The 2020 MLB playoffs are down to the final four teams with the Atlanta Braves, Los Angeles Dodgers, Houston Astros, and Tampa Bay Rays left standing in the League Championship Series. Starting with Sunday’s ALCS Game 1 showdown between the Astros and the Rays in San Diego through the moment that the World Series is set, this is your place for the stars, turning points and takeaways at the conclusion of every game.
ALCS Game 2: Tampa Bay Rays 4, Houston Astros 2
What it means: The Rays are a baseball version of the Vince Lombardi-era Green Bay Packers. They play smothering defense. They don’t beat themselves. And they grind you out gradually on offense, until they can spring the big play. The analogy may not be perfect, but Tampa Bay’s formula has played out perfectly all through the postseason.
In Game 2, the Astros hit the ball harder than the Rays, just as Dusty Baker suggested during his in-game interview. According to baseballsavant.mlb.com, the expected batting average on the balls the Astros hit was well over .300; for the Rays it was under .200. Houston starter Lance McCullers Jr. was dealing, for the most part, allowing a lone earned run over seven innings with 11 strikeouts.
But it came down to two mistakes: Jose Altuve’s throwing error that kept the Rays’ first-inning rally alive — one of two uncharacteristic throwing miscues in the game for Altuve — and the curveball that McCullers left up and Manuel Margot deposited over the center-field fence for a three-run homer.
The Astros put runners on through most of the game, but for the second straight night, couldn’t come up with the big, multirun blow to pierce the Rays’ protective armor. The bottom line was the Astros played well, but just made a couple of mistakes. The way the Rays are playing right now, that’s all they need to beat you. — Bradford Doolittle
Other Monday night game: NLCS Game 1 — Braves vs. Dodgers (in Arlington, Texas), 8:08 p.m. ET
What it means: Game 1 of the ALCS featured a couple of twists, but ultimately was exactly the kind of game the Rays wanted. Early on, it looked as if it would be an Astros kind of night, with their hitters making frequent and high-quality contact. Rays starter Blake Snell went two times through the order with only one strikeout and — as he has all season — failed to get through six innings. But Houston could never get the big hit to break the game open, entering the middle innings with only Jose Altuve‘s solo homer on the board.
Then Randy Arozarena continued his transmogrification into the best fastball hitter on the planet with his fourth homer of the postseason. Then Mike Zunino stroked a highly rare RBI single to put the Rays ahead. Finally, the Rays protected a one-run lead, very much a part of their script. Tampa Bay followed Snell’s five innings with four shutout frames by four relievers and the Rays grabbed the opener 2-1. In doing so, the Rays improved to 16-5 in one-run games this season, a .762 winning percentage, including the postseason. According to ESPN Stats & Information research, that’s currently the best one-run winning percentage by any team over a season. Ever.
The moral of Game 1 was this: The club that dictates the terms of engagement will be in good shape. The Astros had a chance to be that club in the early innings, but when they failed to do so, it became exactly the kind of game the Rays want to see every time out. — Bradford Doolittle