Once again the Astros are depending on Justin Verlander


Game 2 is not a must-win for the Astros, but it’s certainly a “we’d really, really like to”-win. It’s about the odds. There have been 112 World Series played before this year. Teams have gone down 0-2 in those Series 52 times. Only 11 of them — 21% or so — have come back to win. It hasn’t been done since the Yankees did it 21 years ago.

Of course it was just this past Friday when the Houston Astros, facing elimination in Game 6 of the ALCS, gave the ball to Justin Verlander and asked him to save their season. He did so in dominant fashion, tossing seven shutout innings and striking out eight. The stakes aren’t quite as high for the Astros tonight, but it’s a game the Astros really, really want to win. Verlander is used to that pressure so the Astros have to feel pretty good about their chances as they once again turn to their hero for hire.

Verlander has pitched nine times for the Astros since coming over in a late August trade from Detroit. Houston has won all nine of those games, eight in games Verlander has started, one in which he came in from the pen. Four of those appearances — three starts and his relief appearance in the ALDS — have come in the postseason. In those games he has a 1.46 ERA over 24 innings in which he’s struck out 24 batters and walked six while scattering 17 hits. He’s absolutely the guy the Astros want on the bump with their backs, well, not up against the wall, but certainly closer to it than they’d like to be.

Verlander is going to need help, however, from an offense that looked absolutely helpless on Tuesday night.

We’ve repeated the phrase “the Astros struck out fewer times than any team in baseball this year” a whole bunch of times in the past month, so you know by now that a 12-strikeout performance like the Astros turned in last night is uncharacteristic. The Astros hitters didn’t necessarily chase terrible pitches — Clayton Kershaw was completely on his game — but both pitchers were getting low balls called strikes, making the high strikes seem like they were at the eyes, I imagine, and the Astros hitters didn’t really seem to adjust their approach to that as the game wore on. Maybe it would’ve been hopeless to try — did I mention that Kershaw was on his game? — but Houston’s batters will need to adjust on the fly a bit quicker tonight than they seemed prepared to do last night.

Thankfully they won’t have to face Kershaw again. Up tonight is Rich Hill, who has given up two runs and struck out 12 across nine innings in his two playoff starts this year. He’s no Clayton Kershaw. No one is. Hill only features two pitches most of the time: a low 90s fastball and a devastating curve that quite uncharacteristically, finishes high in the zone just as often as it finishes low. He’ll flash a cutter thing more and more now than he used to, but it’s more of a show-me pitch to keep batters honest. That curve is where he’s made his money, however, and it’s wipeout pitch when it’s on. If Hill is putting it where he wants it and the umps are giving it to him, the Astros will need to respond. How? I dunno. That’s what they pay hitting coach Dave Hudgens for.

None of which is to paint the situation for the Astros as particularly dire. It’s only Game 2. A win tonight and they’ll get what every visiting team in a seven-game series says they want: a split on the road. With baseball’s hottest pitcher on the mound against a Dodgers team that, itself, did not exactly light up the scoreboard last night, they have to like their chances.

Royals fire manager Mike Matheny after 65-97 end to season

Minnesota Twis v Kansas City Royals
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KANSAS CITY, Mo. – Manager Mike Matheny and pitching coach Cal Eldred were fired by the Kansas Cty Royals on Wednesday night, shortly after the struggling franchise finished the season 65-97 with a listless 9-2 loss to the Cleveland Guardians.

The Royals had exercised their option on Matheny’s contract for 2023 during spring training, when the club hoped it was turning the corner from also-ran to contender again. But plagued by poor pitching, struggles from young position players and failed experiments with veterans, the Royals were largely out of playoff contention by the middle of summer.

The disappointing product led owner John Sherman last month to fire longtime front office executive Dayton Moore, the architect of back-to-back American League champions and the 2015 World Series title team. Moore was replaced by one of his longtime understudies, J.J. Picollo, who made the decision to fire Matheny hours after the season ended.

Matheny became the fifth big league manager to be fired this year.

Philadelphia’s Joe Girardi was replaced on June 3 by Rob Thomson, who engineered a miraculous turnaround to get the Phillies into the playoffs as a wild-card team. The Angels replaced Joe Maddon with Phil Nevin four days later, Toronto’s Charlie Montoyo was succeeded by John Schneider on July 13 and the Rangers’ Chris Woodward by Tony Beasley on Aug. 15.

In addition, Miami’s Don Mattingly said late last month that he will not return next season.