ALCS Game 6: With a bullpen game comes the element of surprise

Tim BrownMLB columnist

NEW YORK — Jose Urquidy, the right-handed pitcher from Mexico, if he’s the guy for the Houston Astros in Saturday night’s ALCS Game 6, said he has a specific routine for when he arrives at the ballpark as a starting pitcher or, for that matter, as a relief pitcher, and that is, “On time.”

Chad Green, the right-hander from Effingham, Illinois, who very well might start for the New York Yankees across from Urquidy, said he was cool with getting on a bus in — he looked at the clock — 10 minutes or so, a bus none of them were sure would be running, then on an airplane with flexible plans, and then with the business of playing out this American League Championship Series.

“I think you tell yourself to enjoy it,” he said.

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The weather did all of this, rain removing the travel day between Games 5 and 6, between Yankee Stadium in the Bronx and Minute Maid Park in Houston, and both rosters found themselves short exactly one (rested) starting pitcher as a result. At least, that is, the notion (and innings) of the traditional starting pitcher.

So, the plans were, buses to Newark, New Jersey, flights to Houston, to hotel and homes by maybe just before the sun rises, ballgame at 7 p.m. local time, all of that in 21 or 22 hours, which they do all the time from April through September, which the ALCS is not.

And, it appears, both teams will simply pour their bullpens into whatever comes of Game 6, neither of the teams’ managers willing — or able — to say where they’d begin. Maybe it would be Urquidy and Green. Maybe not. If there is a benefit to a full-on, man-your-battle-stations, four-alarm bullpen day, with nothing at stake but a berth in the World Series or another day of ALCS, it is the element of surprise.

Chad Green will likely start for the New York Yankees in ALCS Game 6 on Saturday night. (Elsa/Getty Images)
Chad Green will likely start for the New York Yankees in ALCS Game 6 on Saturday night. (Elsa/Getty Images)

“Tomorrow,” Yankees manager Aaron Boone said of a day that would arrive in less than two hours, “we’ll just figure it out. We’ll kind of talk about it on the plane which way we want to go. But it will probably be a little bit of everyone.”

Nudged a bit further, as he conceivably could start Luis Severino on short rest, Boone said Game 6 of the ALCS would be a bullpen game.

“Yes,” he conceded.

Somewhere in the night sky, just ahead of or behind that discussion and decision and drink cart, under the moon that had sat over the left-field bleachers in their 4-1 loss on Friday night, the Astros are expected to reach a similar place.

“We’ll talk about it on the plane ride home,” Astros manager A.J. Hinch said.

Gerrit Cole, perhaps the best pitcher in baseball this season and a similar beast in the postseason, pitched in Game 3, just as Severino had. Cole has never started on short rest.

“It will be a bullpen game,” Hinch said, using the words.

So, nudged, it would not be Gerrit Cole, and this is how conversations go when there’s a game tomorrow and tomorrow is coming in less than two hours and that game is this game.

“I said it would be a bullpen game tomorrow,” Hinch said again. “And I’m unlikely to use Cole, correct.”

And then everyone stared at the word “unlikely” for a while, because, well, some of this stuff will be relayed in indelible ink and can’t be taken back.

One pitcher on each airplane is sure to get a tap on the shoulder and be told he’ll be the guy, or the first guy anyway, in what is sure to be a long and chaotic game, the one the Yankees will play to launch them into Game 7, the one the Astros will play to avoid it. The order of pitchers is perhaps unimportant except as they relate to the batting orders, and for that reason there’d be no reason to announce anything other than your team expects to show up on Saturday night, “On time.”

Dressed in navy sweatpants and matching hoodie like the rest of his traveling teammates, Green seemed not to have a preference of innings -- first, fourth, sixth, whatever — and said he’d require little warning.

“I get there at the same time, do my normal stuff, throw with the relievers early, go to the bullpen,” he said. “Routine’s the same.”

Houston Astros starting pitcher Jose Urquidy said he just needs 40 minutes notice if he were called to start on Saturday. (Getty Images)
Houston Astros starting pitcher Jose Urquidy said he just needs 40 minutes notice if he were called to start on Saturday. (Getty Images)

He started 15 games this season. None of those lasted longer than two innings. Had Game 4 been played on Wednesday night instead of Thursday night, the Yankees were likely to have started Green. (Severino generally good for about four, so a semi-bullpen game awaits in Sunday’s Game 7, too, if that game is played.) Three days later, Green seems the reasonable bet, if not a lock. His only plan ahead of Game 6, he said, was to recline his seat and get some sleep. He admitted sometimes he wasn’t a great plane sleeper.

“Depending on how tired I am,” he said. “I can for sure get some sleep tonight.”

The Astros would have avoided all of this with a win Friday night, and then Justin Verlander got popped for four first-inning runs and James Paxton, meantime, was earning his Yankee pinstripes. But, Verlander did churn through six scoreless innings after that, and with each of those innings, each of those outs, he brought another potential reliever into Saturday night’s strategy.

The Astros so believed in a bullpen game in their division series they pitched Verlander on short rest for the first time in his career and he gave up four runs and 10 baserunners in 3 ⅔ innings, while the Rays beat them with a bullpen game of their own. Most teams’ relationships with these sorts of affairs — openers, Johnny Wholestaff games, bullpen games, whatever you call them — are somewhat strained, but here they are, in the game that could change everything, “Now pitching, Johnny Wholestaff.”

Urquidy said to give him 40 minutes’ notice, he’d be good to go. Meantime, he had the same plan as Green.

“Yeah,” he said, “it’s no problem for me, sleep.”

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