ALDS Takeaways: Post-season heavyweights living up to hype so far

Houston Astros shortstop Carlos Correa and centre fielder George Springer celebrate the team's 3-1 win over Tampa Bay Rays. (Michael Wyke/AP)

Through two games of the American League Divisional Series, the favourites are doing what they were expected to. The New York Yankees and Houston Astros each took care of business at home, and carry commanding 2-0 leads in their series.

Here are your takeaways from Saturday night’s action.

Minnesota Twins 2 — New York Yankees 8

A tough start

Undrafted right-hander Randy Dobnak was a fun story for the Twins down the stretch, as he pitched to a 1.59 ERA over nine outings after making his MLB debut in early August. A sinkerballer who posted sky-high groundball rates in the minors, Dobnak looked like found money for the Twins after they plucked him out of independent ball in 2017. But it’s a different degree of difficulty making a playoff start against the Yankees in the Bronx.

Dobnak was dodging bullets from the moment he took the mound, surrendering a leadoff double to DJ LeMahieu and walking Aaron Judge behind him. Dobnak limited the first inning damage to only a run and stranded a pair of two-out singles in the second, but when he loaded the bases with none out in the third, Twin manager Rocco Baldelli had seen enough.

Baldelli lifted Dobnak after only 43 pitches, turning to Tyler Duffey, who took things from bad to worse. All three of the runners Dobnak left behind scored, plus three more as Didi Gregorious lobbed a grand slam inside the right field foul pole:

It was ultimately a seven-run inning, which was all the offence the Yankees would need. It was also all they would get as the Twins bullpen did a fine job piecing the rest of the game together, as five relievers combined for 5.1 scoreless innings. That’s really the only good thing to say about the Twins in this one.

Peak Tanaka

The only pitch Masahiro Tanaka didn’t have going Saturday night was his fastball, which he was consistently missing with up and out of the zone. Turns out he didn’t even need it.

The Yankees starter had his splitter and slider working perfectly in tandem with one another, locating both pitches down in the zone to give Twins batters fits. The key is that both pitches look the same out of his hand but move in very different directions once they reach the plate. Here’s what Minnesota’s hitters were dealing with:

Those two offerings were the only ones he needed — Tanaka threw only 16 fastballs, most of them waste pitches — to hold the Twins to a run on three hits over five innings, striking out seven. He threw only 83 pitches and probably could’ve kept going, but when you have a bullpen like the Yankees do there’s no sense messing around.

Do or die

Minnesota scored a consolation run in the ninth, but otherwise couldn’t touch New York’s pitching in this one. Heading home for Monday’s Game 3, the Twins will now need to beat the Yankees three times consecutively — New York hasn’t lost three in a row since Aug. 22, mind you — to keep their season alive. It’s not an impossible ask, but it certainly won’t happen if Minnesota’s offence doesn’t show up for the series.

These were the two most prolific offences in baseball this season, but so far only the Yankees have carried that over into October with 18 runs on 19 hits through two games. The Twins have only six extra-base hits in the series, which hasn’t been nearly enough. Of course, any team can slump offensively for a few games. But for the Twins, it’s come at the worst possible time.

Tampa Bay Rays 1 — Houston Astros 3

Flashing leather

The very first play of the game was as impressive as any you’re going to see:

Just getting to that 105-m.p.h. grounder took elite instincts and first-step quickness, but for Carlos Correa to then have the athleticism to pivot and fire strongly and accurately to first from what is essentially shallow left field is wild. Hat tip as well to first baseman Yuli Gurriell for making what was not an easy pick look effortless.

Can’t touch Cole

Did Gerrit Cole have his good breaking stuff on Saturday? Well, he was getting swings like this:

And this:

And also this:

So, sure, his secondary stuff was pretty strong. But then there was his fastball, which sat at 97-98 m.p.h. and touched 100. He threw it more than half the time and it was his most important weapon on the night as he sent a steady stream of Rays hitters back to the dugout shaking their heads. It was that wicked fastball, and its sneaky late run, that made his breaking pitches even more effective, and elevated Cole to as close to unhittable as it gets.

By the time his outing was done, Cole had struck out 15 over 7.2 shutout innings, allowing only a double, three singles, and a walk. He finished with 33 swinging strikes, which is absurd. He was throwing 100-m.p.h. fastballs in his eighth inning. What a brilliant outing.

Don’t sleep on Snell

For as good as Cole was, Tampa Bay starter Blake Snell was right there with him through three innings. Snell’s stuff wasn’t quite as devastating on the night but he was using it to great effect, mixing fading change-ups and biting breaking balls off a fastball that was sitting 95-96-m.p.h.

But in the fourth the always-plucky Alex Bregman worked a full count, and Snell couldn’t get one of those fastballs quite far enough inside:

There’s no shame in it — Snell didn’t miss his spot by much and Bregman’s a phenomenal hitter, finishing the season with a 1.015 OPS by capitalizing on mistakes like that. But considering the tight pitcher’s duel he was in, it had to be a tough moment for Snell, who was actually lifted from the game a batter later after recording his fifth strikeout of the night.

This was only Snell’s fourth big-league outing since mid-summer surgery to remove bone chips from his elbow, so the Rays were clearly being cautious with the defending Cy Young winner. It’s fair to wonder if he could have gone a little deeper considering his 58 pitches Saturday were shy of the 62 he threw his last time out. But the Rays clearly know more than anyone about how far they could extend him.

Adding on

Martin Maldonado, who did a fine job catching Cole’s gem, came through with a bloop single in the seventh against hard-throwing Rays reliever Emilio Pagan to give Houston its second run.

It wasn’t a spectacular piece of hitting or anything — the pitch was a ball and it came off Maldonado’s bat at 68 m.p.h. But it is a little unfair when a team as loaded as the Astros is getting poor-contact, run-scoring singles from its veteran, defence-first catcher.

Correa, the 25-year-old shortstop with a .926 OPS this season, came through with a well-struck single in the eighth to add a third run. That’s more like it.

Close call

Astros closer Roberto Osuna had a rough go of it with a three-run lead in the ninth, loading the bases with none out thanks to back-to-back singles and a walk. After a run scored on a fielder’s choice, Osuna walked another batter to reload the bases.

Astros manager A.J. Hinch lifted Osuna, who was at 27 pitches, and called on Will Harris to try to eke out of the jam. Travis d’Arnaud took Harris to a full count, but ultimately struck out, before Kevin Kiermaier grounded out to first to end the threat.

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