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And That Happened: Thursday’s Scores and Highlights

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Here are the scores. Here are the highlights:

Twins 5, Indians 4: Max Kepler hit three homers and drove in four en route to a four-RBI night. Which is to say that the Kepler put the ball into orbit multiple times. I mean, there was some serious planetary motion on that horsehide. Just an astronomical night for Kepler.

Rockies 3, Cubs 1: Rockies starter Peter Lambert made his big league debut and all he did was allow one run on four hits over seven innings, striking out nine and beating the Cubs in Wrigley. It gets harder, kid, but enjoy it. And hey, since this was such a nice outing I’ll wait until his next start to observe that “Peter Lambert” sounds less like the name of a big league pitcher than the name of a star of a series of direct-to-VHS action and/or erotic thriller movies from the early 1990s. And I mean that as a compliment. Find the IMDb page for one of those sorts of actors someday and peruse. Those guys friggin’ work. My hat’s off to anyone who works as hard as a ham-and-egger actor worked in the home video age.

Astros 8, Mariners 7: A fourteen-inning marathon in which the winning run scored when Myles Straw led off the 14th inning with a triple and then came home on a Yuli Gurriel sac fly. Not that the Mariners made it easy. The game went this long because Seattle tied it with rallies in the ninth and 10th. They almost prolonged it — or out-and-out won it — by loading the bases in the bottom of the 14th via three walks from Chris Devenski, but he somehow wriggled out of it. After the game A.J. Hinch was quoted saying, “all’s well that ends well.” Which, since I didn’t watch this one, leads me to believe that the game included the betrothal of a low-born healer to a philandering nobleman, a convoluted swap-out of the wife and some virgin he’s trying to seduce, an inexplicable adoption, a superfluous subplot involving some guys pretending to be enemy soldiers to embarrass their cowardly friend and a totally unearned ending that turns on an implausible change of heart. I don’t know. It sounds like it was a problem game.  

Athletics 7, Angels 4: Stephen Piscotty and Ramón Laureano each drove in a couple, Mark Canha reached base four times. Piscotty homered, by the way, and this is how the AP gamer described its place in the game:

Piscotty’s seventh-inning homer was only a grace note on a second straight symphonic display of run production by an offense that can do more than blast the long ball.

As someone who wakes up at 0-dark-thirty to make Shakespeare and Johannes Kepler cracks, I appreciate this anonymous beat writer’s moxie.

Cardinals 3, Reds 1: Starter Dakota Hudson allowed one run on five hits in six and a third. Paul DeJong hit a tie-breaking, two-run homer in the seventh. The Cardinals stole four bases. They’re now tied for the league lead with 37. That’s cool, but I suppose it’s relative. The Cards stole their 37th base on June 6. In 1985 Vince Coleman alone stole his 37th base on June 4. This doesn’t matter, of course. I just like to talk about how different and weird 1980s baseball was sometimes.

Mets 7, Giants 3: Amed Rosario and Dominic Smith hit back-to-back home runs in the first, Pablo Sandoval and Brandon Belt homered later to give the Giants a 3-2 lead and then Todd Frazier homered in the eighth to put the Mets back on top for good. Those two Giants homers were two of only three hits San Francisco had on the day. That’s not gonna get it done.

Padres 5, Nationals 4: Washington jumped out to a 4-0 first inning lead but then starter Patrick Corbin coughed up five runs in five innings and that was that. Rather disorienting for a Nats starter to blow a game as opposed to a Nats reliever, but major leaguers are adaptable that way. Hunter Renfroe hit a two-run homer. Fernando Tatís Jr. returned for San Diego. He singled in the fifth and scored, with his wheels apparently pressuring Anthony Rendon into committing an error that led to two unearned runs. That’s what speed do.

Pirates 6, Braves 1: Mike Foltynewicz continues to struggle. He has given up 15 homers, which is just shy of the league lead at the moment. This from a guy who missed the first month of the season. Yeah, I think the Braves could use Dallas Keuchel. Chris Archer, meanwhile, cruised, allowing one run over six. Josh Bell had three doubles and knocked in two to give him 58 RBI on the year. Pittsburgh took two of three from Atlanta.

Rays 6, Tigers 1: Travis d'Arnaud hit two two-run homers and an opener/bullpen day resulted in Rays pitchers scattering eight hits and allowing one run in total. Will Adames went deep as well. Tampa Bay took two of three from the Tigers in a rare series win for them at Comerica Park. Of course this isn’t exactly the caliber of Tigers team the Rays have tended to face in Comerica Park over the years. Expect such series wins to be less rare for at least the next few seasons.

Red Sox 7, Royals 5: Boston sweeps Kansas City, outscoring the Royals 23-8 over the three-game series. Mookie Betts homered off of Danny Duffy. He is now 7-for-11 with five home runs against Duffy in his career. I’ve owned household appliances less-thoroughly than Betts owns Duffy.

Brewers 5, Marlins 1: Christian Yelich and Mike Moustakas homered in the first and Moustakas went deep again in the third. That was more than enough support for Freddy Peralta, who only allowed one over six. At one stretch of the game Peralta struck out eight of nine batters, most of whom probably had one foot on the charter back to Miami within ten minutes of the National Anthem ending. Milwaukee salvaged the third of the three-game series after getting outscored a combined 24-3 in the first two games.

Yankees 6, Blue Jays 2: Aaron Hicks hit a three-run homer in the second and after that the Yankees cruised. Gio Urshela homered too. J.A. Happ allowed only one run over innings to win his fifth straight decision. The Yankees salvage the finale of the three-game set.

Rangers 4, Orioles 3: A rash of injuries to Baltimore outfielders forced Chris Davis into duty in right field for the first time in three years. It didn’t go well. In the fifth inning, with Isiah Kiner-Falefa on first, Delino DeShields hit a routine single to right, only to have it skip past Davis’ glove. Kiner-Falefa scored the go-ahead run and DeShields ended up on third. He’d then come around to score what ended up being the run that gave the Rangers their margin of victory on a Danny Santana sac fly. Stuff happens, man. You only got so many bodies to put on the field and sometimes one of those bodies is Chris Davis.

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 Aníbal Sánchez 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’s José 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, José Altuve, Yordan Álvarez 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 Sánchez 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.