Houston Astros starting pitcher Lance McCullers Jr. delivers a pitch. Credit: Shanna Lockwood-USA TODAY Sports
Rubber match? We’ve all heard it and know it refers to a game that will decide a series, but what exactly does it mean? It’s not like it’s specific to a certain sport, as we hear it year-round. But maybe it started in baseball and has something to do with the pitcher’s rubber?
Nope. The term has been around since the late 16th century, when it was first used in lawn bowling. Yes, lawn bowling.
What did the rubber refer to? Nobody seems to know.
The bridge (card game) folks then picked up the term rubber, which refers to the decider in a three-game bridge series. And that’s where baseball got it from, according to Paul Dickson’s Baseball Dictionary. The more you know.
Anyways, let’s get into the betting and fantasy preview for the rubber match between the Indians and Astros. Pretty solid pitching matchup we have for Sunday Night Baseball between two first-place teams — although the 22-22 Indians would finish in fifth place in the AL West if the season ended today.
Cleveland Indians (+118) at Houston Astros (-130)
Carlos Carrasco (5-2, 3.66 ERA) vs. Lance McCullers (5-2, 3.63 ERA)
8:08 p.m. ET
Fancy Lance: Through Friday, Lance McCullers Jr. has been the ultimate worm killer, with a ground-ball rate of 60.8%. Except for one terrible early April start against Minnesota, McCullers has shined as a key cog in Houston’s loaded rotation, although his walk rate has held him back from reaching elite status — and also from perhaps becoming an even better starter than his ground-baller teammate, Dallas Keuchel.
With more than 10 strikeouts per nine and a ground-ball rate over 60%, McCullers is two-thirds of the way to being an absolute top-shelf arm. However, his 3.63 BB/9 rate has kept his ERA at a more modest level. He rarely allows homers, as his 0.52 HR/9 ranks in the top 10 among all qualified pitchers. That means that most of the damage comes from opponents stringing together hits. Obviously, free passes leave him more vulnerable to bigger innings.
With that said, McCullers has a favorable matchup against the Tribe, who lead the league in homers and rank in the bottom third in walks. The Indians should have their power held in check, and their aggressive nature won’t exploit McCullers’ biggest weakness. — Mark Gallant
When McCullers takes the hill, the other team comes prepared for a heavy dose of curveballs. The Astros right-hander has thrown his curve at a 42.9% clip, which leads all qualified pitchers. In fact, Zack Godley and Tyler Skaggs are the only other pitchers with a curveball rate that exceeds 30%. McCullers actually threw his curve with greater frequency (47.4%) in 2017. While he has yet to find his peak curve this year (although still filthy), his changeup has been absolutely devastating.
McCullers got hit hard last April in his only career start against the Indians. The Tampa, Florida, native allowed five runs on seven hits and three walks in just five innings. However, that came in Cleveland — and McCullers has clearly felt much more comfortable pitching at home during his career. — Stuckey
Road Dog: While McCullers has excelled at home, Carlos Carrasco has pitched significantly better away from Progressive Field throughout his career. His home ERA is 1.38 runs higher, and opposing batters have hit 40 points lower on the road. This disparity shows in his betting home/road splits during his time in Cleveland:
Since 2015, the Indians have a superb 34-14 (70.8%) record in Carrasco’s 48 road starts. That makes him the sixth-most profitable road pitcher in MLB over that span. Over the past four seasons, Carrasco is 24-8 on the moneyline in road night starts, winning by 1.6 runs per game. — Evan Abrams
Speaking of road Carrasco, he’s made two career starts at Minute Maid Park and has yet to allow a run. Take a look at this stunning stat line in those two starts, both of which he won: 15.1 innings, no runs, five hits, 22 strikeouts and two walks. That includes one complete-game shutout. Just silly. — Stuckey
Bash Brothers: It looks like the Indians have the Little Bash Bros on their hands with Francisco Lindor and Jose Ramirez. From May 1 to May 18, the diminutive sluggers have been the best and fourth-best hitters in the league, respectively, per wRC+. Ramirez has averaged 19.25 FanDuel points per game this month — good for a plus/minus of +7.2. Meanwhile, Lindor has averaged an even gaudier 20.05 points per game — good for +7.6.
Though both certainly have pop, I’d have to say Lindor is the better play on FanDuel. Over the past 15 days, he has far better batted-ball data, while Ramirez’s fantasy production has benefited from some good fortune. Neither has a great matchup against the ground-ball king McCullers, but Lindor is cheaper, will likely bat higher in the order and has the advanced metrics stacked in his favor. — Mark Gallant
Stats via Baseball Reference and FanGraphs