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 American League Championship Series Game 1 between the Astros and the Rays 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.
American League Championship Series Game 3: Tampa Bay Rays 5, Houston Astros 2
What it means: After three games, we can probably push aside the “Astros have actually outplayed the Rays” narrative. No matter how you count up the respective breaks, the bottom line is inarguable: The Rays lead the series three-zip, and with one more win, they will be headed to the second World Series in franchise history.
Game 3 was an even more exaggerated version of the first two games. The Astros played well except for one disastrous sequence. This one was the worst so far: The top of the sixth featured yet another Jose Altuve throwing error and two key hit by pitches, as Tampa Bay put up five runs that were more than enough for the stifling, crowd-sourced Rays run-prevention machine. Tampa Bay improved to 29-1, including the playoffs, when scoring at least five runs this season.
The Astros once again hit a lot of balls hard — probably more than the Rays did when you dig into the metrics. But whether it was great defensive plays by Kevin Kiermaier in center field or canny positioning of the Tampa Bay infield or the sheer randomness of the universe, the Rays have been doing it all season, all postseason and certainly all series.
One more day of this will land Tampa Bay back in the World Series for the first time in 12 years. The Astros have hit more balls hard over three games. The Rays have won all three games. Which data point would you rather have in your favor? — Bradford Doolittle
Freddie Freeman starts out the scoring in Game 2 by destroying a pitch to right for a two-run home run.
National League Championship Series Game 2: Atlanta Braves 8, Los Angeles Dodgers 7
What it means: When the Braves shut out the Cincinnati Reds and the Miami Marlins in four out of five postseason games, it was dismissed as a good pitching staff taking advantage of poor offenses. But now Max Fried and Ian Anderson have limited the Dodgers to one run in 10 innings in back-to-back starts. Plus, before a spirited ninth-inning comeback in Game 2, eight Braves pitchers limited the Dodgers to 10 hits and eight walks in 17 innings, striking out 20. All of which proves that this pitching staff is deep — regardless of the injuries suffered in its rotation — and this team is elite.
The Dodgers are still in this, of course, especially now that they’re getting into the soft spot of the Braves’ rotation. But they need Julio Urias, who is 24, to pitch effectively with his team’s season basically on the line. And the Dodgers need Clayton Kershaw to rebound from back spasms enough to take the ball in Game 5. And — more to the point — they need to score more runs, especially in the first few innings.
In both games, the Dodgers had the opposing starter on the ropes early and did not capitalize. In both games, that has come back to haunt them. Maybe they found something in that four-run ninth inning, which ended with Cody Bellinger 90 feet from tying the game. — Alden Gonzalez
What it means: Game 2 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 the Astros’ second baseman — and the curveball that Lance McCullers Jr. 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 contest, they couldn’t come up with the big, multirun blow to pierce the Rays’ protective armor. The bottom line was the Astros played well but made a couple of mistakes. The way the Rays are playing right now, that’s all they need to beat you. — Bradford Doolittle
What it means: Randy Arozarena continued his transmogrification into the best fastball hitter on the planet with his fourth homer of the postseason, Mike Zunino stroked a highly rare RBI single to put the Rays ahead, and Tampa Bay followed Blake Snell‘s five innings with four shutout frames by four relievers. Along the way, 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. — Doolittle
What it means: So much for the Dodgers running completely roughshod through the 2020 MLB postseason. That notion ended at 10:23 p.m. local time Monday, when the barrage ended. It started 16 minutes earlier, with a 98 mph fastball delivered by Blake Treinen, a reliever tasked by the Dodgers with securing big outs. The ball happened to wind up in the nitro zone of Austin Riley, the Braves’ young third baseman/left fielder, and when balls at 98 meet his bat there, they tend to come to rest very far away.
In this case, it was 448 feet, though that number wasn’t as vital as what it represented: the go-ahead run in what had been a taut, well-pitched Game 1 of the NLCS. That hit opened the floodgates, with other Braves feasting off Dodgers relievers in a 5-1 victory in Arlington, Texas. — Jeff Passan