The National League Division Series between the NL West champion Giants and the defending World Series champion Dodgers comes down to a deciding Game 5 at San Francisco’s Oracle Park.
Ahead of the grand finale, ESPN baseball experts Alden Gonzalez and Tim Keown tackle some of the key questions about the series so far — and what it might mean for the clincher.
Has this NLDS lived up to the hype — and will tonight’s finale surpass it?
Gonzalez: It’s pretty incredible that we’re four games into this series and have yet to experience a single lead change. But that doesn’t take away from how tense these games have felt. Big, series-altering moments have been sprinkled throughout, but they have been subtle. Like Logan Webb recording an out on a slow roller up the first-base line in the eighth inning of Game 1, atoning for an error he made on almost the exact same play four innings earlier. Or Cody Bellinger ambushing Dominic Leone‘s first-pitch fastball in the sixth inning of Game 2, breaking out of mystifying struggles in dramatic fashion. Or Steven Duggar, in the lineup for his defense, running down a deep drive by Chris Taylor through hellish winds in the sixth inning of Game 3. Or Walker Buehler, starting on short rest for the first time in his career, pitching around back-to-back singles in the second inning of Game 4, setting an important tone for a performance that saved the Dodgers’ season. Expect more of these.
Keown: Game 5 creates its own hype, so whatever has happened to this point — and it has been a good but not great series, in my opinion — will be subsumed by the energy and anticipation of a deciding game. Given the previous 23 games between these two teams in 2021, there’s every reason to believe the last one will be tight and well-played. It’s cool, and fitting, that they get the entire stage to themselves.
What has surprised you most through the first four games?
Gonzalez: How good Gavin Lux has looked. He nearly tied the game with two outs in the ninth inning of Game 3, sending a deep drive to center that was knocked down by the wind, then got the start in Game 4 and reached base four times, drawing a couple of walks and lining a couple of singles. Lux, 23, has been one of the Dodgers’ most heralded prospects over the past handful of years, a future cornerstone the team refused to trade in multiple instances. But he struggled mightily through infrequent plate appearances in 2020 and didn’t take advantage of an opportunity for semi-regular playing time in 2021. Lux made two trips to the injured list, was demoted to the minors in late August, then learned to play the outfield in a desperate effort to contribute. When he came back up on Sept. 10, Dodgers manager Dave Roberts noticed a calmer, more efficient load and approach. It began to translate into production that spilled into the postseason, assuring that Lux will start in the winner-take-all Game 5. “He’ll be in there somewhere,” Roberts said Tuesday night.
Keown: How much the Giants have missed Brandon Belt’s production in the middle of the order. When Belt and Max Muncy were declared out for this round of the playoffs, the depth of the Giants’ roster seemed like a major advantage. It hasn’t turned out that way. It’s clear Bellinger has been gaining confidence with each at-bat, and Lux is turning himself into a problem for San Francisco. The Giants have gotten production from Tommy La Stella, Kris Bryant and Buster Posey. Evan Longoria has looked good just once, but it won Game 3. The lack of production from LaMonte Wade Jr., Mike Yastrzemski and Darin Ruf is surprising; taken individually, it wouldn’t be a big deal, but they’re all struggling at the same time. During the Giants’ hero-of-the-day regular season, that was rare.
The best play I’ve seen so far in this series is …
Gonzalez: This series is completely different if not for the leaping catch Brandon Crawford made late in Game 3. The Giants led by a run in the bottom of the seventh, with runners on first and second and two outs. Mookie Betts smoked a 100-mph line drive with an expected batting average of nearly .900. It wasn’t just that Crawford was athletic enough to catch it, but that he was positioned perfectly to do so, a fitting representation of what has made the Giants such an impressive defensive team this season.
Keown: We’re going to differentiate between aesthetics and importance here. The double play turned by La Stella and Crawford on Justin Turner in the fourth inning of Game 1 was among a handful of the best defensive plays of the entire season. La Stella fielded the ball on the third-base side of second with all of his momentum heading toward left field, made a backhand flip to Crawford, who glided over the bag like a speed skater and made a cross-body throw to first. Each runner was out by the length of a shoelace, making it obvious how perfect all of it — the flip, the turn, the throw — had to be. However, the most important play was Crawford’s catch of Betts’ liner in the seventh inning of Game 3, but here’s where Crawford’s ho-hum brilliance comes into play: If you’ve watched him closely this season, you would have been surprised if he didn’t make that catch.
The X factor has been …
Gonzalez: For the Dodgers, it has undoubtedly been Buehler. He took the loss in Game 1, but he gave his team a chance to win despite Webb’s dominance on the other side. More importantly, his taking the ball on short rest in Game 4 assured that the Dodgers would navigate through this series with their top three starters (Buehler, Max Scherzer and Julio Urias). The loss of Clayton Kershaw — and Trevor Bauer and Dustin May and Danny Duffy and, don’t forget, Cole Hamels — leaves a big question in the fourth spot of the Dodgers’ rotation. Their key to advancing through October will be for Buehler, Scherzer and Urias to absorb as many of the starts as possible, if not all of them. Any other circumstance could exhaust the Dodgers’ bullpen.
Keown: Dodger hitters rediscovering their patience after flailing at everything Webb threw at them in Game 1. Webb pounded the zone early, got the Dodgers in swing mode and then used his off-speed pitches to expand. After the game, he was shushed by Posey in the interview room when he suggested that was the game plan. The Dodgers, normally a disciplined group that runs up pitch counts in that ultra-modern way, appeared more than happy to accommodate. From that point on, though, even while losing 1-0 in Game 3, the Dodgers became more discerning. As a result, they were able to get themselves into advantageous counts and seek out mistakes. It sets up an intriguing sidelight to Game 5: Was this a Dodgers thing, or a Webb thing?
What will be the impact of returning to San Francisco?
Gonzalez: The Giants will benefit from a raucous Oracle Park crowd that helped fuel them to a 54-27 home record during the regular season, but the biggest advantage — aside from batting last, an important element of a series that has been so close — is how their pitching lines up. Webb, who threw 7⅔ scoreless innings in Game 1, will be fully rested. But so will Kevin Gausman, who can provide whatever the Giants need out of the bullpen. And so will lights-out Camilo Doval, who recorded six outs in Game 3 but wasn’t used in Game 4. It’s easy to envision a scenario in which the Giants use only those three pitchers on Thursday night, though inevitably, one would think, Tyler Rogers will factor in.
Keown: The scene inside Oracle Park before Game 1, the first postseason game between these two rivals, was wild. Fans walked shoulder to shoulder through concourses and up ramps chanting “Beat L.A.” so vehemently you could feel it in your fillings. That figures to be tame compared to a Game 5, winner-take-all game between these two teams, but it’s not the atmosphere alone that is working in San Francisco’s favor. The Game 3 win allowed the Giants to keep Webb on normal rest and put the Northern California native in front of the home crowd again. He hasn’t been around that long, but he has definitely given every indication he thrives off the big moment. This one is the biggest.
You both predicted before this series that the winner would go on to the World Series. Do you still believe that? And from what you’ve seen from the rest of the teams in the playoffs this week, will they win it?
Gonzalez: Heading in, there were two teams that I thought would give the Dodgers or the Giants trouble. One was the Milwaukee Brewers, but that was before Devin Williams punched himself out of the postseason. The other was the Tampa Bay Rays, the only other team that can pitch and execute and match up with either of the two. Both have been eliminated. The Houston Astros look especially dangerous, but I still have questions about their pitching. So, yes, I think the winner of this series will be the best team remaining by a significant margin. Small samples might neutralize that, but the Giants and Dodgers have a clear advantage over the rest of the field.
Keown: The team that wins Game 5 will go to the World Series, but I’ve seen enough from the Braves to feel safe in predicting it won’t be easy. My World Series prediction, which means nothing and should be treated as such, was the Astros over the Giants. Houston’s offense is good enough to overcome its starting pitching, and that’s saying a lot. There’s almost no confidence behind this, but I’m sticking with it because the Astros right now look like a team that can hit itself out of almost any predicament.
So: Which team will win tonight? And who will be the hero?
Gonzalez: The Dodgers will be far more readily equipped for Webb’s east-west approach in Game 5, but the presence of Gausman potentially providing bulk innings behind him — with a completely different pitch mix — plays in the Giants’ favor. That, plus the home-field advantage, will propel the Giants to victory. And the big hit will be delivered by Posey because, well, of course.
Keown: Giants in a close one, possibly involving extra innings and definitely involving the vast majority of the Giants’ roster. The easy call is to say Webb will be the hero, and I fully expect him to pitch deep into the night and come close to his Game 1 performance, but the hallmark of the Giants’ season has been the conga line of unexpected heroes. I don’t know why, but with lefty Urias pitching, it feels like a Ruf kind of night. He’s 0-for-7 with four strikeouts in the series, which means he’s either slumping or due for a breakout. I say the latter.
Eddie Rosario’s 4-hit, 2-homer night gives Atlanta Braves 3-1 lead over Los Angeles Dodgers in NLCS
Rosario banged out four hits in a game for the second time in the National League Championship Series and tied a Braves postseason record with 12 total bases, leading Atlanta to a 9-2 win over the defending champion Los Angeles Dodgers on Wednesday. With the victory, the Braves seized a commanding 3-1 series lead over Los Angeles and can clinch their first pennant since 1999 with a win at Dodger Stadium in Game 5 on Thursday.
“This whole postseason he’s been pretty much unbelievable,” said Braves leader Freddie Freeman, who homered, doubled, walked and got overshadowed by Rosario’s spree.
Rosario fell a double short of becoming the second player to hit for the cycle in a postseason game, but only because his bat is almost too hot. With a homer, triple and single already in the books, Rosario cleared the fence with a drive to right in the ninth inning for his second homer of the game, a three-run shot that capped a four-run Atlanta rally that broke open the game.
“It’s postseason, no matter what, the cycle, I want to try to help the team to win,” Rosario said. “Three RBI is better than hitting a double.”
On Sept. 19, Rosario hit for the cycle against the San Francisco Giants, needing just five pitches to do so. That kicked off a hot streak that has continued right on into the highest-stakes games of his career. Beginning with that game, Rosario has hit .354 with five homers over a 22-game span. And when his bat is referred to as being hot, it’s just that — one particular hot bat. Rosario said he has been using the same stick with which he hit for the cycle.
“I’ve been using that bat that I hit for the cycle with and it has not disappointed,” Rosario said. “I had that double remaining, and I’m like, man, this bat has not let me down yet.”
During the NLCS, Rosario has hit .588 with a pair of four-hit games. He’s the first player to have a pair of four-hit games in the same LCS. Only Hall of Famer Robin Yount, who did it in the 1982 World Series, has done it in any postseason series.
Not bad for a player who was non-tendered by the Minnesota Twins last fall, didn’t latch on to a new team until February, struggled during a half-season with the Cleveland Indians and then was dealt away at the trade deadline.
“I came here and I wanted to show my name, showcase my talents and prove to the people the kind of ballplayer that I am,” Rosario said. “I feel like I had success in Minnesota and I struggled a little bit in Cleveland, so when I came over here I definitely wanted to make sure that I showcased my talents appropriately.”
As postgame questioners were all too willing to remind the Braves after Wednesday’s game, Atlanta also held a 3-1 lead over the Dodgers in the NLCS last season, only to drop three straight to L.A. and finish one game short of snapping the franchise’s pennant drought. But with every question asked in that vein, the Braves have had a pretty simple response: This is a different team and a different year.
“[It is] 2021,” Freeman said. “2020 was last year. This is a whole different team, a whole different thing. So if anybody’s thinking about 2020, I think everybody wants to be in a 3-1 lead, so we’ll take it.”
The different team part has been on full display against the Dodgers. Rosario and two other in-season outfield acquisitions — Joc Pederson and Adam Duvall — have led the Braves’ offense this series. The trio has combined to hit .404 with four homers and 14 RBIs against L.A. Everyone else has hit .225 with two homers and seven RBIs.
Atlanta still has to take that final step, but things could hardly line up better for the Braves than on Thursday. That’s because baseball’s hottest hurler, Max Fried, will take the mound, while the Dodgers will go with a bullpen game to save their season. Fried, who hails from southern California and grew up a Dodgers fan, has a shot to close the door on his boyhood club.
“What he’s done in the second half and pretty much over the whole course of the season, after the first couple weeks, every time you see No. 54 on that mound you got a real good feeling,” Freeman said.
If Freeman’s feelings are prescient, the Braves will be headed back to the World Series for the first time this century.
“I was very young when they went, the last time they went,” Freeman said. “So we got a good team and we’re playing really good baseball and hopefully we can take this thing home and get to the World Series.”
Los Angeles Dodgers All-Star Justin Turner likely out for rest of postseason with hamstring injury
LOS ANGELES — His hamstring injured and his season likely over, Justin Turner got to within 25 feet of first base and tried to stop. He throttled back, hobbling at first before slowing enough to turn the hobble to a limp. Slowly, painfully, he worked his way back to the Dodgers‘ dugout, wincing with every step, before Albert Pujols helped him down the stairs and through the tunnel that leads to to the clubhouse.
So now, one loss away from an inglorious end to a remarkable season, the Dodgers are faced with overcoming a 3-1 deficit in the NL Championship Series without their All-Star third baseman, who sustained a hamstring injury while hitting into a double-play in the seventh inning of the 9-2 loss against the Atlanta Braves in Game 4 on Wednesday night.
Dodgers manager Dave Roberts revealed in his postgame interview that the early indication is that Turner has a Grade 2 strain, which is defined as a partial tear of one or more hamstring muscles.
“So, I think that’ll be it for him,” Roberts said. The normal recovery period for a partial tear is four to eight weeks.
Turner’s injury is just one more addition to the Dodgers’ list of unavailable star players. Clayton Kershaw has been out since the beginning of October with a forearm/elbow injury, and first baseman Max Muncy was lost for at least through the NLCS with an elbow injury he suffered on the final day of the regular season.
Turner is one of several Dodgers’ regulars who have struggled offensively during the postseason. He had just one hit in 20 at bats in the five games against the Giants in the NLDS, and he jokingly asked for the ball after that one hit, a single. In four games against the Braves, Turner has two hits, a walk and a hit by pitch in 12 plate appearances.
Roberts, who was in no mood to expound on much of anything after his team’s loss on Wednesday, said he spoke to Turner and described his mood as, “obviously, very disappointed.” Asked how Turner’s absence might impact his team’s psyche, Roberts said, “Honestly, what I’m thinking about, and what I expect our guys to think about, is only tomorrow.”
The Dodgers didn’t make Turner available to reporters after the game.
The injury occurred with the Dodgers trailing 5-2 and Walker Buehler, pinch-running after Pujols led off the inning with a pinch-hit single, at first base. Turner hit a ground ball to short, and Dansby Swanson — seeing Turner pull up — took the ball to second on his own and threw to first for the double play.
“I feel bad for Justin,” Dodgers outfielder AJ Pollock said. “JT — he’s a warrior. You could see him walking off the field. It’s a hamstring. I’ll let him talk to you about that, but you never want to see your teammate go down.”
MLB playoffs 2021 – How a word with no English equivalent helped Astros get one win from World Series
BOSTON — Sisu.
It’s a Finnish word which, according to Finland’s tourism website, typifies the enduring spirit of all Finns: “stoic determination, hardiness, courage, bravery, willpower, tenacity and resilience.”
It’s also the word Houston Astros pitching coach, Brent Strom, used to his pitchers in a meeting before Game 4 of the American League Championship Series on Tuesday. The message he delivered might be the difference maker in this series, because over the following two days, Astros pitchers held the previously red-hot Boston Red Sox offense to just three runs — and are returning to Houston with a 3-2 series lead.
“I talked to them about getting out of their comfort zone and taking it a step further,” Strom told ESPN after the Astros’ 9-1 win in Game 5 on Wednesday. “People laugh at me about this but ‘sisu’ harkens back to when the Soviets invaded Finland and [the Finnish] were outnumbered in men, 3 to 1, 400 airplanes to 32, 600 tanks to 27. And they held them to a stalemate.”
Strom wanted his young pitchers to rise to the occasion, even when it seemed everything was working against them. The Astros had given up a whopping 21 runs in Games 2 and 3, and the series seemed to be slipping away.
“I’ve been very blessed with the [Justin] Verlanders and the [Gerrit] Coles and the [Dallas] Keuchels and all these guys that have been there, done it,” Strom said. “This is a whole new group right now and I just asked them to dig a little deep.
“The bullpen was taxed. We were beat up a little. But they stepped up in a big way.”
Strom got 7.2 innings of scoreless baseball from his pen in Game 4, then got the performance of the series in the form of lefty starter Framber Valdez, who went eight innings in Game 5. Valdez took “sisu” to heart after a bad start in Game 1 when he lasted just 2.2 innings.
“I had a really ugly outing,” Valdez said through a translator. “I felt humiliated after that first outing and I set my mind on not letting that happen again. I did everything I could to work as hard as I possibly could to come back and have success in this outing.”
Boston managed just three hits off of him. Red Sox manager Alex Cora called Valdez’s sinker “unreal.”
“Walks have been an issue in the past but we saw him throw a lot of strikes today,” Strom said. “They had a tough time getting the ball out of the infield. When you throw ground balls, sometimes the cost of one out equals two.”
In Valdez’s only moment of trouble, it wasn’t Strom who went to the mound to talk to him — it was Astros manager Dusty Baker. With two on and no outs in the fifth inning with a 1-0 score, this would be the key moment.
“I didn’t say a whole bunch to him,” Baker recalled. “It was kind of like you call a 20-second timeout in basketball and try to take the air out of the game. That was a 20-second timeout that probably took 15 seconds.”
Strom believed it was either just the “first or second time” all season Baker went to the mound without pulling his pitcher.
“Whatever Dusty said to him was better than what I could have done,” he said with a smile. “I just pray a lot.”
Strom reiterated to Valdez before the game, as he had in their pitchers meeting the night before, that he needed to get ahead in the count.
Through the first four games of the ALCS, the Astros averaged 40 pitches per game in hitter’s counts. On Wednesday, Valdez threw just 14.
“In the first game, even in our place, he was amped up,” Strom said. “First time in a playoff game with [fans]. It was like spring training last year.”
Even Cora noticed the difference — although he didn’t mention “sisu.”
“They made some adjustments,” he said. “There’s a few things they’re doing that they didn’t do in the first three games, and we just got to be ready.”
Throwing strikes is No. 1 on that list. It was the one bit of technical advice Strom gave his pitchers after asking them to dig deep.
“This is a very good Red Sox offense which controls the strike zone very well,” Strom said. “J.D Martinez is a great leader of them. We had to take the strike zone back.”
Strom pointed at one pitch, well before the Renfroe double play on Wednesday, which indicated to him they were in for a different night from their starter. In the bottom of the first, Valdez threw seven pitches to Red Sox leadoff man Kiké Hernandez. That seventh, on a full count, was a beauty of a sinker on the inside portion of the plate. Hernandez was caught looking.
In the dugout, Strom sighed in relief. The Red Sox had been scoring so much, so early in this series. He knew the last thing Houston needed was a free pass to the first Red Sox batter.
“A strikeout rather than a walk,” Strom said. “Maybe it’s just me but sometimes you go, ‘Oh s—, here we go again.’ [But] that changed the narrative a little bit.”
Perhaps it changed in that meeting room, at a time when the Astros pitching staff had to reset itself or start making offseason vacation plans. The feeling in Fenway after Game 3 was that the series may not go back to Houston. Instead, the Astros are one win from another World Series appearance with two home games waiting for them.
“It’s just about determination and grit, going beyond your comfort zone,” Strom said. “That’s the word they used.”
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