Winner takes all

ALCS Game 7 Preview: Astros vs. Rays

Photo by Ezra Shaw/Getty Images

It all comes down to this. The Astros have erased a 3-0 deficit and tied the series with their 7-4 win over the Rays in ALCS Game 6. It sets up the best phrase in sports: Game 7. They've made it this far; now they just need to take the final step to make it to their third World Series in the last four years. Here's how the game shapes up:

Game Facts

When: Sautrday, October 17th, 7:37 PM Central.

Where: Petco Park - San Diego, California.

TV: TBS.

Streaming: Watch TBS App.

Pitching Matchup: Lance McCullers Jr. vs. Charlie Morton.

Series: tied 3-3.

Series Schedule

Date & Time (Central)Pitching MatchupHome Team
Game 1Final: Rays 2, Astros 1Framber Valdez (L) vs. Blake Snell (W)Rays
Game 2Final: Rays 4, Astros 2Lance McCullers Jr. (L) vs. Charlie Morton (W)Rays
Game 3Final: Rays 5, Astros 2Ryan Yarbrough (W) vs. Jose Urquidy (L)Astros
Game 4Final: Astros 4, Rays 3Tyler Glasnow (L) vs. Zack Greinke (W)Astros
Game 5Final: Astros 4, Rays 3John Curtiss (ND) vs Luis Garcia (ND)Astros
Game 6Final: Astros 7, Rays 4Framber Valdez (W) vs. Blake Snell (L)Rays
Game 7Sat 10/17, 7:37 PMLance McCullers Jr. vs. Charlie MortonRays

All games played at Petco Park.

Game Storylines

All hands on deck

There's probably only one arm that is genuinely unavailable today, and that's Framber Valdez, who started Game 6 and went six innings. Everyone else, including Ryan Pressly, who has closed out three straight games, maybe even Zack Greinke, should be out in the bullpen ready to contribute in this decisive game.

But first, it'll come down to how Lance McCullers Jr. does. He was flat-out terrific in his Game 2 start, allowing just one earned run while striking out eleven over seven full innings (though he did allow the three unearned runs after the significant error in the first). If he can replicate that success and get into or possibly past the middle innings of this game while allowing zero to two runs, he will have done his job on Saturday.

Get ahead early

One thing that'll make Dusty Baker's job somewhat more comfortable, though in a Game 7 nothing truly is, is if his bats can start to distance themselves from the Rays early. There shouldn't be much of a shadow issue in this one, beginning at 7:37 PM Central, 5:37 local time in San Diego. That means Houston, who exploded in the middle innings in Game 6, might have the opportunity to do the same early in Game 7.

To do it, they'll have to put up runs on their former-teammate Charlie Morton, who shut them out over five frames in Game 2. Then, much like the Astros, the Rays will have just about everyone ready to come in, including the likes of Tyler Glasnow and Ryan Yarbrough, that they might not have as much success as they've had against the Rays bullpen in recent days. In a game with this high leverage, every baserunner will count and apply pressure, so the Astros need to reproduce Friday's success at the plate, albeit against potentially stiffer pitching.

Be sure to check SportsMap after the final out for an in-depth recap of the game, and follow me on Twitter for updates and reactions throughout each playoff game: @ChrisCampise

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Here's what the data tells us about Bregman. Photo by Joel Auerbach/Getty Images

Alex Bregman had a rough season in 2020 by his standards. He slashed .242/.350/.451 in 42 regular season games. His regular season included a trip to the 10-day IL for a hamstring strain he suffered in mid-August. His surface-level struggles continued in the postseason, where he slashed .220/.316/.300 in 13 games. However, that postseason sample size does include a tough luck game against the Tampa Bay Rays where he went 0-for-5 with five hard hit balls.

All-in-all, 2020 felt like a lost season for Bregman. He never really got going. He got off to a slow start, but he's always been a slow starter. Once he started to pick it up, he strained his hamstring, and he played poorly after returning from the hamstring strain. Then, he started to turn his batted ball quality around in the playoffs, but he hit into a lot of tough luck outs.

Hard Hit % - 33.6%

Barrel % - 3.9%

K% - 14.4%

BB% - 13.3%

Chase % - 18.1%

Bregman comes from the Michael Brantley school of hitters. He has elite plate discipline and elite bat-to-ball skills. This makes Bregman a fairly consistent hitter. That may sound odd considering his 2020 "struggles" but even an extended period of poor performance for him resulted in a .801 OPS and a 122 wRC+. If his valleys are still 22% better than the league average hitter, then that's a pretty reliable producer.

There aren't any alarming trends in Bregman's statistics. Yes, his K% was slightly up, his BB% is slightly down, but it isn't a massive difference in either category. His Chase % was up, but again, 18.1% is elite discipline. The biggest drop was in his Hard Hit%, where he fell from 38% to 33.6%. Even so, his average exit velocity only dropped .4 MPH, so there's not really a catastrophic trend here.

His .254 BABIP (Batting Average on Balls In Play) was low, but he's never put up really high BABIP numbers. In fact, his BABIP has gotten worse every year of his career, from .317 to .311 to .289 to .281 to .254. While his BABIP will likely spike back up next year, it isn't enough to be the difference between the 2019 and 2020 versions of himself. His xBA and xSLG weren't out of whack either. His .256 xBA isn't much better than his .240 AVG, and his .400 xSLG is actually worse than his .451 SLG.

Bregman is as forthcoming with his hitting mechanics, approach, and mental cues as any big leaguer out there. Here is what he had to say about his swing this year. This was a Zoom press conference with the media following the Astros game on September 25th against the Rangers.

Bregman says he wants to hit balls in the air to the pull side and on a line to the opposite field, but in reality, he was hitting flares to the opposite field and hitting them on the ground to the pull side.

The data mostly backs up that claim. In 2019, on balls hit to the pull side, Bregman had an average exit velocity of 90.7 MPH at an average launch angle of 16°, a 40% Hard Hit %, and a 16% HR%. Since Bregman has elite bat-to-ball skills, most of those metrics didn't change. In 2020, his average exit velocity was 90.6, essentially the same as 2019. His Hard Hit % was 42%, a touch better than in 2019. However, his average launch angle dipped from 16° to 11°, which contributed to his HR% dropping all the way to 9%. Bregman hit 47% of his pull side swings on the ground. In 2019, that number was 40%. He absolutely had less production to the pull side in 2020.

The data gets a little hazier going the opposite way when comparing 2019 to 2020, as Bregman actually performed slightly better to the opposite field in 2020 than 2019, but he also only had 20 batted balls to the opposite field all season. Considering the small sample size, it isn't worth diving too deep into the data.

He's right that most of the balls he hit that way were flares. He had an average exit velocity of 83.4 MPH with an average launch angle of 32°, but that's about the same as what he did in 2019. A lot of the statistical drop off comes from balls that were backspun rockets to the pull side in 2019 becoming top spinners or roll overs in 2020.

Bregman also performed horribly against breaking balls in 2020. He batted .150 with a .250 SLG against them in 2020. He had an 84 MPH Average Exit Velocity against them and whiffed 26.5% of the time against them.

It was a far cry from 2019, when he hit .265 with a .588 SLG, 87 MPH average exit velo, and whiffed 18% of the time.

Those numbers lend credence to his statement on his mechanics. It's tough for a hitter to have adjustability against breaking balls if he's blowing out his front side and pulling off of the baseball.

Bregman will spend the offseason working on these mechanical fixes and getting back to the hitter he used to be. If he's consistently hitting the ball in the air to the pull side next year, and he's performing better against breaking balls, then he should be right back in the mix for AL MVP.

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