And That Happened: Monday’s Scores and Highlights

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Here are the scores. Here are the highlights:

Yankees 4, Rays 1: The Yankees used an opener and made this a bullpen game, trotting out eight pitchers who combined to give up only two hits and to strike out 13 in this one. Given that the Rays invented the opener thing, that was all rather rude, frankly. ūüéĶAnything you can do I can do better/I can do anything better than youūüéĶ etc.¬†New York’s win eliminated the Rays from postseason contention and kept themselves a game and a half up on Oakland for home field in the Wild Card game.

Athletics 7, Mariners 3: The Yankees win over Tampa Bay clinched the Wild Card for Oakland, but his win allowed them to avoid that awkward thing where they spray champagne all over each other after losing a game. Khris Davis,¬†Jonathan Lucroy,¬†Jed Lowrie¬†and¬†Matt Chapman¬†all went deep for Oakland. The A’s finished in last place for three straight seasons and now they are 95-game winners heading for the playoffs. What a season.

Nationals 7, Marlins 3: Anthony Rendon hit a two-run homer and a two-run double and Matt Wieters and Juan Soto each homered. Bryce Harper hit a sac fly that gave him his 100th RBI on the year. It’s a year that so many people have labeled as disappointing for Harper, but he’s going to finish it with at least 34 homers, those 100+ driven in, 126+ walks and 100 or so runs scores while posting an OBP of close to .400. It’s not the dynamic year a lot of people expected to see — he’s hitting .245 and hasn’t been slashing doubles and triples all over the place — but he’s done all of that and has been in the lineup all year long, which was one of the big knocks on him before. Not too shabby.

Astros 5, Blue Jays 3: Brian McCann and Josh Reddick hit back-to-back homers. Dallas Keuchel allowed three runs and seven hits in five innings for the win and pushed his season innings total over 200. Roberto Osuna got the save, but did so to a chorus of boos before his former hometown fans in Toronto thanks to them seeing him for the first time since his arrest for domestic violence. I would bet decent money, however, that had he not been traded to the Astros, he would’ve received a far warmer welcome by Jays fans on his first appearance there following his suspension, because that’s how fandom, unfortunately, works. Houston’s magic number for clinching the division is now two.

Red Sox 6, Orioles 2: Mookie Betts hit a two-run homer in the Sox’ four-run second inning and Nate Eovaldi struck out ten in five innings of work, allowing only one run. Fun Fact: last night I was at some social event on this here business trip I’m on and met a couple from Baltimore who are longtime Orioles season ticket holders. I asked them what they think about this year. They made great efforts to change the subject to the Ravens, for whom they are also season ticket holders. When we did eventually talk about the Orioles, one of them asked me what I thought of Chris Davis‘ contract. Remembering that everyone at this thing was an accountant, I used the term “sunk costs” and hoped for the best. They all thought it was cute that a guy with no accounting background understood what a sunk cost was. I don’t think any of that means anything. I’m just happy I found something to talk about with a bunch of accountants.

Pirates 5, Cubs 1: Cole Hamels hit a homer but that was the only run support he got while giving up three runs, two earned, of his own. His counterpart, Jameson Taillon, meanwhile, went 0-for-2 at the plate but gave up only one run over seven innings. There’s a lesson in there somewhere. Do your job and don’t fart around with secondary tasks, maybe? I don’t know. My whole life has been based on farting around, basically, so I can’t really fault Hamels here.

Indians 4, White Sox 0: Corey Kluber has likely heard me and everyone else saying that the Cy Young should go to Blake Snell and decided to flip us all the bird with a seven shutout inning, 11-strikeout performance. I don’t think that changes the equation really, but it was strong all the same. Brandon Guyer and Adam Rosales each went deep for Cleveland.

Brewers 6, Cardinals 4: Ryan Braun¬†homered and¬†Christian Yelich¬†drove in two as Milwaukee expands its Wild Card lead over the Cardinals and pulls to within a game and a half of the Cubs in the Central. St. Louis had a one-run lead heading into the seventh, but the wheels fell off, with Yelich tying things up on a fielder’s choice before Eric Thames tripled and then came home on a wild pitch. I was going to say that it was probably rare for him to triple, but it was actually his third this year. Bryce Harper, mentioned above, has zero. Weird.

Rockies 10, Phillies 1: Jon Gray was moved up a day in the rotation but it didn’t seem to bug him as he allowed one run in seven innings of work, striking out seven, against the mailing-it-in Phillies, who have now lost five in a row. Colorado has won four straight and pulls to within a half game of the Cardinals for that second Wild Card slot. David Dahl hit a two-run homer and Trevor Story made his return after missing a week of action with a bum elbow, hitting two doubles and turning a couple of double plays.

Dodgers 7, Diamondbacks 4: The Rockies did not gain ground on Los Angeles, however, as the Dodgers came from behind late to win for the sixth time in seven games. David Freese homered and went 3-for-4, Manny Machado knocked in a couple and Clayton Kershaw struck out six and walked one in six innings of work.

Angels 5, Rangers 4: Jose Briceno¬†hit a pinch-hit walkoff homer in the 11th to power the Angels to victory.¬†Shohei Ohtani¬†and¬†Michael Hermosillo also went deep for Los Angeles. Ohtani, by the way, now has a batting line of .280/.361/.546 with 21 homers and 56 RBI in only 99 games as a hitter. His looming Tommy John surgery is obviously a big concern for his pitching prospects, but we’re getting to the point to where you wanna ask if it’s gonna cause more disruption for his batting.

Padres 5, Giants 0: Bryan Mitchell took a shutout eight and two-thirds innings of the way and Jose Pirela homered as the Padres hand the Giants their fifth straight loss. The Giants are 4-17 in September and, last night, fired their general manager. So, yeah, this is gonna be a heck of an offseason in San Francisco.

World Series Preview: Marquee starting pitching matchups lead the way

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The Astros were the best team in baseball in 2019, winning 107 games, so everyone expected them to be here. As you’ve heard a thousand times by now the Nationals started out poorly in 2019, standing at 19-31 in late May. After that, however, they went on a 74-38 tear in 112 games. A tear which, if extrapolated to 162 games is a . . . 107-win pace.

Which is to say that, despite whatever the oddsmakers are telling you, this is not quite the mismatch some may want to make it out to be. The Astros are a great team, no question, but the Nationals as they stand right now are a strong match for them. If you doubt it, go ask the Dodgers and Cardinals about whether Washington played like a 93-win Wild Card team when they met in the earlier rounds.

No matter how you think the teams matchup overall, however, you can’t help but love the matchups between the clubs’ starting pitchers.

The Astros feature the top two Cy Young candidates in the American league in Gerrit Cole and Justin Verlander and feature a third starter, Zack Greinke, who would be most teams’ ace. The Nationals, meanwhile, counter with Max Scherzer, who won the Cy Young in 2016 and 2017, finished in second place last year and, before for an injury this season, was a strong contender to take home the hardware again. After him comes Stephen Strasburg, also a 2019 Cy Young candidate, and Patrick Corbin, who was last offseason’s big pickup and who won 14 games and posted an ERA+ of 141 this season. It may be the Era of Bullpenning and all of that, but this Fall Classic looks to be a throwback to a time when — gasp! — starting pitchers mattered.

Here’s how it all breaks down:

THE ROTATIONS

We just listed the big names. The exact order in which they appear is not yet officially known but you’ll color me shocked if Game 1 isn’t Max Scherzer vs. Gerrit Cole, Game 2 isn’t Stephen Strasburg vs. Justin Verlander, and Game 3 isn’t Zack Greinke vs. Patrick Corbin. In Game 4 the Nats will likely go with the hot An√≠bal S√°nchez who, if he stays on his game like he has been of late, gives them depth the Astros can’t quite match. Brad Peacock or “Bullpen” could get the ball for A.J. Hinch in Game 4, depending on the circumstances of the series at that point.

As for Game 1, Scherzer is coming off two strong postseason outings, allowing one run on five hits with 18 strikeouts in 14 innings in those starts. Cole was somewhat human in his last start, walking five guys. But, um, yeah, he still tossed seven shutout innings. It seems like all he has done since before Memorial day is toss seven or eight shutout innings or something close to it.

We simply couldn’t ask for a better head-to-head matchup to start this bad boy. There isn’t a hitter on either of these teams happy about who they’ll have to face in this series.

THE LINEUPS

Saturday night‚Äôs Jos√© Altuve walkoff blast notwithstanding, the Astros’ mighty offense has been somewhat less mighty over the past couple of weeks, averaging just 3.7 runs per game and posting a .645 team OPS. A lot of that was due to the scads of fresh and strong bullpen arms the Rays and Yankees trotted out, but it’s not like things will get easier, at least against Washington’s starting pitching. The Astros had timely hitting — and some big home runs — as they made their way to the World Series, but they’ll definitely need to rattle the ball off the walls and get on base at a higher clip like they did in the regular season if they want to win this thing. To do so, I don’t suspect A.J. Hinch will do much shuffling or fiddling with his lineup — his dudes are his dudes — he’ll just have to hope that they snap out of their relative funk and remind everyone that, when everyone is healthy on this club, there is no better offense in baseball.

Washington’s lineup was nowhere near as fearsome during the regular season but it was the second-best unit in the National League, so they’re no slouches. Like the Astros, they have not exactly set the world ablaze offensively in the playoffs, posting a team OPS about a hundred points lower than their regular season mark. Also, like the Astros, they’ve had some huge hits at great times, as do all teams that get this far. Luck and good timing matter a whole heck of a lot in October.

Editor’s note: Need World Series tickets? Click here to see the Nats try to stop the Astros

A bit of a wild card here: the de-juiced ball everyone is talking about. While the Nats, like everyone else, hit a lot more homers in 2019, they were somewhat less reliant on homers than a lot of other winning teams, finishing only sixth in that category in the NL. The Astros were third in the AL and might’ve come close to matching New York and Minnesota’s totals if they didn’t have so many injuries to key offensive performers in the first half. Which is to say that the dead ball’s taking away of a few feet of flight from equally-struck balls probably hurts the Astros a bit more than the Nats, even if the Astros hitters are better on average.

One can overstate all that, of course. At the end of the day both of these teams have MVP-candidates — Alex Bregman for Houston, Anthony Rendon for Washington — and a good supporting cast of thumpers like Juan Soto, Jos√© Altuve, Yordan √Ālvarez and hot-in-October Howie Kendrick, who will likely see DH action in the games in Houston. Ultimately it will come down, as always, to who is hotter over the next 4-7 games.

THE BULLPENS

The bullpen was the Nationals’ biggest weakness all season long. In the NLDS against the Dodgers Dave Martinez masked the problem by creatively deploying starting pitchers in relief, praying a bit, and watching it work. in the NLCS they so thoroughly steamrolled the Cardinals that it didn’t truly matter, though they did get some good innings from guys not named Sean Doolittle and Daniel Hudson. Meaning that, heck, you may even see Fernando Rodney and Tanner Rainey in games that aren’t blowouts. Either way, the week off the Nationals have been given by wrapping up the NLCS so quickly means that every arm is fresh, with extra rest even, so the team’s biggest weakness is about as contained at the outset as it can be. As suggested above, the deeper Scherzer, Strasburg, Corbin and S√°nchez can go, the better.

Houston’s bullpen has allowed 16 earned runs in 35.1 innings this postseason (4.08 ERA). This after having the third-best bullpen ERA in all of baseball during the regular season (3.75). Sample sizes are obviously an issue here. As is the class of competition. They were more than capable of getting the job done during the ALDS and their failures — like Roberto Osuna‘s blown save in Game 6 — were either contained by the work of others or led to less-than-fatal wounds. They simply have better arms that Washington does down there even if, as is the case with the Nats, they’ll hope to need them as little as possible.

THE MANAGERS

A.J. Hinch has hoisted a trophy before and rarely harms his team. Dave Martinez learned over the course of the season that the less he does the better. Without putting too fine a point on it, if it comes down to a chess match, it’s advantage: Astros. At this point Martinez simply needs to let his horses run and muster enough will to pull them out of the race if they’re tired. That’s easier said than done when it’s, say, Max Scherzer. His arm could be hanging by frayed tendons and he’d still probably glare at Martinez if he walked out to pull him.

THE HISTORY

There is virtually none. These teams share a spring training complex but they have not faced each other in interleague play since 2017. A host of players on each squad has never faced the pitchers on the other. In addition to starting pitchers being so critical here, add “NL vs. AL, in a matchup of unknowns” to the list of things that make this Fall Classic a throwback to olden days.

If we did the usual “Advantage: [TEAM]” for every one of those categories, I feel like we’d probably end up with the Astros coming out on top in each of them. The closest is probably the rotation, with the top-end talent of Cole, Verlander and Greinke outweighing the four-deep depth the Nats have at the moment. But as the earlier rounds showed, it’s not as much of an advantage as you might think and being able to run four starters out there whom you trust matters a lot.

Which is to say that, yeah, I think the Astros are the better team. They’re better in record, better on paper and should be favored. But I don’t think they’re overwhelming favorites. And I don’t think it could or should be considered a massive upset if this better-than-most-people think Nats team comes out on top. I feel like this will be a very, very even and competitive series, in fact.