I have no idea. I think that’s part of the challenge, how and when to read the moves that are being made and the targets -- the certain guys you want to face certain guys.
“I think anything that we say now, including me and Boone, is going to be a guess. We don’t know until the moment what we’re going to actually do. You’ve got to read the game, what you’re seeing and what your information is telling you.”
Unlike Hinch, however, Boone was operating Saturday without a safety net. Any mistake for the Yankees, any ill-fated bullpen call, could turn out to be fatal, which put a great deal more pressure on Boone to keep their season alive.
The Astros still have Sunday’s Game 7, if necessary. And they may not have to go to their bullpen for that one with Cole waiting -- “the best backup plan in baseball,” as Hinch referred to his ace.
No text messages needed for that. The Yankees just intend their next plane trip to be Monday, back to New York, in preparation of hosting the Nationals in the World Series.