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And That Happened: Thursday’s Scores and Highlights

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Where we stand:

  • Cleveland was idle but the Twins lost, putting the margin between them at three and a half as the Twins arrive in Cleveland for a three-game series this weekend. I’m not sure how to handle an actual division race after a season in which most of these things were forgone conclusions, but hopefully these two groups of crazy kids give us something fun and close down to the wire;
  • The A’s won and the Rays lost, flip-flopping them in the AL Wild Card race, with the Indians a half game out of that picture at the moment;
  • The NL Wild Card race remained stable as Chicago, Milwaukee, Philly and New York all win, leaving the Cubs and Brewers tied for the second slot and the Phillies and Mets two games out. The Dbacks lost to the Mets and are three and a half back.

Here are the scores. Here are the highlights:

Mets 11, Diamondbacks 1: A week ago when the Nationals came back from seven down to beat the Mets with a Kurt Suzuki walkoff home run, everyone — your author included — figured that was a stake through their heart and that they wouldn’t get up from it. Welp, they’re up. The Mets are rolling and are hanging in that Wild Card race. Even if they ultimately fall short, that’s some pretty impressive perseverance. Yesterday it was simply impressive. Six homers, including two from Juan Lagares, one of which was a grand slam. Robinson Canó, Todd Frazier, Michael Conforto and Tomás Nido also went deep. Marcus Stroman allowed one run while pitching into the seventh. Not too shabby.

Yankees 10, Tigers 4; Yankees 6, Tigers 4: A sweep of a doubleheader but a costly one for the Yankees. Edwin Encarnación strained his oblique in the first game, Gary Sánchez left with groin tightness in the second. Sánchez’s injury is gonna cause some people to point some fingers as he did it after he was thrown out trying to steal. Aaron Boone said he called for the steal too. Can someone tell me why you’re asking your power-hitting catcher who has four career stolen bases and a history of groin problems to steal in a doubleheader against the worst team in baseball after you already have the division sewed up? Anyone? In light of those injuries the specific events of these two games are sort of unimportant, but know that Encarnación and Luke Voit homered in the first game and Gio Urshela and Aaron Judge homered in the nightcap. Also know that CC Sabathia and Domingo Germán piggy-backed in the second game with Sabathia taking the first few innings and Germán the next few, which may very well be what we see from New York in the postseason.

Cardinals 10, Rockies 3: After three straight low-scoring games the Cards finally break out the boomsticks at Coors Field. The biggest boom came off the bat of Rangel Ravelo who hit a 487-foot homer:

Watching that clip makes me think two things: (1) it’s nice to see they have begun to work in the extra-juiced postseason balls a couple of weeks ahead of time to get everyone used to them. Can’t wait for those 15-14 Yankees-Astros games; and (2) what on God’s green Earth was that home run call? “There we go . . . Knock me down . . . Hello! Goodbye! . . . Knock me down!” That makes “Boom goes the dynamite” sound like one of Dan and Keith’s better cuts from a 1996 SportsCenter. Dexter Fowler, Kolten Wong. Marcell Ozuna, and Harrison Bader also connected. That’s a lot of hellos and goodbyes.

Brewers 3, Marlins 2: Milwaukee won its seventh in a row and its eighth of nine. Five innings of shutout bullpen work was key here, as was Ryan Braun‘s tie-breaking two-run homer in the third.

Royals 6, White Sox 3: Hunter Dozier hit a tie-breaking, three-run home run in the sixth and Jorge Soler hit his third homer in the last two days. Kansas City has won eight of 11. Those games have come against the Orioles, Marlins, Tigers and White Sox who are, respectively, the three worst teams in baseball and a not-so-hot one in Chicago, but all games count.

Cubs 4, Padres 1: The Cubs had lost four of six coming into this one but Yu Darvish continued his recent tear, serving as stopper in this one and striking out 14 in six innings of work on a day when no one’s bats were particularly lively. The Padres only run came on a bases loaded plunking of a pinch-hitting Manny Machado.

Pirates 4, Giants 2: Joe Musgrove tossed five shutout innings. That led the Pirates to tweet this out:

Look, five shutout innings is a good thing, make no mistake, but I’m not sure it’s a “big line” highlight moment. Even in today’s era of bullpens the standard for a strong, headline-worthy starting pitching performance is, what, seven innings? I’d like to think it’s seven innings. Five shutout innings could easily be lost due to a bad day from the bullpen. I don’t wanna be one of those back-in-my-day guys, but I really don’t want five to be the new social media shoutout standard, OK?

Red Sox 7, Blue Jays 4: Boston breaks a five-game losing streak. Xander Bogaerts hit his 50th double of the season and drove in a run, Marco Hernandez knocked in two. Mookie Betts had three hits and J.D. Martinez reached base three times. The Red Sox used nine pitchers in this nine-inning game. If only they had a horse like Joe Musgrove.

Phillies 9, Braves 5: César Hernández, J.T. Realmuto, Jean Segura and Adam Haseley homered as the Phillies earn the series split with Atlanta and hang two back in the Wild Card race. Hector Neris worked out of trouble in the eighth and then closed it out in the ninth for a four-out save. Ronald Acuña Jr. stole a couple of bases and homered. He now has 39 dingers and 36 thefts, bringing him close to becoming baseball’s fifth 40/40 man after Jose Canseco, Barry Bonds, Alex Rodriguez and Alfonso Soriano.

Dodgers 4, Orioles 2: It was tied 2-2 in the sixth with two outs and the bases loaded. Dylan Bundy faced Russell Martin with the count full. Bundy reared back for something extra and got Martin to swing and miss to seemingly end the Dodgers threat but . . . no. catcher Pedro Severino couldn’t get a handle on the ball, it went to the backstop, Bundy just brain-locked and didn’t cover home plate and not just one but two runs scored.

It’d be unbelievable if it happened to anyone but the Orioles. For his part Bundy said “I thought it was a strikeout” and that he couldn’t see where the ball was. Except, even if he couldn’t see the ball he could see his catcher scrambling and Martin running to first — and he didn’t continue to walk off the field himself — so he knew something was amiss. He just flat quit on the play. Insane.

In other news, Rich Hill got the start for the Dodgers for the first time since early June. The idea would be that, now that his arm is healed, he’d work his stamina up and pitch for them in the postseason. Nope. He left the game in the first inning with a knee injury. Strained MCL which will almost certainly end his season. Not great for him. For their part, the Dodgers would like to have him back but they have shown, quite obviously, that they can win without him.

Nationals 12, Twins 6: Anthony Rendon and Juan Soto each homered and drove in three and Adam Eaton and Yan Gomes each went deep as well as the Nats beat the Twins. That reduces Minnesota’s division lead to three and a half over Cleveland with a three-game series beginning in Cleveland tonight. It was a severely depleted Twins lineup. They’re just riddled with injuries right now. The baseball season, however, doesn’t care about your injury problems.

Rangers 6, Rays 4: The Rays traded Nick Solak to the Rangers in mid-July in exchange for pitcher Peter Fairbanks. Last night Fairbanks faced Solak and Solak hit a two-run homer off of him, turning a 3-1 lead into a 5-1 lead. I guess Texas won the trade. The loss, Tampa Bay’s second in a row, combined with the A’s win against the Astros puts Oakland a half game up in the Wild Card race. Both are in playoff position but if the season ended today the Rays would have to fly to Oakland.

Athletics 3, Astros 2: Homer Bailey allowed one run while pitching into the sixth and five relievers allowed only one more run the rest of the way. Matt Olson hit a two-run homer in the third inning which made the difference. It came off of Justin Verlander who struck out 11 but who still lost.

Reds 11, Mariners 5: Seattle led 5-2 heading into the seventh when the Reds rallied for five runs on the back of a Freddy Galvis grand slam. They’d plate four more in the eighth via two-run homers from both Curt Casali and Eugenio Suárez. The M’s Kyle Lewis hit yet another homer, giving him three in his three big league game career.

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.