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Takeaways: Astros make history, even ALCS with Rays

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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.

Key links: Ranking the remaining teams | Inside return of fans for NLCS | Schedule, bracket


American League Championship Series Game 6: Houston Astros 7, Tampa Bay Rays 4

What it means: After the Astros held on to beat the Rays, a postseason series between the two teams comes down to a winner-take-all game for the second straight season.

Last year, Houston won Game 5 of the ALDS at Minute Maid Park thanks to eight dominant innings out of Gerrit Cole. The Rays have already survived — if not defeated — Cole this season, having done so in the last round against the Yankees in a decisive Game 5, but that does them no good here, when the stakes are even higher. This is a very different Astros pitching staff that has stifled Tampa Bay for most of six games, featuring three Rays wins followed by three Astros wins.

If history is any consolation for a Rays club that has watched the series slip slide away over the last three days, it’s that in the only other Game 7 in franchise history, Joe Maddon led Tampa Bay past Boston in the 2008 ALCS and into the World Series.

To repeat that, the challenge for the Rays is to push aside the tide of momentum. They won three, then the Astros won three. The Rays’ pitching staff is set up better for Game 7, as Kevin Cash didn’t have to dip into his top bullpen tier on Friday. Some of Houston’s top relievers have been worked hard in this series, and so it will be crucial for Lance McCullers Jr. to go deep for the Astros.

Speaking of McCullers, he started the biggest Game 7 in Astros history, beginning the clincher over the Dodgers in the 2017 World Series. He didn’t allow a run in that game but lasted only 2 1/3 innings. The Astros closed it out thanks to four sparkling innings from Charlie Morton, who is likely to start the deciding game for the Rays on Saturday.

So if you’re Tampa Bay, and you can set aside the doubt that creeps in when you’ve dropped three in a row, you can realize that you entered the series as a heavy favorite because, over the course of the season and through the first two rounds of the playoffs, you established yourselves as the American League’s best team. The Rays remain the favorite to win the series. But it sure doesn’t feel that way.

If you’re the Astros, now that you’ve forced one more game, you feel like you’ve got one foot in the World Series. For some — the Astros haters — it’s a nightmare scenario. For others, especially those rooting for Dusty Baker to land his elusive first World Series title as a manager, this is shaping up as quite a story.

Game 7. McCullers versus Morton. The American League pennant is on the line. What else could you ask for? — Bradford Doolittle

Next up: Game 7: Rays vs. Astros (in San Diego), 8:37 p.m. ET Saturday


Previous games

ALCS

Game 5: Houston Astros 4, Tampa Bay Rays 3

What it means: The Rays still have the series lead, but suddenly the Astros are out-Raysing the Rays, and because of that Houston has already made history.

Carlos Correa mashed a game-winning homer to dead center field off Rays closer Nick Anderson in the bottom of the ninth, as the Astros beat the Rays to force a Game 6. In doing so after dropping the first three games of the series, Houston became just the fourth of 38 teams to fall behind 3-0 in a series and come back to force a sixth game. Only the 2004 Red Sox, who came all the way back from a 3-0 hole to beat the Yankees in the ALCS, have forced a Game 7. — Doolittle

Game 4: Houston Astros 4, Tampa Bay Rays 3

What it means: 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.

Manager Dusty 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.

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. — Doolittle

Game 3: Tampa Bay Rays 5, Houston Astros 2

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

Game 2: Tampa Bay Rays 4, Houston Astros 2

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

Game 1: Tampa Bay Rays 2, Houston Astros 1

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


NLCS

Game 4: Atlanta Braves 10, Los Angeles Dodgers 2

What it means: If the Braves were going to defeat the Dodgers in this NLCS, and eliminate a star-studded team that won 43 of 60 regular-season games, they needed to be about more than just Max Fried and Ian Anderson in their rotation. In Game 4, Bryse Wilson — a 22-year-old who had accumulated only 15 2/3 innings this season — showed they might be.

Wilson, pitching amid wind gusts that were blowing in at up to 15 mph, tamed a Dodgers lineup that scored a record-breaking 11 runs in the first inning of Game 3, limiting them to a solo home run and no other hits through the first six innings. It paved the way for his high-powered offense to come alive in the bottom of the sixth. — Gonzalez

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. — Gonzalez

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.

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

Game 1: Atlanta Braves 5, Los Angeles Dodgers 1

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

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Joe Thornton spoke to Joe Montana about leaving Bay Area

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While considering a move to the Toronto Maple Leafs as a free agent, center Joe Thornton of the San Jose Sharks sought as much advice as possible.

He spoke with family and friends. He spoke with Joe Pavelski and Patrick Marleau, former San Jose teammates who left the team via free agency. But Thornton said the most memorable guidance he received was from another Bay Area sports legend.

“I actually talked to Joe Montana. I think Joe gave me some good advice. He just talked about leaving San Francisco and going to Kansas City,” said Thornton, who signed a one-year deal with the Leafs on Friday.

In 1993, Montana requested a trade from the 49ers, who shipped the 37-year-old quarterback to Kansas City, where he finished his career with the Chiefs.

“I had so many people I talked to over the last week. I’m just blessed I had a chance to talk to some great people. He was one guy who offered me some good advice,” Thornton said.

Thornton, 41, is skating with HC Davos in the Swiss National League in preparation for the upcoming NHL season. His contract with the Leafs is for $700,000.

The decision to join Toronto ended Thornton’s 15-season run with the Sharks. In 1,636 games with San Jose and the Boston Bruins, he amassed 1,509 points — most among active players. He’s 14th all time in career points and seventh in career assists (1,089). He won the NHL scoring title and MVP honors in 2005-06.

“The emotions I feel are appreciation and reflection. It’s hard to put into words what Joe meant for this franchise over 15 seasons,” San Jose general manager Doug Wilson said. “I think there are very few players in pro sports that can alter a franchise the way he did.”

Thornton praised the organization and the fans in San Jose.

“They loved me and I loved them right back,” he said. “The Shark Tank was one of the best buildings to play in, and we had a lot of memories there.”

But after he and Wilson were unable to find a landing spot for Thornton on a contender at the most recent trade deadline, the veteran center found one through free agency.

“It was probably the hardest hockey decision I ever had to make. But with the roster [the Maple Leafs] have, the guys that they picked up this offseason, they’re ready to win now and I’m ready to win,” Thornton said.

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Zeke on Dallas loss: ‘I’m sorry; this one is on me’

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ARLINGTON, Texas — Dallas Cowboys running back Ezekiel Elliott was not blaming any part of the 38-10 loss to the Arizona Cardinals on Dak Prescott‘s absence. He was putting it all on himself.

“I don’t think we can use that as an excuse,” Elliott said of not having Prescott because of a compound fracture and dislocated right ankle. “I’m just going to keep saying it over and over — I started the game out with two fumbles, gave the ball away and gave them all the momentum they need to go take off. I want to say I’m sorry and this one is on me. I need to be better.”

Elliott finished with 49 yards on 12 carries and caught a team-high eight passes but for just 31 yards. However, it was fumbles on back-to-back drives in the first and second quarters that changed the complexion of the game.

The first fumble came after catching a short pass from Andy Dalton on second down, but safety Budda Baker stripped the ball free and Jordan Phillips recovered. Eleven plays later Kyler Murray and Christian Kirk hooked up for a 6-yard flip for a touchdown.

Two plays into the next possession, Elliott fumbled again with Phillips poking the ball free at the Dallas 30. Five plays later, Kenyon Drake scored the Cardinals’ second touchdown and a 14-0 lead.

“I mean, when you’re fumbling every game obviously teams are going to lock in on it and go for it even more,” Elliott said. “That’s even more of a reason I need to figure it out, man. I don’t want to keep talking about it, but I’ve got to figure out a way to figure it out.”

When the Cowboys took the field after Elliott’s second fumble, Tony Pollard was the running back. When Elliott returned to the field after eight snaps, there was a murmur among the crowd.

“Every player that plays in this league, no different on our football team, if you don’t take care of the football, it does affect your opportunities,” coach Mike McCarthy said. “Tony got an opportunity and I thought he did some really good things with his opportunities.”

Elliott has lost a career-high four fumbles in six games and the opponents have turned every takeaway into a touchdown. According to ESPN Stats & Information, the other top-10 rushers have combined for three lost fumbles in nearly 900 fewer touches this season. Elliott has 133 touches, while the nine other backs have 1,014 touches.

“I’m giving the ball away,” Elliott said. “I wasn’t helping my team. I think they did the right thing and gave some of those reps to TP, but I can’t do that. I have to be a guy this team can lean on, especially at times like right now with so many of our starters hurt and not playing. So it’s not acceptable and I need to figure it out.”

Elliott said he focuses on keeping the ball tight in practice. The Cowboys do ball-handling drills every day in practice.

“I just got to have a short memory,” Elliott said. “I’ve got to get that behind me and play some good ball and get on a roll.”

Elliott has gone a career-long six games without a 100-yard outing. He had a five-game drought in Weeks 10-14 last season. He had not gone more than two games to open a season without a 100-yard game to his credit.

Some of that can be pinned on a defense that has struggled, but 84 of the 218 points the Cowboys have allowed this season have come off turnovers.

“He understands that. He knows that,” Dalton said. “Zeke’s going to get this thing fixed.”

He also knows he needs to get it fixed quickly.

“At the end of the day, Zeke is our bell cow, and we need to get it right,” McCarthy said. “He’s part of the plan. He’s going to be part of the success. We have to get it right. We have to take care of the football and that’s for everybody that touches the football on our team.”

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Allen says Bills ‘can’t afford’ his recent struggles

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After a 4-0 start to the season during which Josh Allen resembled a possible MVP candidate, the Buffalo Bills have now dropped two games in a row, with their struggling quarterback acknowledging, “This team can’t afford to have me play poorly.”

Playing in his second consecutive prime-time game Monday night, Allen completed just 14 of 27 passes for 122 yards against the Kansas City Chiefs in a performance reminiscent of his 2018 and 2019 seasons. Although he threw two touchdown passes, he also recorded his fourth interception of the season and missed receivers throughout the game, culminating in a 26-17 loss in Orchard Park, New York.

The third-year quarterback took responsibility for his performance, directly tying his team’s success — or lack thereof — to his play.

“We weren’t good enough — I was not good enough. I got to do a better job, it’s plain and simple,” Allen said. “I didn’t play very good tonight. I know that. I understand that. This team can’t afford to have me play poorly.

“Early on just not being as accurate with the ball as I should have been. Making the right reads, making the right throws, and we turned it on a little too late there.”

Through the first four weeks of the season, only Dallas‘ Dak Prescott threw for more yards than Allen’s 1,326, and only Seattle‘s Russell Wilson and Green Bay‘s Aaron Rodgers threw for more touchdowns than Allen’s 12. After failing to eclipse 300 passing yards in a game during his first two professional seasons, Allen did so in three consecutive outings to open 2020, including a career-high 415 yards against the Miami Dolphins in Week 2.

However, he looked far from an MVP candidate during a 42-16 loss to the Tennessee Titans in Week 5; he completed 26 of 41 passes for a then-season-low 263 yards, two touchdowns and season-high two interceptions.

Against the Chiefs, Allen’s 122 passing yards marked his lowest total since Week 6 of his rookie season, excluding a Week 17 game against the New York Jets last season when he played only one series.

Allen and the Bills get a bounce-back game against the winless Jets in Week 7 before hosting the New England Patriots in Week 8.

Buffalo has publicly stated its goal of winning the AFC East for the first time since 1995, and in order for the Bills to do so, Allen must return to a level of play comparable to what he showed during the first four weeks of the season.

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