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Most epic NLDS matchup ever? Answering the big questions about Giants-Dodgers

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Which team is better: the San Francisco Giants or the Los Angeles Dodgers? If you’ve followed our MLB Power Rankings, you’ve seen them flip back and forth, just about all season long, between the No. 1 and No. 2 spots in all of baseball.

The argument for the Dodgers? They’re the defending World Series champions and are positively loaded with star power!

The Giants? They held off L.A. and won the division!

Whichever side you’re on, though, we’re about to find out the answer — at least as far as 2021 is concerned — as the two National League West powerhouses meet up in the NL Division Series after the Dodgers beat the Cardinals in a walk-off on Wednesday night. As we get set for a series that will leave the victor as the favorite to win the pennant, ESPN baseball experts Alden Gonzalez and Tim Keown break down what this matchup means and what each team needs to do to win — and give their picks for who will come out on top.

A 107-win team vs. a 106-win team — is this the most epic NLDS matchup ever?

Gonzalez: Put it this way: I can’t imagine how there could possibly be a better one. Start with the fact that this is one of the most historic rivalries in baseball history, featuring two teams that had previously never faced off in the postseason, then think about how it all ended — with the Dodgers surging down the stretch, fighting fervently to chase down their ninth consecutive division title, and the Giants refusing to cede. The Dodgers went 43-13 after the start of August, yet they made up only two games on the Giants. Wild.

Keown: This question is too limiting. Purely from a record standpoint, this would be the most epic World Series matchup ever in the 162-game era — not even in the Fall Classic have both opponents exceeded 105 wins in the same season. It’s a testament to the talents of these two teams and the futility of many others. Add in the divisional rivalry and the tight matchups this season (10-9 Giants) and the only problem with this series is that we don’t get to see it play out over seven games.

Is this the best rivalry in baseball right now?

Keown: I can only assume you mean besides Dodgers-Padres? (Ah, memories.) Right now, there’s nothing that compares to this one. There are the historical and geographic aspects of the rivalry, sure, but there’s something more elemental at work: The Giants have been crafted, at least in part, by two people (president of baseball operations Farhan Zaidi and manager Gabe Kapler) who also helped to devise the roster-building philosophy that has led to the Dodgers’ recent run of dominance. And they’ve done it in San Francisco very quickly and very similarly, with an emphasis on depth and versatility. These two teams have been so evenly matched this season, with so many fantastic games, that (again) we deserve a seven-game series. Which reminds me: Is there still a dent in the ground in front of the Dodgers’ dugout where Dave Roberts spiked his cap after Darin Ruf‘s (non)check swing?

Gonzalez: Ah, yes, the check swing. Crazy how the division might have been decided by that call, or Sheldon Neuse not stretching on a close play at second base, or Mike Tauchman robbing Albert Pujols of a walk-off home run. Heading into the final regular-season series between these two teams, the Dodgers and Giants had not only split their first 16 games against each other but the combined score was 68-68. The Giants wound up taking two of three, but we deserve more of these games. The only thing that might have kept this from being the best rivalry going was that it became a slow burn. We anticipated that the NL West would come down to Dodgers-Padres, and it seems as if most of America didn’t concede to the Giants being at that level until the regular season concluded.

The Giants will win the series if … ?

Gonzalez: Kris Bryant gets hot again. The Giants’ offense isn’t reliant on one player, of course. Far from it. But Brandon Belt‘s absence leaves a major power void in this lineup. And Bryant is especially capable of filling it. Since the start of September, he’s batting only .245/.353/.347. But he can turn it on quickly. And he’ll need to against a Dodgers pitching staff with an abundance of power right-handed arms.

Keown: I’m tempted to write something facile like, If they continue to be one game better than the Dodgers, but a five-game series is not the same as a 162-game season. To win three of the next five, the Giants need their starting pitchers to go postseason deep — five to six innings — in each game. The bullpen has been phenomenal, and the cometlike emergence of 22-year-old closer Camilo Doval gives them another inning of depth, but it will limit the early- to middle-inning variables if Kevin Gausman, Logan Webb and Anthony DeSclafani (presumably) can work their way through the Dodgers’ lineup three times each. It will also indicate an ability to keep the Dodgers from rolling out four- and five-run innings, a particular specialty of theirs. However: Even this prediction is squishy because the Giants have won games so many different ways, and with so many different contributions (and contributors), that it feels pointless to get too granular about any of it.

The Dodgers will win the series if …?

Gonzalez: Kenley Jansen closes the door. Given how closely matched these two teams have been, it might truly be that simple. The biggest ripple effect of Clayton Kershaw‘s injury might be that Julio Urias will remain a traditional starting pitcher in the postseason — he’ll take the ball in Game 2 — and Roberts won’t have the flexibility to use him in that hybrid bullpen role he has thrived in during prior Octobers. Urias, if you remember, recorded the last out of the World Series last year, not Jansen. Now, though, the ninth inning will belong to Jansen. He has had a very good year — 2.22 ERA, 1.04 WHIP, 30.9 strikeout percentage — but two of his five blown saves came against the Giants.

Keown: It’s equally difficult to be reductive on this side, but Max Muncy‘s elbow injury throws a big bright light on Cody Bellinger. He has been one of the worst offensive players in baseball, and he seems particularly susceptible to swings of confidence. Muncy’s injury leaves Corey Seager as the Dodgers’ only marquee left-handed bat against the Giants’ three right-handed starters (presumably Gausman, Webb and DeSclafani.) Granted, the Dodgers’ offense is good enough at the top and deep enough at the bottom to withstand an injury, even one this major. But Bellinger and his subterranean 45 OPS+ might end up playing first base, which also serves to degrade L.A.’s outfield defense while adding another pitcher-level hitter to the order. Another option at first: Pujols, whose range is roughly his wingspan and who stands a chance of becoming the first player in an NLDS to hit into a 7-4-3 ground ball double play.

Is the winner of this LDS going to the World Series?

Gonzalez: The Brewers were my pick to win the World Series, but then Devin Williams, one of their two most important relievers, broke his hand punching a wall. And one reliever usually doesn’t make that big a difference, but it should, given how good the Dodgers and Giants are. In short — yes, the winner of this series is going to the World Series — assuming the team doesn’t completely exhaust its pitching just to survive what should be a remarkably close LDS.

Keown: Without question. What’s wild about these two teams is how they’ve been forced to play playoff baseball for nearly half a season. How do you win 106 games and finish second? How do you win 107 and be pushed to the final day? One way is by treating nearly every game like Game 7 — or, in the unfortunate reality of our current discussion, Game 5 — and along the way finding out exactly what works and what doesn’t. For this season at least, these two teams have nailed down the formula.

Prediction time! Who ya got and why?

Gonzalez: I predict that the series will be decided in the 15th inning of Game 5. And given how this matchup has played out, I predict that whatever prediction one makes is bound to look foolish in hindsight.

Keown: Giants in five, mostly because betting against them this season, while popular, has proved to be both foolish and unfulfilling. They win, whatever way they can, and scoff at your predictions.

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Boston Red Sox advance to ALCS behind Kiké Hernandez, Rule 5 draft pick-turned-bullpen ace Garrett Whitlock

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BOSTON — As the Red Sox clinched their spot in the American League Championship Series, they rode the backs of two players who entered the season wanting to prove their worth.

Kiké Hernandez entered 2021 wanting to demonstrate that he could be an everyday player in the major leagues after his time with the Los Angeles Dodgers typecast him into a utility man role. Reliever Garrett Whitlock hoped to establish himself as a major leaguer after the Yankees left him off the 40-man roster and Boston selected him in the Rule 5 draft. On Monday night, both players proved crucial to Boston’s walk-off 6-5 victory over the Tampa Bay Rays that cemented the Red Sox’s spot in the ALCS.

“I mean, here we are surprising everybody but ourselves,” Hernandez said. “We knew in spring training we had the team to make it this far and here we are.”

Early on Monday night, it looked like the Red Sox might cruise to the ALCS after scoring five runs in the third inning.

While the Rays slowly chipped away at the lead throughout the night, eventually tying the game in the eighth inning, Boston displayed the resilience that made it the team that led the majors in comeback wins during the regular season, pulling off the walk-off win to reach the ALCS in a season when few expected the Red Sox to be playing this deep into the postseason.

Boston scored the winning run on a walk-off sacrifice fly from Hernandez after Christian Vazquez singled on a ground ball before being moved over to second base on a sacrifice bunt from Christian Arroyo. An infield single by Travis Shaw set up Hernandez, who played a crucial role in sparking the offense in Games 2 and 3 to help propel the Red Sox to the ALCS.

“I was just talking to myself,” Hernandez said. “You’re about to win this game, so you need to work on slowing everything down and slowing your breathing down and slowing the game down and starting early and making sure that you see the pitch, and you’re not just swinging at your shoes for no reasons for trying to be a hero.”

The loss went to reliever J.P. Feyereisen, the eighth pitcher of the night for Tampa Bay, while Whitlock recorded the victory after pitching two innings, allowing no hits and no runs. Whitlock came in after reliever Ryan Brasier blew the save for Boston, allowing two runs to Tampa Bay in the eighth inning on an RBI double for Kevin Kiermaier and an RBI single for Randy Arozarena.

To stop the bleeding, Boston turned to Whitlock. Hernandez said people around the team called Whitlock their secret weapon for most of the season.

“It’s not secret anymore,” Hernandez said. “Garrett Whitlock is legit. That is an electric arm with three-plus pitches at his age with his experience coming into this year. It’s not every day that a Rule 5 pick gets to close out a wild-card game and then wins a game that wins not just a division series, but a playoff series.”

Whitlock arrived in Boston as an unheralded Rule 5 draft pick. While most Rule 5 picks fail to make any impact on a team, the Red Sox’s front office felt optimistic about the reliever, whom it scooped up from the Yankees organization. After some Boston scouts watched videos on Instagram of Whitlock’s offseason bullpen sessions, the team decided to take a chance on the 25-year-old righty.

The gamble paid off, with Whitlock posting a 1.96 ERA with a 1.10 WHIP in 46 games, shaping up to be the best version of the prototypical reliever in the modern game: a versatile pitcher who can come in and be a bullpen Swiss Army knife by throwing multiple innings or closing games and getting hitters out in a variety of ways. Whitlock said a turning point came in Chicago in September, when he gave up a walk-off home run to Leury Garcia.

“I was sitting in the bathroom and Kiké Hernandez came up and like I was down on myself,” Whitlock said. “Kiké came up and he was just like, ‘Hey man, you’ve been huge for us all year. You’re going to continue to be huge for us.’ Once he said that, that gave me a lot of confidence to go.”

Cora said that the success of Whitlock is emblematic of the approach the Red Sox take with scouting.

“Instagram gets a shoutout,” Cora said. “I’m glad that some of the scouts have Instagram and saw him throwing a bullpen. But it was amazing. It was a great day. I’m very proud of everybody.”

Ultimately, Cora said the team won because the Red Sox executed on the fundamentals, a strength of both Hernandez and Whitlock.

“Kiké put the ball in the air, old-school baseball right there,” Cora said. “Fundamental baseball, and we won the ALDS playing good fundamental baseball.”

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Houston Astros manager Dusty Baker says sign-stealing allegations by Chicago White Sox are ‘heavy accusations’

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CHICAGO — Astros manager Dusty Baker pushed back on Chicago White Sox reliever Ryan Tepera‘s comments regarding potential sign stealing by Houston, calling them “heavy accusations.”

“They’re about the same runs, OPS and everything as we are — well, actually, better on the road than we are at home,” Baker said Monday afternoon. “And I think they’re actually better at home than they are on the road.

“So I don’t have much response to that other than I was listening to Eric Clapton this morning, and he had a song, ‘Before You Accuse Me (Take a Look at Yourself).’ … You know what I mean? That’s all I got to say.”

Tepera implied after Sunday’s 12-6 win by the White Sox in Game 3 of the American League Division Series that the Astros might be stealing signs when they play at home, though he didn’t indicate whether they were doing it legally.

“They’ve obviously had a reputation of doing some sketchy stuff over there, and we can say that it’s a little bit of a difference,” Tepera said after Game 3 on Sunday night. “I think you saw the swings and misses tonight compared to the first two games at Minute Maid [Park].”

The Astros struck out 16 times in Game 3 in Chicago, their total from the first two games combined. Houston ranked fourth in OPS at home in the American League during the regular season and first on the road; the White Sox were third at home and seventh on the road.

The Astros were disciplined by Major League Baseball after it found the team used electronics to steal signs during their run to the 2017 World Series title and again in the 2018 season.

MLB’s investigation found Houston used a video feed from a center-field camera to see and decode the opposing catcher’s signs during home games. Players banged on a trash can to signal to batters what was coming, believing it would improve the batter’s odds of getting a hit.

The Astros haven’t been found guilty of anything since.

“Are we aware that there are certain teams out there that are better at relaying signs at second base? Yeah, absolutely,” White Sox reliever Aaron Bummer said Monday. “But does that change anything to say it’s sketchy too much? Maybe. I have no idea.”

Houston catcher Martin Maldonado on Monday posted on Twitter that it’s “always good to get a extra motivation.”

Astros third baseman Alex Bregman, who played for the Astros in 2017, had little to say Monday when asked about Tepera’s comments.

“Whatever works,” Bregman said. “It’s all good. We’re just focused on winning games. That’s it.”

White Sox manager Tony La Russa didn’t provide an opinion on Tepera’s comments, but he approved of his reliever’s right to say whatever he wanted.

“I don’t get into that stuff,” La Russa said. “I just don’t get into it. And I try to realize this is America, and players can say what they want to, and I can say that I don’t want to get into it if I want to. I think that they’re a very good team, and they’re tough to beat. That’s what I think.”

White Sox fans chanted, “Cheater! Cheater!” when Jose Altuve, Carlos Correa and Bregman batted on Monday.

“They’ll probably have to deal with it forever, really, because people don’t forget,” Baker said. “They pass along information seemingly from one generation to the next. This is just something, I feel badly, but this is something we have to deal with.”

The Astros lead the series 2-1. Game 4 was postponed Monday because of weather and will be played on Tuesday. Game 5, if necessary, will be played on Wednesday night in Houston. And if that happens, all eyes will be on the Astros once again.

“People can say whatever they want,” Bregman said. “It’s all good.”

The Associated Press contributed to this report.



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ALDS Game 4 between Houston Astros, Chicago White Sox postponed until Tuesday

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Given an extra day of rest due to the postponement of Game 4 until Tuesday, the Houston Astros will instead start Lance McCullers Jr. against the Chicago White Sox, the team announced.

Game 4 of the American League Division Series was originally scheduled for Monday afternoon, but it was postponed until Tuesday because of rain in the forecast.

Jose Urquidy had been Houston’s scheduled starter for Monday’s game, but manager Dusty Baker instead will look to close out the series with McCullers, who was dominant in Game 1 while holding Chicago without a run in 6 2/3 innings.

The Astros lead the best-of-five series 2-1.

White Sox manager Tony La Russa said he will stick with Carlos Rodon in Game 4 on Tuesday, with Game 1 starter Lance Lynn available out of the bullpen.

La Russa said Lynn or Lucas Giolito would start a potential Game 5 Wednesday at Houston depending on how things go Tuesday.

The Associated Press contributed to this report.

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