Game Four: TBD vs. John Lackey
The good news for Cleveland in Game Four is that it has a number of options to choose from for its starting pitcher. The bad news is that none of those options are necessarily ideal. Francona could start Danny Salazar on a strict pitch count, Ryan Merritt for his third career big league outing, or Kluber on short rest. Regardless of what the Indians decide, Chicago will likely have Lackey on the bump.
Salazar confirmed on Monday afternoon that he had made the World Series roster for the Tribe, and after pitching a simulated game on Sunday said that he felt close 100 percent after having been out since September 9th with a right forearm strain.
If he can give the team the 65-70 pitches that would likely be his limit at anywhere approaching the same level he pitched at during the first half of the regular season, Salazar’s return would provide a great lift. In the first half of the year, the 26-year old fireballer was among the AL’s best, going 10-3 with a 2.75 ERA and holding opponents to a .204/.290/.323 slash line and 67 OPS+ en route to being named to the all-star team.
Salazar hasn’t pitched in a big league game in over a month and a half, which means there may be some incentive to bringing him out of the bullpen and going with Merritt or Kluber. Merritt made his second career start in the clinching game of the ALCS in Toronto and handcuffed the Jays to just two hits in 4.1 shutout innings.
Kluber, as mentioned previously, started Game Four of the ALCS pitching on short rest for the first time in his career. While he battled, it was obvious that he didn’t look as sharp, and against the Cubs at Wrigley, that could mean disaster.
Lackey has been the least-used member of Chicago’s starting rotation in the postseason, having gone four innings apiece in his two starts. He’s also been hit the hardest, allowing five runs on ten hits in those eight innings of work, good for a 5.63 ERA, 1.88 WHIP, and .333 batting average against.
What Lackey has worked in his favor against a Cleveland lineup that is mostly short on postseason, and especially World Series, experience, is his more than 135 career innings pitching in October. The mercurial 38-year old righty has been in big spots before and knows how to win on the biggest stage.
One thing to watch in how the Indians attack Lackey is the volume of curveballs and sliders he mixes in. No other Cubs starter throws as many breaking balls, nearly 40 percent, but few clubs in the American League hit those pitches better than the Tribe.
Cleveland’s wSL and wCB marks ranked first and third, respectively, during the regular season according to FanGraphs, and Lackey has given up plenty of hard contact in the playoffs on those pitches.
Until Francona makes known his plans for Game Four, and there’s no reason why he should rush that decision, it’s difficult to say which side will have the upper hand on the rubber. Given the options the Indians have and Lackey’s struggles thus far in the postseason, it could make for a hitter-friendly affair, to say the least.