Don’t Call It A Comeback
Prior to Friday, only one team in MLB history had overcome a 3-0 series deficit to force a decisive Game 7. That team, of course, being the 2004 Boston Red Sox who rallied from down three games to take the final four from the Yankees in the ALCS. They then ultimately went on to steamroll the Cardinals in four games in the World Series.
Most wrote off the villainous Astros after they dropped the first three games of this year’s ALCS to the Rays. Then they eked out a one-run victory behind Zack Greinke on Wednesday to extend their season. They scored another one-run victory on a walk-off home run from Carlos Correa in the ninth inning of Game 2 on Thursday. Could they do it again on Friday?
The Rays entered the game with star left-hander Blake Snell on the hill taking on rising-star Framber Valdez for the Astros. The Rays drew first blood in the second inning as Brandon Lowe dunked a one-out single into center field then raced home on a two-out RBI double off the bat of shortstop Willy Adames.
That would be all that they would get off of Valdez. The 26-year-old southpaw racked up nine strikeouts over six strong innings of work -- scattering just three hits and three walks around the way. He had his other-worldly curveball working for him again in this one. Eight of his nine strikeouts came on the curveball -- the second highest total of any postseason game since the start of pitch tracking in 2008 (trailing only Adam Wainwright’s nine in Game 1 of the 2012 NLDS). Valdez threw 52 curveballs in the ballgame. He generated 24 swings on those pitches and a whopping 15 misses. That’s the most by any pitcher in a game during the pitch tracking era.
With as good as Valdez was though, the Astros still required offense to secure a victory and extend their season. They were shut down by Snell through the first four innings, entering the top half of the fifth trailing 1-0. There, Yuli Gurriel drew a leadoff walk and Aledmys Diaz reached on a single to chase the Rays’ left-hander from the game. Rays manager Kevin Cash wasn’t taking any chances -- turning to Diego Castillo in an extremely high-leverage situation in the fifth inning.
This time though, Castillo simply didn’t have it. After Martin Maldonado moved the runners up with a sacrifice bunt, George Springer grounded a single through the drawn-in infield to plate two runs. Springer then dashed around to score on an RBI double by Jose Altuve. Michael Brantley followed by drawing a four-pitch walk, then Carlos Correa smacked an RBI single to plate Altuve.
Valdez came back out and worked a shut down inning in the home half of the fifth, then Kyle Tucker smacked a solo homer in the sixth inning to extend the Astros’ lead to 5-1.
The Rays finally appeared to have Valdez on the ropes in the bottom of the sixth, after Hunter Renfroe reached on a one-out infield single and Yandy Diaz worked a walk -- and exchanged heated words with the Astros’ hurler. Valdez maintained his composure though -- with the help and encouragement from his shortstop Correa -- then got Brandon Lowe to ground into an inning-ending double play.
The Rays took advantage of Valdez exiting, as Manuel Margot greeted Andre Scrubb with a solo homer to begin the seventh inning. Margot then played long ball again in the eighth -- this time a two-run blast off of Cristian Javier -- trimming the lead to 7-4.
Astros skipper Dusty Baker had wanted to avoid using his closer -- Ryan Pressly -- for the third straight game, but Margot’s home runs were enough to force his hand. The right-hander came on for the save chance in the ninth inning, and though he allowed a one-out single to Yoshi Tsutsugo, he rebounded to get Mike Brosseau to hit into a game-ending double play.
Now it’s time to bust out all of your Game 7 cliches. All hands on deck. Everything on the line. Don’t hold anything back. Do or die. All the marbles. Game. Seven. Saturday.
The Astros will be trotting out Lance McCullers coming off of an impressive performance in a losing effort in Game 2. There, he allowed four runs (one earned) over seven frames while racking up 11 strikeouts. He’ll be opposed by his former teammate Charlie Morton, who fired five shutout innings in a victory over McCullers and the Astros in Game 2.
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One Day at a Time
The Astros weren’t the only team that managed to stave off elimination on Friday. The Dodgers -- playing for their postseason lives -- were able to kick the can down the road another day with a thrilling 7-3 victory over the Braves to force a Game 6 in the NLCS.
It wasn’t all Dodgers in this one though. In fact, early on, it looked as though their season could be coming to an end. Rookie right-hander Dustin May, who got the start for the Dodgers, struggled early on. He surrendered two runs (one earned) on three hits and three walks and was chased from the game after only two innings of work.
Meanwhile, on the other side, A.J. Minter was phenomenal in his role as opener for the Braves. He mowed through the Dodgers lineup, racking up seven strikeouts and allowing only one hit over three scoreless innings. In fact, Minter became the first pitcher in MLB postseason history to strike out seven or more batters in an outing of three or fewer innings pitched.
He was lifted after throwing 42 pitches though, and the rest of the Braves bullpen wasn’t quite as sharp in this one. Tyler Matzek took over to begin the fourth inning and was greeted by a leadoff home run from Dodgers shortstop Corey Seager. Matzek was able to finish the fourth inning and get the first out in the fifth before turning the ball over to Shane Greene.
Greene allowed a single to A.J. Pollock on the first pitch that he threw, but managed to escape the fifth inning unscathed. He returned for the sixth inning and allowed a leadoff single to Mookie Betts before retiring the next two hitters. That prompted manager Brian Snitker to call upon Will Smith to get the final out of the inning. Smith came on and issued a walk to Max Muncy, setting up a showdown that nearly broke the Twitter-verse. Will Smith vs. Will Smith.
This was the second time that the pair of namesakes had squared off against each other. The Braves’ left-hander got the best of the Dodgers’ backstop the first time, striking him out in September of 2019. This time, it would go the other way. After falling behind in the count 0-2, the Dodgers’ catcher worked the count full before crushing a go-ahead three-run homer over the wall in left field to give the Dodgers a lead they would never relinquish. Obviously, it was the 1st time (at least in the expansion era) that a batter homered off of a pitcher with the same name.
They would extend that lead in the seventh inning as Mookie Betts delivered an RBI single off of Jacob Webb. Corey Seager then followed with a two-run blast -- his second long ball of the contest. He became the third shortstop to record a multi-homer game this postseason -- joining Fernando Tatis Jr. and Carlos Correa. That’s impressive considering the fact that there had only been seven multi-homer games by shortstops in postseason history prior to 2020 -- and it had never been accomplished twice in the same season.
The Braves fought back -- tacking on a run in the eighth inning off of Brusdar Graterol after Freddie Freeman doubled, advanced to third on a fly ball and scored on an RBI groundout off the bat of Travis d’Arnaud. That made the game 7-3 and would be the extent of the scoring for either side.
The Dodgers will once again look to extend their season one more day on Saturday -- hoping to force a decisive Game 7. The Braves will have ace left-hander Max Fried on the mound. Fried dominated the Dodgers in Game 1, striking out nine over six innings of one-run baseball.
He’ll be opposed by Walker Buehler for the Dodgers. Buehler wound up on the losing end of the decision in Game 1 -- issuing a career-high five walks while allowing one run on three hits over five frames. Buehler continues to be plagued by a pair of blisters on his pitching hand which has contributed to the control issues.
Quick Hits: Kevin Kiermaier (hand) remained out of the Rays starting lineup for Friday’s Game 6 against the Astros. He was hit by a pitch during Game 3 and still “doesn’t feel good by any means” according to Rays manager Kevin Cash… Astros manager Dusty Baker said Friday that he’s undecided on whether or not to make a roster move with the back injury sustained by Josh James. No move was made before Friday’s game, though it could be revisited before Saturday’s critical Game 7… The Tigers have interviewed Yankees’ hitting coach Marcus Thames for their managerial opening. He’s among a lengthy list of candidates for the position that includes A.J. Hinch, Alex Cora, George Lombard, Vance Wilson, Lloyd McClendon, Will Venable, Don Kelly, Mike Redmond and Pedro Grifol.