MLB Playoff Takeaways: Astros eye one of history’s most unlikely comebacks

Kyle Tucker had a home run as the Houston Astros beat the Tampa Bay Rays 7-4 to force Game 7 in the ALCS.

On a night that could have seen each series decided, both the ALCS and NLCS were extended another game, setting up a dramatic pair of clashes less than 24 hours later.

The Los Angeles Dodgers lived to fight another day, topping the Atlanta Braves to force a sixth game in their NLCS. Meanwhile, the Houston Astros beat the Tampa Bay Rays in Game 6 of the ALCS, setting up a do-or-die Game 7 and putting themselves in position to make history as only the second team ever to win a post-season series after losing the first three games.

Saturday won’t be short on intrigue. But before we enjoy that, let’s look back on how we got here with Friday night’s takeaways.

ALCS

Houston Astros 7 — Tampa Bay Rays 4
Series tied, 3-3

A couple good starts

Runs were at an extreme premium through the first five games of this series, with the two teams combining to score only 30 during that span. By contrast, the Braves and Dodgers scored 30 in their last two games alone. So, why would Game 6 be any different?

Well, that’s at least how things went for the first four innings. Astros left-hander Framber Valdez was certainly tough to score off of, continuing his spectacular 2020 by throwing six innings of three-hit, one-run ball, striking out nine. He’s now followed up a regular season that ought to earn him down-ballot Cy Young votes with four excellent post-season outings in which he’s allowed five runs over 24 innings, striking out 26.

Valdez typically works off of his sinker but Friday was all about his curveball, as the 26-year-old threw it 51 per cent of the time, generating a whiff 15 of the 24 times Rays hitters swung at it. Castillo’s breaking ball is always a plus pitch, but it’s devastating when he’s locating it like he was Friday:

At one point, in the fourth inning, Valdez threw seven consecutive curveballs and got strikes with six of them, including these three consecutive whiffs from Mike Zunino:

Valdez’s most challenging moment came in the sixth, when Hunter Renfroe reached on a soft single before Yandy Diaz walked on a full-count curveball, producing an interesting exchange of pleasantries:

But Valdez wasn’t rattled, getting Brandon Lowe to ground into a double play five pitches later, ending the inning.

On the Rays mound, Blake Snell was his usual, effective self, throwing any of his four pitches in any count to keep Astros hitters guessing. He wasn’t too efficient and he didn’t live predominantly in the zone — but he didn’t have to. When you’re featuring four pitches that hitters know you can locate for called strikes, you can get away with a scattershot pitch chart like this one:

Snell got swinging strikeouts with his slider, a called strikeout with his fastball, and groundouts with his changeup. The Astros tried to wait him out, take their walks, and force him into tough spots with runners on, but Snell was able to work around base runners in three of his first four innings.

Rays manager Kevin Cash wasn’t in the mood to let him try that again in the fifth, as he lifted Snell at only 82 pitches after he allowed a walk and a groundball single. The move was perfectly defensible. Cash has a tremendous bullpen at his disposal, and he was bringing in arguably his best reliever to try to pitch out of the jam. What could go wrong?

Diego’s rough ride

Diego Castillo was going to factor into this game one way or another. The Rays right-hander didn’t appear in Games 4 or 5, and considering he’d yet to allow a run while striking out 10 over his first 7.1 innings of the post-season, it was a safe bet Cash was going to go to him regardless of if he had a lead to protect or a deficit he didn’t want to grow any larger.

It ended up being the former as Castillo took over in the fifth for Snell, entering with two runners on, none out, and the slimmest of margins, looking to preserve a one-run lead. And that’s when the unlikely happened.

The Astros — a franchise that’s been at the forefront of the baseball’s analytical revolution yet hasn’t been shy to utilize old school strategies in this series — sacrifice bunted their two runners into scoring position for leadoff hitter George Springer. The Rays brought a shifted infield in, and Castillo located a pretty good sinker, only to watch Springer’s late swing produce a groundball that skipped into right-centre field, cashing both runners.

Maybe a little frustrated, Castillo hung his next pitch — a slider — to Jose Altuve, who laced it for a double that plated Springer. Castillo then missed with four straight to Michael Brantley, and left a sinker on the plate to Carlos Correa, who bounced another groundball through the Rays infield to cash Altuve with the fourth run of the inning.

That’s the last thing anyone saw coming. Castillo didn’t allow three hits in an outing all season. You have to go back to August 31, 2019 — a span of 44 appearances — to find the last time it happened. And he’d been dominant throughout this post-season, allowing only three hits over his 7.1 innings pitched coming into Friday’s outing.

But that’s baseball. A couple groundballs find holes, you miss location with a pitch to the wrong dude, and suddenly things are spiraling. But Castillo will have to wipe it quickly. He’s still one of his team’s most dominant bullpen arms. And no matter what happens early on in Game 7, it’s a pretty good bet you’ll see him taking the mound again.

The importance of insurance

The Astros continued to add on against the Rays bullpen in the sixth and seventh innings, thanks in large part to outfielder Kyle Tucker, who hit a solo shot and drove in another with a sacrifice fly. And that turned out to be crucial, as Manuel Margot plated three runs late with homers in the seventh and eighth innings. Without Houston’s late insurance runs, the game could’ve been tied.

Now, we get Game 7, with Houston trying to complete one of the most unlikely post-season comebacks in MLB history. Lance McCullers Jr. will start for the Astros, while the Rays counter with Charlie Morton. But there’s no guarantee either will be on the mound for long. Neither team will be saving any available arm for a tomorrow that might not come. Could Zack Greinke come out of Houston’s bullpen? Could Tyler Glasnow come out of Tampa Bay’s?

Whatever happens Saturday, it ought to be great theatre as each team throws convention out the window and does whatever it takes to win one game. Everything’s on the table when everything’s on the line. Game 7’s are seldom dull. And considering the two teams involved, this one likely won’t be the exception.

NLCS

Los Angeles Dodgers 7 — Atlanta Braves 3
Braves lead the series, 3-2

Atlanta wins the battle of the openers

Each team threw bullpen days in this one, with Dustin May kicking things off for the Dodgers while A.J. Minter opened for the Braves. Neither pitcher performed poorly, per se. But one was far more effective than the other.

Let’s start with May, who allowed a couple runs on three hits and two walks while striking out three over his two innings. Freddie Freeman doubled, advanced to third on a passed ball, and scored on a Travis d’Arnaud sacrifice fly for one. Cristian Pache’s single cashed Dansby Swanson’s leadoff walk in the second inning for another.

Working on three day’s rest after a relief appearance in Game 1, May’s velocity was fine, as he averaged 98 m.p.h. with his fastball and ran it all the way up to 99.9. But he was leaving it up over the heart of the plate far too often, which the Braves were happy to take advantage of. He also wasn’t locating his curveball consistently for strikes, which led to a ball 13 of the 19 times he threw it.

Maybe the electric 23-year-old would’ve settled in with the benefit of a few more innings. But the Dodgers have used him strictly in short stints this post-season, not letting him surpass two innings even when he’s dominant, as he was against the San Diego Padres in Game 1 of the NLDS. Combine that with the spottiness of May’s command and it was an easy call for manager Dave Roberts to go to his bullpen to begin the third inning.

Meanwhile, the Braves got a much better opening appearance out of A.J. Minter, who carved up Dodgers hitting over three one-hit innings, striking out seven of the 10 batters he faced.

Minter rarely needed to stray from his mid-to-high 90’s fastball, throwing 26 heaters, 11 cutters, and five changeups. He lived on the edges of the strike zone and wisely identified a location just off the plate away from left-handers and in to right-handers that he exploited for several called strikes, including one that sat down Joc Pederson.

Right-handed hitters Chris Taylor and Mookie Betts also looked at called third strikes on the outside edge, although theirs were absolutely strikes. The pitch to Betts — a cutter — couldn’t have painted the edge of the zone any better:

It must’ve been tough for Braves manager Brian Snitker to lift a pitcher that dominant, but at 42 pitches after three innings, Minter had already set career highs in both categories. And it’s likely the Braves were only counting on him for two innings coming in. So, three was gravy. From there, it was on to Atlanta’s bullpen, which surely went swimmingly.

L.A. wins the battle of the bullpens

It did not go swimmingly. Not even a little bit. Tyler Matzek took over for the fourth inning and surrendered a 415-foot Corey Seager bomb to the deepest part of the ballpark off the third pitch he threw.

Then, in the sixth, Shane Greene allowed a couple base runners and turned things over to Will Smith who was tasked with pitching out of a two-out jam.

But the Dodgers weren’t buying what Smith was selling. Max Muncy walked on six pitches, none of which he swung at. Then Dodgers catcher Will Smith looked at five more pitches from his namesake, working a full count. Finally, after 11 consecutive takes, a Dodgers batter swung at one of Smith’s pitches. And here’s the result:

It got worse from there, as the Dodgers mounted a two-out rally against Jacob Webb in the seventh, starting with a Chris Taylor double, progressing to a Mookie Betts single, and culminating with Seager’s second moonshot of the game, putting the Dodgers up five:

And Max Muncy very nearly plated another in the eighth against Josh Tomlin, hitting a fly ball 415-feet to centre that Pache caught with a perfectly timed leap at the wall. But the Dodgers didn’t need the run anyway, as their bullpen day went just fine. Five Dodgers relievers combined for seven innings of one-run ball, allowing only four hits and a walk.

And in the process, Los Angeles forced this series to a sixth game Saturday afternoon. It’s a hell of a starting pitching matchup, with Max Fried taking on Walker Buehler. But it’s not like each team’s bullpen won’t continue to be counted on to get big outs in big spots. After Game 5, the Dodgers have no reason to believe theirs won’t be capable of that. The Braves, on the other hand, will be looking for theirs to rebound posthaste.

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