The 2020 MLB playoffs are down to the final four teams, with the Atlanta Braves, Los Angeles Dodgers, Houston Astros and Tampa Bay Rays left standing in the league championship series. Starting with Sunday’s American League Championship Series Game 1 between the Astros and the Rays through the moment that the World Series is set, this is your place for the stars, turning points and takeaways at the conclusion of every game.
American League Championship Series Game 6: Houston Astros 7, Tampa Bay Rays 4
What it means: After the Astros held on to beat the Rays, a postseason series between the two teams comes down to a winner-take-all game for the second straight season.
Last year, Houston won Game 5 of the ALDS at Minute Maid Park thanks to eight dominant innings out of Gerrit Cole. The Rays have already survived — if not defeated — Cole this season, having done so in the last round against the Yankees in a decisive Game 5, but that does them no good here, when the stakes are even higher. This is a very different Astros pitching staff that has stifled Tampa Bay for most of six games, featuring three Rays wins followed by three Astros wins.
If history is any consolation for a Rays club that has watched the series slip slide away over the last three days, it’s that in the only other Game 7 in franchise history, Joe Maddon led Tampa Bay past Boston in the 2008 ALCS and into the World Series.
To repeat that, the challenge for the Rays is to push aside the tide of momentum. They won three, then the Astros won three. The Rays’ pitching staff is set up better for Game 7, as Kevin Cash didn’t have to dip into his top bullpen tier on Friday. Some of Houston’s top relievers have been worked hard in this series, and so it will be crucial for Lance McCullers Jr. to go deep for the Astros.
Speaking of McCullers, he started the biggest Game 7 in Astros history, beginning the clincher over the Dodgers in the 2017 World Series. He didn’t allow a run in that game but lasted only 2 1/3 innings. The Astros closed it out thanks to four sparkling innings from Charlie Morton, who is likely to start the deciding game for the Rays on Saturday.
So if you’re Tampa Bay, and you can set aside the doubt that creeps in when you’ve dropped three in a row, you can realize that you entered the series as a heavy favorite because, over the course of the season and through the first two rounds of the playoffs, you established yourselves as the American League’s best team. The Rays remain the favorite to win the series. But it sure doesn’t feel that way.
If you’re the Astros, now that you’ve forced one more game, you feel like you’ve got one foot in the World Series. For some — the Astros haters — it’s a nightmare scenario. For others, especially those rooting for Dusty Baker to land his elusive first World Series title as a manager, this is shaping up as quite a story.
Game 7. McCullers versus Morton. The American League pennant is on the line. What else could you ask for? — Bradford Doolittle
What it means: The Rays still have the series lead, but suddenly the Astros are out-Raysing the Rays, and because of that Houston has already made history.
Carlos Correa mashed a game-winning homer to dead center field off Rays closer Nick Anderson in the bottom of the ninth, as the Astros beat the Rays to force a Game 6. In doing so after dropping the first three games of the series, Houston became just the fourth of 38 teams to fall behind 3-0 in a series and come back to force a sixth game. Only the 2004 Red Sox, who came all the way back from a 3-0 hole to beat the Yankees in the ALCS, have forced a Game 7. — Doolittle
What it means: Astros starter Zack Greinke, likely a future Hall of Famer, was into his third trip through the Tampa Bay lineup. Houston had just grabbed a two-run lead on a George Springer homer in the bottom of the fifth, but three singles loaded the bags with two outs and Michael Brosseau at the plate.
Manager Dusty Baker had been to the mound already that inning, with red-hot Randy Arozarena at the plate. In 2020 baseball, especially in the postseason, you figured that was it for Greinke. It’s just the way things are done these days.
Greinke had faced 22 batters and thrown 87 pitches when Brosseau stepped to the plate. Baker had gone to the mound and returned to the dugout alone. Greinke was still around to strike out Brosseau with a changeup. Score one for Dusty’s gut. — Doolittle
What it means: Game 3 was an even more exaggerated version of the first two games. The Astros played well except for one disastrous sequence. This one was the worst so far: The top of the sixth featured yet another Jose Altuve throwing error and two key hit by pitches, as Tampa Bay put up five runs that were more than enough for the stifling, crowd-sourced Rays run-prevention machine. Tampa Bay improved to 29-1, including the playoffs, when scoring at least five runs this season.
The Astros once again hit a lot of balls hard — probably more than the Rays did when you dig into the metrics. But whether it was great defensive plays by Kevin Kiermaier in center field or canny positioning of the Tampa Bay infield or the sheer randomness of the universe, the Rays have been doing it all season, all postseason and certainly all series. — Doolittle
What it means: Game 2 came down to two mistakes: Jose Altuve’s throwing error that kept the Rays’ first-inning rally alive — one of two uncharacteristic throwing miscues in the game for the Astros’ second baseman — and the curveball that Lance McCullers Jr. left up and Manuel Margot deposited over the center-field fence for a three-run homer.
The Astros put runners on through most of the game, but for the second straight contest, they couldn’t come up with the big, multirun blow to pierce the Rays’ protective armor. The bottom line was the Astros played well but made a couple of mistakes. The way the Rays are playing right now, that’s all they need to beat you. — Doolittle
What it means: Randy Arozarena continued his transmogrification into the best fastball hitter on the planet with his fourth homer of the postseason, Mike Zunino stroked a highly rare RBI single to put the Rays ahead, and Tampa Bay followed Blake Snell‘s five innings with four shutout frames by four relievers. Along the way, the Rays improved to 16-5 in one-run games this season, a .762 winning percentage, including the postseason. According to ESPN Stats & Information research, that’s currently the best one-run winning percentage by any team over a season. Ever. — Doolittle
What it means: If the Braves were going to defeat the Dodgers in this NLCS, and eliminate a star-studded team that won 43 of 60 regular-season games, they needed to be about more than just Max Fried and Ian Anderson in their rotation. In Game 4, Bryse Wilson — a 22-year-old who had accumulated only 15 2/3 innings this season — showed they might be.
Wilson, pitching amid wind gusts that were blowing in at up to 15 mph, tamed a Dodgers lineup that scored a record-breaking 11 runs in the first inning of Game 3, limiting them to a solo home run and no other hits through the first six innings. It paved the way for his high-powered offense to come alive in the bottom of the sixth. — Gonzalez
What it means: Maybe all the Dodgers needed was an encounter with Josh Tomlin.
The Braves brought Tomlin into the ninth inning of Game 2, hoping to give their high-leverage relievers a break with the outcome seemingly in hand. But the Dodgers proceeded to pound Tomlin, scoring four times and putting the tying run on third base before Braves closer Mark Melancon induced a game-ending groundout.
In the aftermath, the Dodgers harped on the importance of getting a longer look at the vaunted bullpen of their opponent and hoped to ride the momentum of their near miracle. Then they went out and scored 11 runs in the first inning of Game 3, setting a postseason record. By the end of it, Cody Bellinger, Max Muncy and Joc Pederson — the three powerful left-handed hitters who struggled throughout the year — had each produced multihit games that included a homer. — Gonzalez
What it means: When the Braves shut out the Cincinnati Reds and the Miami Marlins in four out of five postseason games, it was dismissed as a good pitching staff taking advantage of poor offenses. But now Max Fried and Ian Anderson have limited the Dodgers to one run in 10 innings in back-to-back starts. Plus, before a spirited ninth-inning comeback in Game 2, eight Braves pitchers limited the Dodgers to 10 hits and eight walks in 17 innings, striking out 20. All of which proves that this pitching staff is deep — regardless of the injuries suffered in its rotation — and this team is elite.
In both games, the Dodgers had the opposing starter on the ropes early and did not capitalize. In both games, that has come back to haunt them. Maybe they found something in that four-run ninth inning, which ended with Cody Bellinger 90 feet from tying the score. — Gonzalez
What it means: So much for the Dodgers running completely roughshod through the 2020 MLB postseason. That notion ended at 10:23 p.m. local time Monday, when the barrage ended. It started 16 minutes earlier, with a 98 mph fastball delivered by Blake Treinen, a reliever tasked by the Dodgers with securing big outs. The ball happened to wind up in the nitro zone of Austin Riley, the Braves’ young third baseman/left fielder, and when balls at 98 meet his bat there, they tend to come to rest very far away.
In this case, it was 448 feet, though that number wasn’t as vital as what it represented: the go-ahead run in what had been a taut, well-pitched Game 1 of the NLCS. That hit opened the floodgates, with other Braves feasting off Dodgers relievers in a victory. — Jeff Passan