6 players to watch in 2021 ALDS: Rays' Lowe enters playoffs on a roll

As Hazel Mae reports, the Tampa Bay Rays are making headlines and history by throwing rookie pitchers into the fire for both Game 1 and 2, in Shane McClanahan and Shane Baz, but have the confidence that they'll get the job done when called upon.

I’ve done this baseball thing since 1989 (geezus!) and Tony La Russa managed in the first World Series I covered. Dusty Baker was the opposing team's hitting coach. That was the ‘Earthquake World Series,’ and it was quite an introduction. I’d cross paths with them over the years -- I enjoyed my conversations with Baker immensely, especially the chill, early-morning interviews in spring training when he’d make tea, put John Lee Hooker on his office sound system and chat.

The pair were kind of part of the furniture for a couple of decades: teammates for a bit with the 1971 Atlanta Braves, they became better acquainted later in their careers as manager/player (Baker played for La Russa’s 1986 A’s), as opposing manager/hitting coach and eventually as opposing managers. That was something else: whether it was a dugout clearing incident in the 2002 National League Championship Series between Baker’s San Francisco Giants and La Russa’s St. Louis Cardinals -- where they were both fined for conduct unbecoming -- or some hellacious beanball wars when they migrated to the NL Central.

Given the choice? I’m a Dusty guy. Always will be.

And now they’re facing each other in the post-season again, when the 77-year-old La Russa leads the Chicago White Sox against the 72-year-old Baker’s Houston Astros in a best of five American League Division Series.

On Wednesday, Baker was asked about managing against La Russa and gave a vintage Dusty answer. “He’s in the Hall of Fame,” Baker said. “You don’t find many Hall of Famers that come back. Most of them are trying to get in. I enjoy managing against Tony. The way I look at it, he’s managing against me, too. How come you didn’t put it that way?” Told by the reporter that he would “ask him (La Russa) later," Baker said: “I’ll be curious to hear what he says.” So…

La Russa said he hated to acknowledge they were teammates, because Baker was a really good player and he, well, wasn’t. “If you manage and you’re around for a long time, it’s usually because you were a bad player,” he said. “So I always like to point out the really good player who became really outstanding managers. Dusty is one of them. Joe Torre. Mike Scioscia…

“The only problem we’ve ever had,” La Russa added, “is when we’re in the same division.”

This series will be riveting and is difficult to call. The Boston Red Sox/Tampa Bay Rays? Eh… not so much. But here are six players to keep an eye on…

Carlos Correa, Astros, SS: So let’s see: no team throws more high-velocity fastballs than the White Sox -- they have the highest average pitch velocity of any team in the playoffs and threw the most 95-miles per hour-plus fastballs by far of any team in the Majors -- and they had the second-highest strikeout rate in baseball. The Astros make the most contact of any team in the game and have a nicely balanced lineup and… you know what? Playoffs are for stars and Correa has loved the post-season, with 19 career playoff homers, tied for ninth all-time. One more ties him with Mickey Mantle (?), Reggie Jackson and Jose Altuve. Two more pulls him even with that George Springer fellow.

Correa had one of the most consistent seasons of his career, and was a Top 20 player this season in outs above average, Top 10 in fWAR and Top 25 in wRC+. He is a free agent after this season and as one of the Astros who has seemed almost unapologetic about the team's cheating scandal, this would seem a tailor-made opportunity to close out his career as a member of the Astros.

Do not discount the value of post-season experience as the Astros have four of the top 12 active players in post-season games, led by the 63 games of Correa and Altuve.

Nathan Eovaldi, Red Sox, SP: True, the Red Sox had to use Eovaldi in the AL wild-card game and as of now he’s scheduled to start Game 3 but I wonder if the combination of the Red Sox’s bullpen issues and another possible hiccup for Chris Sale doesn’t mean we’ll see Eovaldi make some relief appearances as he did in the 2018 World Series. He threw just 71 pitches in the wild-card game and manager Alex Cora has shown he is aware that aggressiveness and creativity will be a must to manage his way through his bullpen issues. Recall how he used starters Eduardo Rodriguez and Nick Pivetta to close out last Sunday’s playoff-clinching win over the Washington Nationals. He didn’t do that to be cute.

Michael Kopech, White Sox, RP: So let’s see: the White Sox added Craig Kimbrel at the trade deadline to augment atomic/bionic closer Liam Hendriks (Bionic? Um, ask your parents) and they have a rotation that can bully teams. So, why Kopech? La Russa starts the post-season with Lance Lynn bothered by a sore knee; Carlos Rodon sustaining a velocity loss with what is suspected to be shoulder fatigue and with absolutely no confidence in Dallas Kuechel.

In what could be a long series pitting two extremely good offensive teams against each other, Kopech’s swing-and-miss stuff, ability to work multiple relief innings and comfort in high leverage -- he recorded 103 strikeouts in just 69 1/3 innings and had eight appearances of two or more innings, including three-inning stints in his last two starts -- gives La Russa a great deal of wiggle-room. Kopech made spot starts early in the season after missing two years recovering from Tommy John surgery and opting out of last season, and has fully recovered from a mid-season hamstring strain.

Brandon Lowe, Rays, IF: Lowe ended the 2020 post-season owing his manager, Kevin Cash, a huge thank you for his contentious decision to remove Blake Snell out of Game 6. It took attention away from Lowe’s mediocre performance: 7-for-50 (albeit three of those hits being home runs) in the ALCS and World Series with 20 strikeouts.

Lowe is on a roll, hitting .390 in the last two weeks with a three-homer game at Yankee Stadium, and hit 39 homers with 99 runs batted in in 615 plate appearances, almost 400 more than his previous high. Strange, Lowe seems as if he’s been around forever, especially on a team with rookies like Wander Franco and Randy Arozarena. Kevin Barker, my co-conspirator on Blair & Barker, and Rays analyst Brian Anderson both note that Lowe has made a significant mechanical change by quieting his hands, which has allowed him to shorten his swing and take a better path to elevated pitches. We’ll see.

Drew Rasmussen, Rays, SP: When the Rays traded Willy Adames to the Milwaukee Brewers for “bullpen help,” in the form of J.P. Feyereisen, most savvy baseball observers immediately started to dig into the “other” pitcher acquired. Because they are the Rays, the assumption was Rasmussen would end up turning into something more than a useful arm and, boy, has that been the case.

Cash says it is “highly likely,” that the second-year righty will get the start at Fenway Park in Game 3. Of course, with the Rays you can never be certain, but Rasmussen has pitched both in relief and as a starter and Cash will not waste him. It was at Fenway Park on Aug. 12 that Rasmussen was given his first Major League start and since then he’s pitched to a 1.46 ERA while holding opponents to a .171 batting average, throwing an efficient 13 pitches per inning over eight starts. This will be his third start against the Red Sox and he also faced the Astros and Blue Jays.

I’ve got Cash’s team sweeping the Red Sox, but either way Game 3 will be massive. Or I could be over-thinking things, because the Rays do tend to do that to you.

Luis Robert, White Sox, OF: The White Sox went 2-5 against the Astros during the regular season but they didn’t have Eloy Jimenez or Robert in any of those games -- and the latter has been on a tear since coming off the injured list following a lengthy stint with a hip flexor strain. He hit home runs in four of his last eight games including the season finale, when he homered with an exit velocity of 117.7 m.p.h, which is the hardest for a White Sox’s hitter in the Statscast era.

In 43 games since coming off the IL, Robert has slashed .350/.389/.622 with 12 homers, 35 RBIs and 31 runs scored. Robert was 4-for-13 with a home run in last year's AL wild-card against the Athletics and has cut down his strikeout rate by 12 per cent this season -- notable on a team that will chase the odd pitch. If the flu keeps Jose Abreu out of the lineup in Game 1, Robert’s bat looms even larger.

Blair’s picks: Rays def. Red Sox in three games; Astros over White Sox in five.

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