October 20, 2021 [LINK / comment]
The Boston Red Sox and Atlanta (formerly Boston) Braves both had a chance to take commanding leads in their respective league championship series, but in remarkably similar fashion, the Houston Astros and L.A. Dodgers staged huge late-inning comebacks. Here is a quick rundown:
In Game 1 of the ALCS in Houston's Minute Maid Park on Friday October 15, neither of the starting pitchers (Chris Sale for the Red Sox and Framber Valdez for the Astros) managed to complete three innings. Short outings by starting pitchers have become rather common this postseason, for some reason. Boston took a 3-1 lead on a big rally in the 3rd inning, but their bullpen faltered later on, and the home team held on to win, 5-4. But in Game 2 the Red Sox came roaring back, with grand slams in both the first and second innings: Rafael Devers and J.D. Martinez, respectively. Having an 8-run cushion (briefly 9) was more than enough as the Red Sox won that one, 9-5, thus evening the series. In Fenway Park for Game 3, Boston kept up the offensive momentum with a 6-run rally in the 2nd inning, capped by yet another grand slam -- this time for former National Kyle Schwarber. And the crowd went wild! Once again the Red Sox briefly had a 9-run cushion, but this time they added later runs to finish the game with that margin; final score 12-3. Last night the Red Sox had a 2-1 lead going from the end of the first inning (after Xander Bogaerts hit a homer) until the top of the 8th, when Jose Altuve hit a solo shot to even the score. Then in the 9th inning, the Red Sox bullpen imploded as little-known Jason Castro hit an RBI single to take the lead. Before you knew it, six more runs had scored, and the visitors triumphed over the gleefully expectant Red Sox by a score of 9-2. So instead of taking a 3-1 series lead, the Red Sox now find themselves in a 2-2 series, and are behind the Astros 1-0 in the middle of Game 5 right now.
It seems odd that the Atlanta Braves (89-73) had the home field advantage in the NLCS against the L.A. Dodgers (106-56), but the division winners automatically get a higher seed over the wild card teams. That made a huge difference, as the Braves went toe-to-toe against the Dodgers, with the game tied 2-2 from the end of the 4th inning until the bottom of the 9th. That's when their young slugger hit an RBI single to win the game in dramatic walk-off fashion. Former Nationals reliever Blake Treinen, who has done excellent work with the Dodgers all year, was unfortunately tagged with the loss. In Game 2, a similar sequence of events transpired, with the game tied 4-4 going into the bottom of the 9th. That's when Eddie Rosario (formerly of the Minnesota Twins) hit an RBI single to win it 5-4: another walk-off triumph! In Game 3 last night the Braves were ahead 5-2 from the top of the 5th until the bottom of the 8th. Luke Jackson took the mound as Atlanta's reliever, and before you knew it, the Dodgers had taken the lead on a home run by none other than Cody Bellinger (!), followed by an RBI double by Mookie Betts. Dodgers 6, Braves 5. If Atlanta had won that game, they would have been virtually assured of winning the NLCS, but now that it's merely a 2-1 series lead, the Dodgers have a better-than-even chance of coming back and returning to the World Series. Simply amazing turns of events!
In Game 5 of the NLDS in San Francisco late in the evening on October 14 (at which point the score was tied 1-1 going into), the Los Angeles Dodgers somehow managed to beat the Giants, 2-1. At the top of the 9th inning, with one out and runners on first and second, Cody Bellinger punched a single into right field, allowing Justin Turner to score. It was quite a surprise, since Bellinger had a horrible regular season, with a .165 batting average and only 315 at bats. Now he has redeemed himself as a hero. In the bottom of the 9th, the Dodgers had Max Scherzer pitch, since their usual closer Kenley Jansen had already pitched the inning before, and had been pinch-hit for in the top of the 9th. Max overcame an error by Justin Turner at third base, and retired the other three batters, two on strikeouts. He thus earned his first career save. I believe his only previous relief pitching appearance was in the calamitous 5th inning of 2017 NLDS Game 5 against the Chicago Cubs. (Yet another gut-wrenching heartbreaker for the Nats.)
Almost as soon as the regular season was over, the Washington Nationals signed infielder Alicides Escobar to a one-year contract renewal. He was one of their most reliable new players, and will presumably return as the starting shortstop when the 2022 season begins. Since joining the team on July 3 (in a cash transaction with the Kansas City Royals), he led the Nationals in doubles (21) and hits (92), and his .379 RISP batting average ranked sixth in the National League. He is a 12-year veteran who helped the Royals win the World Series in 2015. (See MLB.com.)
The Nats also signed Darnell Cole as their new hitting coach, replacing Kevin Long, who was hired by the Philadelphia Phillies. Cole has worked as a coach for various teams in the Nationals' minor league farm system. He's an old friend of manager Dave Martinez, and played with him for the Reds in 1992.
In case you are wondering about the lack of stadium diagram updates recently, rest assured that more are on the way in the near future! One or two surprises, and then the remaining MLB stadiums in coming days and weeks...