After a jam-packed wild-card round, MLB’s 16-team playoff field has already been whittled down to eight.
The American League side of the bracket kicked off on Monday, with both division series featuring no shortage of bad blood between the teams involved. It’s no secret the Tampa Bay Rays and New York Yankees have become heated rivals, while the Oakland Athletics and Houston Astros certainly aren’t the best of friends, either.
All that drama should make for entertaining baseball, and the series openers didn’t disappoint. Here are some key takeaways from Monday’s ALDS action.
Stanton takes up residence in Slam Diego
The San Diego Padres became famous for their grand slams this season, and playing at Petco Park must have rubbed off on Giancarlo Stanton. His bases-clearing shot in the top of the ninth iced Game 1 for New York, and gave the Bronx Bombers their second grand slam of the post-season.
It’s a welcome sight for the Yankees, as their prized slugger has been on the shelf for the bulk of the past two years due to injury and was ice cold entering the playoffs, hitting just .200 in the month of September. If his bat gets going behind the likes of DJ LeMahieu, Aaron Judge and Luke Voit, the Yankees are going to be one tough out this October.
— Sportsnet (@Sportsnet) October 6, 2020
Gerrit Cole is one of the most dominant pitchers in the game today, but don’t tell that to Ji-Man Choi.
The Rays first baseman continued to own the flame-throwing right-hander, drilling a two-run homer to centre in the fourth inning that left the bat at 108.9 m.p.h. Choi is now a ridiculous 10-for-19 against Cole in his career with four home runs. Including the playoffs, he has hit four total long balls in 2020, with three of them coming against the Yankees’ ace.
While Choi drew most of the attention for his continued dominance of Cole, Rays outfielder Randy Arozarena put together his own eye-popping stat line in Game 1. In three at-bats against Cole, he hit a home run (107.3 m.p.h. exit velocity) and added two singles that were absolutely scorched (103.3, 102.6). His hardest-hit ball of the night was actually the only time he didn’t reach base, lining out to shortstop on a 111.4-m.p.h. bullet with an expected batting average of .740.
Frazier shakes off rust, earns consideration for more playing time
Yankees outfielder Clint Frazier hadn’t started a game since Sept. 26, a stretch of eight days in which he only saw one at-bat (a pinch-hit appearance in Game 1 of the Cleveland series). Manager Aaron Boone decided to pencil the 26-year-old into Monday’s lineup, and the decision paid off.
Frazier immediately shook off any rust and blasted a no-doubt home run to left field in the third inning, climbing the ladder to impressively turn on a high Blake Snell fastball that was out of the strike zone.
Out goes Frazier. pic.twitter.com/m1u09AJOXu
— MLB (@MLB) October 6, 2020
This season, Frazier was instrumental in New York’s success, admirably filling in for Judge while he was injured. Frazier is an important part of the Yankees’ present and future, and he deserves heavy consideration for an everyday role moving forward. After the Rays brought in a right-handed reliever in the sixth inning, Frazier was lifted for pinch-hitter Brett Gardner. The move was a bit of a head-scratcher, as Frazier’s slash line of .265/.402/.510 against righties this year was significantly better than Gardner’s .229./.370/.431.
More post-season at-bats could go a long way in helping Frazier develop and would also give the Yankees a better chance to win now.
Error flips the script on A’s in Game 1 loss
Heading into the sixth inning, the Athletics had their “visitors” right where they wanted them. Oakland had a two-run lead, and both teams had turned the game over to their respective bullpens. With the Athletics owning the best relief corps in the majors, Game 1 seemed ripe for the taking.
That’s when things changed in a hurry.
J.B. Wendelken easily retired the first two Astros he faced, then induced a routine ground ball off the bat of Josh Reddick. Athletics shortstop Marcus Semien botched the play, allowing Reddick to reach on an error and keep the inning alive. Houston then strung together four straight hits and quickly took a 7-5 lead. Even though the Astros’ margin of victory ended up being five runs, it was those four unearned tallies in the sixth that completely changed the complexion and flow of the game.
Dodger Stadium turned into a bandbox
Oakland and Houston didn’t exactly set the league on fire with their respective offences in 2020, as both squads finished in the middle of the pack in runs scored, home runs and slugging percentage. But you wouldn’t know that from this game.
Balls were flying out of the yard all afternoon at Dodger Stadium, with the teams combining to crank six homers, aided by some favourable hitting conditions. In fact, Astros starter Lance McCullers Jr. looked visibly perplexed after what appeared to be a pair of routine flyballs to centre field carried all the way over the fence.
But it was the Astros who were the beneficiaries of the most questionable long ball of the day, courtesy of Alex Bregman. His fourth-inning blast carried an expected batting average of just .260 and would not have left the park had the game been played at the Oakland Coliseum, as it would have if not for MLB opting for a bubble stadium approach.
Despite benefitting on that play, Houston did truly beat up on A’s pitching from start to finish regardless of the venue, hanging 16 hits on the scoreboard. Carlos Correa and George Springer led the charge with three and four knocks, respectively.