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Runnin’ With The Devil (Rays)

Marlins 5, Braves 9 

(Atlanta leads NL Division series 1-0)

What happens when an unstoppable force meets an immovable object? The Braves pitching staff hurled 22 scoreless frames in their Wild Card series victory over the Reds to open the 2020 playoffs, while the Marlins franchise remained unbeaten in the postseason, improving to 7-0 all-time since 1997, by virtue of an opening-round sweep versus the Cubs last week. Both mind-boggling streaks came to an abrupt end Tuesday as the Marlins jumped out to an early lead before their bullpen imploded worse than Patriots backup quarterback Brian Hoyer at the end of the first half against the Chiefs earlier this week. Despite an abbreviated outing from starter Max Fried, the Braves’ offense broke out, plating nine runs on 12 hits, including round-trippers from Ronald Acuña, Dansby Swanson, and Travis d’Arnaud — who tallied three hits and reached base safely in all five of his plate appearances — in the comeback victory.

The “nobody believes in us” Marlins have fully embraced the infamous “bottom-feeder” label, using it as motivation this postseason. They had the upper hand against their division rivals in the early stages of this one, plating four runs off Braves lefty Max Fried, who wasn’t particularly sharp before being chased from the contest after four innings. Miguel Rojas accomplished what the Reds failed to do over 22 innings, belting a solo homer in the second inning, while Garrett Cooper delivered a two-run double in the third inning, and Brian Anderson also slapped an RBI single later in that frame. They held a slim one-run advantage until starter Sandy Alcantara was lifted from the contest after surrendering back-to-back singles to open the seventh inning. The Marlins bullpen proceeded to melt down in spectacular fashion, coughing up six runs on six hits, including a tiebreaking three-run homer by Travis d’Arnaud off Yimi Garcia, and a two-run tater from Dansby Swanson against James Hoyt later in that frame. The Braves late-inning offensive explosion put them ahead, and their bullpen effectively slammed the door on any potential Marlins comeback effort. Five relievers — Darren O’Day, Tyler Matzek, Will Smith, Chris Martin and Mark Melancon — held the Fish to a single run on three hits over the final five frames. Slugging dingers and bullpenning, that’s what Atlanta does.  

What’s Next: The Braves have an opportunity to take a commanding lead in the best-of-five series Wednesday afternoon with rookie sensation Ian Anderson (1.95 ERA; 3.19 DRA; 32 1/3 IP) on the mound for Game 2 at Minute Maid Park in Houston. The 22-year-old former first-round selection racked up nine strikeouts over six shutout frames in his stellar playoff debut against the Reds last week. The Marlins will counter with unheralded 24-year-old righty Pablo Lopez (3.61 ERA; 2.65 DRA; 57 1/3 IP), who somehow managed to fly under the radar nationally, despite blossoming into one of the best pitchers in the entire game this season. Per Baseball Prospectus’ Deserved Run Average metric, Lopez’ 2.65 DRA represented the third-lowest mark of any starting pitcher (minimum 30 innings) during the shortened regular season. To put that in context, Shane Bieber, Aaron Nola and Jacob deGrom were the only other starters to record a DRA below 2.80 this year. 

Astros 5, Athletics 2

(Houston leads AL Division series 2-0)

Framber Valdez spun a seven-inning gem, George Springer homered twice, and relievers Enoli Paredes and Ryan Pressly preserved a three-run lead, propelling the Astros to their second consecutive victory over the division-rival Athletics. Veteran slugger Khris Davis kicked off the scoring with a solo homer in the second inning, and utilityman Chad Pinder also socked a solo shot in the fourth inning, but those tallies accounted for all of the damage against Valdez, who was spectacular in this one. The 26-year-old lefty yielded only five hits, recorded four strikeouts, and only issued one walk in his first postseason start, after tossing five scoreless innings in relief against the Twins last week.

Not only has he emerged as a key component of the Astros’ starting rotation, but he’s also blossomed into an upper-echelon starting pitcher from an advanced metrics standpoint this season. Per Baseball Prospectus’ Deserved Run Average metric, Valdez’ 3.35 DRA ranked 18th out of 158 pitchers with at least 30 innings this season. That sublime mark puts him in the same territory as stalwarts like Yu Darvish, Brandon Woodruff, Clayton Kershaw and Gerrit Cole from a pure run prevention standpoint. He isn’t overpowering, but the Athletics struggled to square up his sinker/curveball combo, and he generated 11 ground-ball outs over seven frames. Simply put, he’s one of the most underrated starting pitchers in the game. 

In addition to their persistent struggles versus Valdez, the Athletics simply had no answer for Springer, who launched a two-run homer to left-center field off Sean Manaea in the third inning, and also tattooed a solo shot to left field off reliever Yusmeiro Petit in the fifth inning. The 31-year-old veteran outfielder has been one of the Astros’ main offensive catalysts in the postseason for nearly a decade, and is now up to 17 round-tripper’s in 55 career playoff games. That puts him into a tie with Nelson Cruz, David Ortiz and Jim Thome for seventh place on the all-time list.  In addition to Springer’s heroics, Martin Maldonado also went deep off Manaea, who was saddled with the loss after allowing four runs on five hits over 4 1/3 innings of work. 

What’s Next: With the Athletics reeling, the Astros will attempt to deliver the knockout blow Wednesday in Game 3 at Dodger Stadium in Los Angeles. It’ll be right-hander Jose Urquidy (2.73 ERA; 6.15 DRA; 29 2/3 IP) on the mound instead of veteran ace Zack Greinke (4.03 ERA; 3.75 DRA; 67 IP). According to Astros manager Dusty Baker, the battle-tested 36-year-old righty, who allowed one run over four innings against the Twins last week, has been experiencing arm issues recently. He’s been evaluated by team doctors, and even played catch, and threw some flat ground pitches with Astros pitching coach Brent Strom watching, but no additional information has been released on his status for the remainder of the series. Greinke’s absence provides an opportunity for Urquidy, who pitched exceptionally well in the playoffs last year. The 25-year-old delivered a solid performance, allowing one run on two hits and two walks over 4 1/3 innings, in his AL Wild Card series start against the Twins last week. Meanwhile, it’ll be all hands on deck for the Athletics in an elimination game. They’ll open the contest with electrifying left-hander Jesus Luzardo (4.12 ERA; 5.18 DRA; 59 IP), but it wouldn’t be shocking to see hard-throwing righty Frankie Montas (5.60 ERA; 5.72 DRA; 53 IP) at some point.

Yankees 5, Rays 7 

(AL Division series tied 1-1)

Yankees manager Aaron Boone traveled nearly 3,000 miles from New York, yet still managed to author a script worthy of the Broadway stage with his “secret opener” strategy, involving rookie sensation Deivi Garcia and veteran southpaw J.A. Happ, in Tuesday’s Game 2 loss to the Rays. The longtime division rivals traded punches in the early stages, with Rays burgeoning superstar Randy Arozarena walloping a solo homer off Garcia in the opening frame. The 25-year-old outfielder, who was acquired from the Cardinals via trade last offseason, has been sizzling at the dish this postseason, going 9-for-16 with five extra-base hits, three RBI, and six runs scored through four games. Yankees slugger Giancarlo Stanton responded with an equalizer, slicing an opposite-field solo homer off Tyler Glasnow in the second inning, joining postseason legends Babe Ruth and Reggie Jackson as the only Yankees to homer in four consecutive playoff games.

With the score tied, Boone made the call to the bullpen, lifting Garcia — the youngest postseason starter in Yankees history — from his first playoff appearance after just one inning. The 21-year-old righty had some issues in the opening stanza, but perhaps it would’ve made more sense to at least stick with him at least one full time through the Rays lineup. Yet, Boone handed the ball to the veteran lefty Happ to begin the second inning. The secret opener gambit, which caused the Rays to stack their starting lineup with left-handed hitters to face Garcia, backfired almost immediately as Mike Zunino walloped a two-run homer off Happ in the second inning, and Manuel Margot followed with a two-run shot in the third inning, giving the Rays an early four-run lead. Here’s an oversimplification: Garcia is a better pitcher than Happ. The unconventional gambit may have made theoretical sense, but pitchers are creatures of habit. Throwing off Happ’s typical routine made him less effective, and likely cost the Yankees this game. Garcia undoubtedly gave them a better chance from a run prevention standpoint in the early stages of the contest.

Despite an unconventional strategy scrambling their pitching staff, Stanton refused to let the Yankees go quietly. The 30-year-old masher walloped a mammoth 458-foot three-run homer off Glasnow, which Statcast measured with an eye-popping exit velocity of 118.3 mph, slashing the deficit to a single run in the fourth inning. It was the hardest-hit postseason homer tracked by Statcast since its inception in 2015. He’s up to five round-trippers already in just four games this postseason. Yet, the Rays continued to add to their advantage in the middle innings. Kevin Kiermaier plated an insurance run with an RBI single off reliever Jonathan Loaisiga in the fifth inning, and Austin Meadows blasted a solo homer in the sixth inning. Glasnow routinely touched triple digits with his fastball and recorded 10 strikeouts over five innings, turning a lead over to the Rays well-stocked stable of bullpen arms. Diego Castillo, Nick Anderson and Peter Fairbanks combined to record the final 12 outs of the contest. Fairbanks issued back-to-back walks to open the final frame, but somehow managed to whiff Clint Frazier and Gary Sanchez, before giving up an RBI single to DJ LeMahieu, which put the tying runs on base. He managed to settle down and coax a ground ball to third base off the bat of Aaron Judge to end the contest. The Rays pitching staff recorded a whopping 18 strikeouts, the most in a nine-inning postseason game in major-league history.

What’s Next: Baseball Prospectus’ PECOTA projection system gave the Yankees a 72 percent chance to win the series and the Rays only a 28 percent shot, entering the series. Yet, the best-of-five series is tied heading into Wednesday’s pivotal Game 3 showdown featuring a pair of veteran right-hander’s in Charlie Morton (4.74 ERA; 4.03 DRA; 38 IP) and Masahiro Tanaka (3.56 ERA; 3.86 DRA; 48 IP). By turning to Happ so early in the series, it increases the likelihood that the Yankees will be forced to summon ace Gerrit Cole on short rest for a Game 5 start. It also amplifies the pressure on Tanaka, lefty Jordan Montgomery and the Yankees’ bullpen to get them there. This series feels like it’s going to go the distance.

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Padres 1, Dodgers 5

(Los Angeles leads NL Division series 1-0)

Moments after Padres manager Jayce Tingler was ejected by home plate umpire Lance Barrett in the sixth inning; Corey Seager delivered a go-ahead sacrifice fly, before Justin Turner and Cody Bellinger followed with RBI singles, leading the Dodgers to a Game 1 victory. It took awhile for the Dodgers offense to heat up, but their bullpen was lights-out from the jump in this one as Dustin May, Victor Gonzalez, Blake Treinen and Kenley Jansen combined for five scoreless frames, extinguishing any hope of a San Diego comeback in the low-scoring affair at Globe Life Park in Arlington.

Both starting pitchers — hard-throwing right-hander’s Walker Buehler and Mike Clevinger — struggled with their control and didn’t last very long. Clevinger issued a pair of walks, and recorded only three outs, in his first start since September 23 due to an elbow impingement. He exited the contest with an apparent injury after his velocity declined sharply in the second inning. Given his previous injuries, there was always some risk in bringing Clevinger back this postseason, and there’s a real chance that his season is over. 

Meanwhile, Buehler battled major control problems in his second postseason start, handing out three free passes, and requiring 95 pitches to complete four frames. He walked the bases loaded with only one out in the second inning, but managed to whiff Jurickson Profar and Trent Grisham to wriggle out of the jam completely unscathed. The 26-year-old righty hasn’t thrown more than 75 pitches in his last four starts, but his presence has stabilized the Dodgers rotation, placing less pressure on younger starters like May, Julio Urias and Tony Gonsolin to step into the fire. An RBI single by Austin Nola in the fourth inning represented the lone tally against him in this one.  

With Clevinger gone, the Padres turned to an unlikely source to soak up innings by handing the ball to left-handed pitching prospect Ryan Weathers for his big-league debut. The 20-year-old had never pitched above A-ball, but held his own against a loaded Dodgers’ lineup, keeping them off the scoreboard, and recording four outs, before departing in the fourth inning. The Padres used nine pitchers, matching a postseason record, to cover eight innings in this one.

What’s Next: The Padres unveiled an NLDS roster Tuesday, which didn’t include hard-throwing righty Dinelson Lamet (2.09 ERA; 2.91 DRA; 69 IP), so it’s unclear whether they have enough starting pitching depth to challenge the Dodgers over the remainder of the series. According to Baseball Prospectus’ PECOTA projection system, Los Angeles entered the series as the forecast’s overwhelming favorite, with a 71 percent chance to win the series, with San Diego was given just a 29 percent chance to advance to the NLCS. It’ll most likely be Chris Paddack, who was hit hard in his playoff debut against the Cardinals last week, getting the ball for the Padres in Game 2 on Wednesday, facing off against Dodgers ace Clayton Kershaw (2.16 ERA; 3.40 DRA; 58 1/3 IP), who recorded 13 strikeouts over eight scoreless innings in a Wild Card series start against the Brewers last week.

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