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.
National League Championship Series Game 3: Los Angeles Dodgers 15, Atlanta Braves 3
What it means: Maybe all the Dodgers needed was an encounter with Josh Tomlin.
The Braves brought Tomlin into the ninth inning of Game 2, hoping to give their high-leverage relievers a break with the outcome seemingly in hand. But the Dodgers proceeded to pound Tomlin, scoring four times and putting the tying run on third base before Braves closer Mark Melancon induced a game-ending groundout.
In the aftermath, the Dodgers harped on the importance of getting a longer look at the vaunted bullpen of their opponent and hoped to ride the momentum of their near-miracle. Then they went out and scored 11 runs in the first inning of Game 3, setting a postseason record. By the end of it, Cody Bellinger, Max Muncy and Joc Pederson — the three powerful left-handed hitters who struggled throughout the year — had each produced multihit games that included a homer.
Now comes the pivotal Game 4, which could result in the Dodgers tying this series or the Braves taking a commanding 3-1 lead. The Dodgers are hopeful that Clayton Kershaw will be fully recovered from his back spasms and can take the ball, but that is no certainty. Just as relevant is the opposing starter, Bryse Wilson, yet another inexperienced Braves arm coming off a spotty regular season. The Dodgers will look to feast on him the way they did against Kyle Wright. Clearly, they need to win when Max Fried and Ian Anderson don’t take the ball. — Alden Gonzalez
George Springer sends a long ball to left field to extend the lead for the Astros 4-2 over the Rays.
American League Championship Series Game 4: Houston Astros 4, Tampa Bay Rays 3
What it means: There haven’t been many moments during the Astros’ playoff run in which you immediately thought, “AJ Hinch wouldn’t have done that.” One such moment arose on Wednesday, and because it was Dusty Baker, with his time-tested gut making the decision rather than the analytically savvy Hinch, the Astros live to play another day. Houston escaped with a victory over Tampa Bay, but the Rays get a second chance to close out the series in Thursday’s Game 5.
The sequence in question: Astros starter Zack Greinke, likely a future Hall of Famer, was into his third trip through the Tampa Bay lineup. Houston had just grabbed a two-run lead on a George Springer homer in the bottom of the fifth, but three singles loaded the bags with two outs and Michael Brosseau at the plate.
Baker had been to the mound already that inning, with red-hot Randy Arozarena at the plate. In 2020 baseball, especially in the postseason, you figured that was it for Greinke. It’s just the way things are done these days.
Flashback to the seventh game of last year’s World Series, when Greinke got one out into the seventh inning with a 2-0 lead on the Nationals, looking largely unassailable in the process. He then gave up a homer to Anthony Rendon and walked the dangerous Juan Soto. He had faced 22 batters and thrown just 80 pitches. Hinch went to the bullpen, calling for righty Will Harris. Then Washington’s Howie Kendrick plunked one off the right-field foul pole, and the Nationals were on their way to a title.
On Wednesday, Greinke had faced 22 batters and thrown 87 pitches when Brosseau stepped to the plate. Baker had gone to the mound and returned to the dugout alone. Greinke was still around to strike out Brosseau with a changeup. Score one for Dusty’s gut. — Bradford Doolittle
What it means: 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. — Doolittle
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. — 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: 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.
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 score. — Gonzalez
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 victory. — Jeff Passan