Heath Hembree

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Help us, Justin Verlander and Chris Sale, you’re our only hope

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Yesterday I wrote about how, though these playoff games don’t conform to my preferred brand of baseball, we should do our best to put that aside and enjoy the moments they provide all the same.

I absolutely stand by that and, as far as moments go, it’s hard to top a relief pitcher who was a career 6-for-61 hitter with no extra base hits smacking a huge two-run triple. Two sluggers then hitting back-to-back homers off of that same reliever the very next inning are quite a couple of a moments themselves. A slow-footed, poor-hitting catcher dropping a bunt off of one of the game’s top closers to plate an insurance run in the bottom half of that inning is next-level unexpected and unexpectedly exciting. Yes, Archie BradleyNolan Arenado, Trevor Story and Jeff Mathis gave those of us who stayed up until midnight to watch the N.L. Wild Card game some loopy and unexpected thrills.

With that acknowledged, would it be too much of me to ask for a baseball game in which a pitcher actually does his freakin’ job?

Nothing personal against Luis Severino, Ervin Santana, Zack Greinke and Jon Gray, but it’s one thing for me to set aside my love of good starting pitching and it’s another thing altogether for me to sit through another stink bomb like the ones those guys dropped over the past two nights. Their combined line: 7.1 inning pitched, 20 hits, 15 runs, all earned, four walks, three strikeouts and five homers. These are number one starters for playoff teams, mind you. I’m willing to set my personal tastes aside as much as I need to, but two games started by four putative aces with 31 combined runs over seven hours and forty-five minutes is . . . a bit much to ask right out of the gate.

Today, however, there is hope. Today, just after 4pm Eastern, there is a matchup of two of baseball’s best starting pitchers. Two men who, at least theoretically, can provide us a respite from all of this sloppy–, er, I mean exciting baseball. Enter Chris Sale and Justin Verlander.

While the four fellows who pitched the past two nights are fine men, and while Zack Greinke is most certainly an ace, Sale and Verlander are, without question, two of the game’s top arms and are most definitely on the top of their games. Verlander had a solid enough season overall, but he put it into high gear after being traded from Detroit to Houston at the end of August, going 5-0 with a 1.06 ERA in five starts with a K/BB ratio of 43/4 in 34 innings pitched. Sale, who was the top AL Cy Young candidate for much of the season, led the league with 308 strikeouts over his league-leading 214.1 innings. He was the first AL pitcher to strike out 300 batters this century.

Sale averages over six and two-thirds innings per start. Verlander: just shy of six and a third. Sale has no playoff experience by virtue of his years with the White Sox, but Verlander has been there. His last trip to October came before this new age of ultra-quick hooks and heavy bullpen use, so he’s averaged over six innings a postseason start. On paper at least, this matchup gives a fighting chance at a pitchers’ duel. Though, being honest, after watching starting pitchers shoot themselves in the foot for two nights, I’d settle for a spirited pitchers argument. I’d take a battle of pitchers’ “yo momma” jokes or a pitchers’ slap fight.

Nothing is certain, of course. Houston’s offense is the best in baseball. More intriguing than just their fire power, however, is their lack of strikeouts. Indeed, despite all of those runs, they struck out fewer times than any team in the game, so something will have to give as they face off against the game’s K-king in Sale. For his part, Verlander has faced the 2017 Red Sox twice, handling them well both times, allowing only three runs in 12 innings. They were patient against him, however, drawing six walks. Both of those games came before the All-Star break, however, and the Sox did win the second game.

All of that said, if you don’t know by now, predicting a playoff game’s outcome is impossible, so it’s beyond presumptuous to predict or to hope for a certain style of game. I want to see Sale and Verlander trade goose eggs for seven innings or so, the tension building every frame. We could quite easily see both of these guys knocked out of box before the third, however, with this all being decided by, I dunno, Chris Devenski and Heath Hembree.

But c’mon, guys. Do something good for me, will ya?