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MLB Playoffs Daily: NLCS gets underway, Rays seek to expand ALCS lead

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Monday brings us the first of what could be six consecutive days of League Championship Series doubleheaders, which would be an unprecedented run of playoff baseball at the highest stakes. Such are the 2020 MLB playoffs.

The action starts with Game 2 of the ALCS, with the Rays already looking to take a 2-0 series lead. The nightcap is Game 1 of the Braves-Dodgers NLCS, which pits two of the game’s top offenses against each other.

Here’s a breakdown of the games, some numbers to know, a hot take of the day and more as you prep for Monday’s twin bill.

Key links: Power Rankings | Predictions | Schedule, bracket | Playoff Baseball Classic

What’s on tap

All times Eastern; all series best-of-seven played at neutral sites

Game 2: No. 6 Houston Astros (Lance McCullers Jr.) vs. No. 1 Tampa Bay Rays (Charlie Morton), 4:07 p.m. in San Diego

You might remember Lance McCullers Jr. and Charlie Morton from Game 7 of the 2017 World Series. McCullers started that game and pitched 2⅓ scoreless innings and Morton pitched the final four innings and got credited with the win. McCullers returned this season after missing 2019 because of Tommy John surgery and went 3-3 with a 3.93 ERA but gave up three home runs in his start against the A’s in the ALDS. He can be tough to hit if he’s finding the groove with his slider-like sweeping curveball, but that pitch hasn’t been quite as consistent as it was pre-surgery — batters slugged .461 against it opposed to .354 in 2018.

Morton has a nice little run going in the postseason, with a 1.93 ERA over his past seven appearances, covering 32⅔ innings. He has given up only one home run in that span as he has become a tough guy to take yard. Over the past two seasons, right-handers have hit only six home runs in 481 at-bats off him, so the righty-heavy Astros will have their work cut out. Don’t look for him to go deep as he has gone more than five innings only once all season and was removed from his start against the Yankees after five innings and 86 pitches. — David Schoenfield

Game 1: No. 2 Atlanta Braves (Max Fried) vs. No. 1 Los Angeles Dodgers (Walker Buehler), 8:08 p.m. in Arlington, Texas

Dave Roberts is going with Walker Buehler to lead off the third straight series and Buehler now has a 1.39 ERA over his past six postseason starts going dating to Game 7 of the 2018 NLCS. He racked up the strikeouts in his first two outings, with 16 in eight innings, but that eight innings is the key number: He went just four frames in both starts, in part because he has been battling a blister issues. In the start against the Padres in the NLDS, he walked four batters and threw an inefficient 95 pitches. In those games, Roberts used starters Julio Urias (three innings) and Dustin May (two innings) in relief, but depending on the plans for the rest of the series, we don’t know how available those two will be, setting up some potentially interesting midgame choices for Roberts if Buehler doesn’t go deep.

The Braves, meanwhile, have to feel very confident with Max Fried on the mound. They are 12-1 when he starts this year. Fried doesn’t have the dominating raw stuff like Buehler, mixing in a 93 mph low-spin fastball with a high-spin curveball, with an occasional sinker and changeup. What he has done so well all season is limit hard contact, ranking in the 98th percentile in hard-hit rate (he has given up only three home runs in 67 innings all season). Brian Snitker has a deep bullpen with eight dependable relievers, so his midgame dilemma is more about when to pull Fried if he’s going well — knowing he might need the relievers to pitch a lot of innings with the rest of the rotation. — Schoenfield

Updated odds for every series

Projections courtesy of ESPN’s Bradford Doolittle.

Astros-Rays: Rays 63.4% to advance
Braves-Dodgers: Dodgers 71.6% to advance

Running World Series odds

NL: Dodgers 54.8%, Braves 15.0%
AL: Rays 21.3%, Astros 8.9%


Hot take of the day

Much of the pre-series talk has rightly centered on the Dodgers’ closer situation, but in this matchup of high-powered offenses (just the fifth postseason series ever between teams that ranked first and second in the majors in both runs and home runs) the key player might very well be Dodgers outfielder Cody Bellinger.

The 2019 MVP has not been a clutch postseason performer with a career line of .195/.253/.357 in 41 games. Bellinger’s October struggles have hurt as much as Jansen’s blown saves. He did homer against the Padres and is hitting .316 in five postseason games so far. To outscore the Braves, the Dodgers need Bellinger to produce. — Schoenfield


Stat of the day

With their ALCS Game 1 victory, the Rays improved to 16-5 in one-run games this season. As Bradford Doolittle noted last night, that’s good for a .762 winning percentage (including postseason games), and according to ESPN Stats & Information research, that’s the best one-run winning percentage ever by any team over a season.


About last night …

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Mike Zunino rips an RBI single to put the Rays ahead 2-1 in the fifth inning.

The Rays’ bend-don’t-break pitching delivered another tight win after Blake Snell pitched through some jams to hold Houston to just a single run in five innings, and the bullpen emulated that effort by escaping a bases-loaded jam of its own in the eighth (more on that below). Add in another home run by postseason hero Randy Arozarena and an improbable go-ahead single by Mike Zunino — with a career batting average of exactly .200, watch out Mario Mendoza — and the Rays eked out a 2-1 victory.


Social media post of the day

Bases loaded, one out, one-run lead in the eighth? Paging Diego Castillo, who needed only one pitch to save the day …


Best moment of the MLB playoffs to date

The stage was set for another Fernando Tatis Jr. moment, but Cody Bellinger snatched it away. Bellinger’s home run robbery, plucking what would have been a go-ahead shot by Tatis in the seventh inning of Game 2 of the NLDS, kept the Padres at bay — barely — and will take its place in Dodgers lore, particularly if L.A. wins it all.


The running MLB playoffs MVP

The Astros’ offensive juggernaut has been in high gear, and the leader of the pack is Carlos Correa, who hit a go-ahead three-run homer in the division series clincher against the A’s. Through six games, the numbers are staggering: 10-for-20, four home runs, 12 RBIs, a 1.715 OPS. Correa’s 12 RBIs are tied for the second-most ever in a team’s first six postseason games, and his 11 RBIs against Oakland are tied for the most by a shortstop in any series in postseason history (matching Boston’s Nomar Garciaparra, 1998 LDS vs. Cleveland).

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How Brandon Lowe got his swing straightened out at exactly the right time

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ARLINGTON, Texas — This was for the Tampa Bay Rays. For the Silverback Tribe. Mostly, for himself. By now, Brandon Lowe understands how baseball works, how the game will gnaw at your psyche, taunt your process, asphyxiate your effort. It will remind you how hard it really is — and then troll you for giggles. Nothing in the world can humble a man quite like trying to meet cylindrical bat with round ball.

All those moments of doubt and exasperation exist to make days like Wednesday exponentially more satisfying. Before Game 2 of the World Series, Lowe was the disappointment of the postseason. By its conclusion, Lowe may have saved the Rays’ hopes at a championship.

About 700 miles from here, just outside of Nashville, a man was screaming so loud, he said, “I literally woke up the neighbors’ dogs.” For more than a half decade, Hunter Bledsoe has spent countless hours helping turn Lowe’s swing into a marvel of efficiency and power. And finally, after the struggles, the self-doubt, the weeks of frustration, here was Brandon Lowe being Brandon Lowe again, smashing two opposite-field home runs in a World Series game, piloting the Rays to a 6-4 victory against the Los Angeles Dodgers that evened the series.

For the last three weeks, as the Rays bullied their way to the American League pennant, they had done so with their best hitter virtually nonexistent. Coming into Game 2, Lowe had gone 6-for-56 this postseason. In none of the Rays’ 15 games had he registered more than one hit. He struck out 19 times. He swung at pitches out of the strike zone. He made weak contact. It was like he’d had a Freaky Friday with the mailman and never switched back.

In truth, Lowe’s swing simply fell out of whack, and he needed time to understand that and fix it. Which in the middle of a World Series run against a juggernaut of a team like the Dodgers is no small feat, but then the entire story of Lowe’s career is about the emergence of unexpected excellence.

Thousands of players have taken at-bats in the World Series, and none has done what Lowe — rhymes with wow — did in Game 2: hit two opposite-field home runs. And lest you wonder what sort of leviathan Lowe is, what beastly kind of über-man possesses the strength to go oppo twice in a game, get ready for this: He stands 5 foot 10 and weighs 185 pounds. Rays manager Kevin Cash once said of Lowe: “He looks like Elf on a Shelf, but, man, can he hit a ball a long way and really hard.”

Wednesday was baseball Christmas for Lowe and the home runs his gifts. The first came in the first inning, when he was the second batter at the plate — still high in the Rays’ lineup, Cash said after Game 2, because “he’s shown over time that he’s a really good hitter, really good player and sometimes … you got to let them go through some tough patches.” Three innings later, he illustrated that the first-inning shot off rookie right-hander Tony Gonsolin was no fluke. He tagged Dodgers rookie Dustin May for a two-run shot that extended the Rays’ lead to 5-0.

To think, of course, that either materialized as if dropped through a chimney could not be further from the truth. Last week, toward the end of the ALCS, as Lowe’s slump reached its nadir, he sent a video of his swing to Bledsoe and two others confidants, asking, simply, “What do you guys see?” Each responded with almost the same answer: Lowe’s posture, which is so vital to him generating such enormous power from such a small frame, had too much slack.

When he is at his best, Lowe uses the swing he honed with Bledsoe, who, with his brother Dustin, owns and operates the Bledsoe Agency. Their office building includes a sports-performance center where Bledsoe, a former SEC Player of the Year at Vanderbilt, leads offseason workouts that endeavor to build clients into better versions of themselves. When players at the facility hit a ball with 100-mph-plus exit velocity for the first time, they’re invited into an elite group Bledsoe calls the Silverback Tribe.

As he excelled at Maryland, got drafted by the Rays and ascended in the organization, Lowe understood how his natural gifts — his hips rotate with elite levels of force — made up for his natural size. Lowe’s best swing begins with him getting grounded. “Get the booty back,” they’ll say at the performance center. When the posterior positioning happen at the same time as Lowe’s front foot moving, his swing breaks.

That was the problem for most of the last three weeks. Not that one game necessarily sends Lowe into the diamond lane toward excellence, but, as Bledsoe noted: “Everybody who knows Brandon knows he can be really hot and carry a team. When that starts to happen, he’s as good as anybody in the game.”

However much that may sound like an exaggeration, it’s not. Around the halfway mark in the shortened season, nobody in the American League had accumulated more wins above replacement than Lowe. He was grounding himself with aplomb — butt back, no slack, energy building through the middle-third of his body. All that time spent with Bledsoe — from when he came in after his first minor league season and said “I’ve got to get better” to last winter, when three days after that All-Star season he started cage work to prepare for 2020.

“The reason Brandon has a cool moment like this is because of the fact that he’s unwilling not to,” Bledsoe said. “People can pout. They can blame. He just works, man. And at the end of the day, regardless of what happens, it’s a hard game. And you can trust in that. It might not be on the time schedule we want, but eventually it will pay off.

“Brandon’s a very calm personality. He’s extremely competitive. His care factor and care level are extremely high. He’s hard on himself because he wants to be successful. One of the things we talk about the most is having a plan so you’re never truly lost, never that far away. Baseball is really hard. It makes everybody want to quit at some point. When you get into that valley, if you have a plan, you know you’re never too far from climbing out of it.”

Here is Lowe’s plan: hit the snot out of the ball. That’s high up on the easy-to-say, tough-to-do list, but Lowe trusted the responses in the text, trusted the wisdom of the Silverback Tribe, trusted that Cash kept slotting him not just in the lineup but high in it for good reason.

“To say my mind wasn’t going different places during that kind of struggle would be lying to you,” Lowe said. “There were times when I wasn’t feeling too good, but that’s what so great about this team. As soon as I started dragging my feet, somebody was right there to pick me up.”

He returned the favor in Game 2 like he knew he eventually would, and he knew that because Lowe has done this before. When he arrived in the major leagues, he went 0 for his first 19. Transitioning to the big leagues is difficult enough. Convincing yourself that you belong amid the gnawing, the taunting, the asphyxiation — that’s entirely different.

Different, it would seem, suits Lowe. His path to the World Series was circuitous enough, his understanding of himself deep enough, that he can stare at 6-for-56 and lean on his psyche, rely on his process, bank on his effort. As far gone as he was, turns out it wasn’t that far. When that cylindrical bat in his hands met the round ball, he was the one doing the humbling.

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Will Dodgers be OK if Dustin May, Tony Gonsolin don’t contribute more?

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ARLINGTON, Texas — The Los Angeles Dodgers were three days removed from a taxing seventh game of the National League Championship Series and needed Tony Gonsolin to give them as much as he could as their opener in Game 2 of the World Series on Wednesday night. He provided four outs, but allowed a home run to the second batter he faced.

With the deficit at only a run and two outs in the top of the fourth, the Dodgers needed Dustin May to keep the game close and bridge the gap to their high-leverage relievers. He was charged with three earned runs and exited before the start of the sixth.

The Dodgers cycled through seven pitchers in their 6-4 loss to the Tampa Bay Rays, evening the Fall Classic at one game apiece.

Given the state of their pitching heading in, a loss like this might have been expected. But it also reinforced a problem that could haunt the Dodgers in what remains of this final round — May and Gonsolin, the two young starters counted on to be multi-dimensional weapons in October, haven’t been effective enough. And whether it’s execution or inexperience or a product of their unconventional usage is anyone’s guess.

“I still trust them, I still believe in them, and they just have to make pitches,” Dodgers manager Dave Roberts said. “We’ll look at the video and see what we can do better at, but they’re still gonna need to get big outs for us.”

May, 23, and Gonsolin, 26, combined to produce a 2.46 ERA in a combined 102⅔ innings during the regular season, placing themselves squarely in the thick of a deep field for the National League Rookie of the Year Award. Since then, they have been charged with 13 earned runs on 15 hits and 13 walks in 16⅔ innings in the postseason and haven’t come anywhere close to a traditional five-day schedule.

When Gonsolin took the ball for Game 2 of the NL Championship Series — in place of Clayton Kershaw, who was scratched that morning because of back spasms — it marked his first appearance in 17 days. He was charged with five runs in 4⅓ innings. Five days later, he came into the top of the second in Game 7, gave up a leadoff homer to Dansby Swanson, then allowed the first three batters to reach in the fourth and was taken out. Three days after that, he opened Game 2 of the World Series.

May was effective as a multi-inning reliever early in the postseason, compiling three scoreless innings in the NL Division Series against the Padres and getting five outs late in Game 1 of the NLCS. But he gave up a run in each of his two innings as an opener in Game 5 and allowed the first three batters to reach as an opener in Game 7. Three days later, he was coming out of the bullpen again.

“It’s a big ask, to be quite frank,” Roberts said. “Right now, with the off-days, every team is gonna go down a starter, so that’s one thing. And so people have to adjust to certain roles. And when you’re talking about playing seven days in a row and how you can get as many outs as you can in the CS — yeah, these guys are in uncharted territory. Credit to them — they’re not making any excuses. They expect themselves to make pitches.”

The Dodgers traded Kenta Maeda, let Hyun-Jin Ryu and Rich Hill depart via free agency, and lost David Price after he decided to opt out of the 2020 season. And yet they still sported the second-best rotation ERA in the majors during the regular season. May, with his triple-digit sinkers, and Gonsolin, with his nasty sliders, were a major reason for that. They came on so strong that the Dodgers felt comfortable plucking from their starting-pitching depth before the non-waiver trade deadline, sending clubhouse favorite Ross Stripling to the Toronto Blue Jays so that he could finally solidify a spot in a major league rotation.

But May and Gonsolin haven’t come close to resembling the postseason weapons the Dodgers were hoping they would be.

On Tuesday, Brandon Lowe, who entered with a .107/.180/.161 slash line this postseason, homered off each of them. With Julio Urias saved for Game 4, Clayton Kershaw scheduled for Game 5 and Walker Buehler lined up to take the ball in Games 3 and 7, May and Gonsolin will likely continue on in uncertainty.

They’ll need to adapt quickly.

“It’s different, certainly,” Roberts said. “But I still, we still, need those guys to get important outs going forward for us to win this thing.”

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Lowe busts out with 2 HRs as Rays even Series

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ARLINGTON, Texas — Through all the struggles, all the moments when it looked like he should be dropped down in the lineup or out of it altogether, Brandon Lowe believed.

He had built himself into one of the American League’s best hitters, and no slump, not even one during the playoffs, could derail that. The Tampa Bay Rays kept believing in Lowe, too. And in Game 2 of the World Series, both were rewarded handsomely for their faith.

Lowe became the first player to hit two opposite-field home runs in one World Series game, and the Rays’ bullpen bent but didn’t break as they held on for a 6-4 victory Wednesday night to even the series at one game apiece.

The 26-year-old Lowe, an All-Star two years ago as a rookie and a down-ballot MVP candidate this year, had endured a brutal postseason: 6-for-56 with 19 strikeouts and not one multihit game among the 15 the Rays had played. And yet Tampa Bay never wavered — he sat only one game and pinch hit in it — confident that Lowe would find his swing.

“For better or worse,” Rays manager Kevin Cash said before Game 2, “we’re going to stick with guys we have a lot of faith in.”

He had, after all, figured out how to leverage his 5-foot-10, 185-pound frame into one of the great power swings in the AL. With extra time spent analyzing video and recognizing flaws in his swing, he corrected it and saw the dividends early in Game 2.

Lowe, hitting in the No. 2 hole, punished a 95 mph fastball from rookie starter Tony Gonsolin out to left field, giving the Rays an early advantage. He piled on with a two-run shot off rookie Dustin May in the fifth inning, pushing the Rays’ advantage to 5-0.

In the meantime, Rays starter Blake Snell hadn’t allowed a hit, striking out two Dodgers in each of the first four innings. Following the fourth, Snell bounded off the mound, shouting into the expanse of Globe Life Field, to no one and everyone among the crowd of 11,472. He looked like his Cy Young-winning self, his fastball, curveball and slider confounding a group of Dodgers hitters who in Game 1 piled up eight runs through power, patience and proficiency wielding the bat.

The fifth ended Snell’s dreams of a no-hitter — and his night altogether. With two out, he walked Kiké Hernandez and served up a home run to Chris Taylor. After a walk to Mookie Betts and a single by Corey Seager, Snell’s night was over.

Nick Anderson wiped out the inherited runners by striking out Justin Turner, and though he allowed a solo home run to Will Smith and reliever Pete Fairbanks served one up to Seager, the cushion provided by Lowe stood as left-hander Aaron Loup recorded two outs and right-hander Diego Castillo the final out for the save. The win went to Anderson.

Lowe’s multihomer game was the 55th in World Series history, the seventh by a second baseman and the first by a Rays player. And it continued Tampa Bay’s trend of needing home runs to score. The Rays set a record with 28 home runs this postseason, and entering the World Series, nearly 72% of their runs had come via the longball.

The return of the Lowe who helped guide the Rays to the AL East title was a welcome sign for a Tampa Bay team whose offensive struggles were of paramount concern — particularly with the prospect of falling down 0-2 to the Dodgers. Lowe had hit .269/.362/.554 with 14 home runs in 56 games during the regular season and ranked just behind Juan Soto and Ronald Acuña Jr. in wins above replacement.

Now, after a Thursday off-day, the teams return Friday for Game 3 with the best pitching matchup of the series: Dodgers ace Walker Buehler against Rays stalwart Charlie Morton.

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