October 14, 2021 [LINK / comment]

Red Sox, Astros, Braves advance; Dodgers survive

Thus far the 2021 MLB postseason is proceeding in a rather predictable, consistent way. The home teams won the two wild card games (see below), and did likewise in the opening games of all four divisional series. In contrast, the visiting team prevailed in Game 2 of three of the four divisional series, and three of those four series were ultimately decided in Game 4.

The American League divisional series got underway in St. Petersburg and Houston last Thursday, October 7th. Astros pitcher Lance McCullers Jr. went 6 2/3 innings without giving up a run, and the [Astros easily beat the White Sox], 6-1. In Game 2 the White Sox took a 4-2 lead in the top of the 5th inning, but the Astros came right back to tie it, as their star ace pitcher Lucas Giolito (a former National) faltered. Thanks to a 5-run rally in the 7th inning (for which Chicago relievers Aaron Bummer and veteran Craig Kimbrel were jointly responsible), the Astros secured the 9-4 win. At home on Sunday, the White Sox fell behind 5-1 in the top of the 3rd, but just when things looked bleakest they came roaring back with 5 runs in the bottom of that inning, and 3 more in the 4th. Final score: 12-6. Rain forced a postponement of Game 4 until Tuesday. The White Sox took an early lead when rookie Gavin Sheets* hit a solo home run in the 2nd inning, but that was the last run they would score as the Astros eventually won it, 10-1.

* While chatting about baseball with a retail cashier last month, I learned that he was a second cousin of Gavin Sheets, who was born in Lutherville, MD and played college baseball at Wake Forest. It's a small world! Sheets was called up by the White Sox from the AAA Charlotte Knights in late June, and hit a home run in his second-ever MLB game! He went back down to Charlotte in early August, and then returned to Chicago at the beginning of September. He finished the regular season with an amazing 11 home runs, in only 160 total at bats. He seems to have quite a promising future!

The Tampa Bay Rays beat the Boston Red Sox 5-0 in their series opener, sparked by Randy Arozarena who homered in the 5th inning and actually stole home in the 7th inning. You don't see that very often! Game 2 was a wild one, as the Rays came right back with 5 runs after Boston scored two runs in the top of the first inning. As the innings passed, the Red Sox kept putting runs on the board, and the Rays' relief pitchers couldn't seem to stop them. Former Cardinal pitcher Michael Wacha gave up 6 runs in the final three innings, as the Red Sox won it, 14-6. In Boston for Game 3, the Rays rallied to tie it 4-4 in the top of the 8th inning, but wasted crucial run-scoring opportunites as the game went on into the 13th inning. That's when Christian Vazquez hit a 2-run homer to give the Red Sox a 6-4 victory. Game 4 featured a similar heroic comeback effort by the Rays that wasn't quite enough: Down 5-0 after 3 innings, they tied it 5-5 in the top of the 8th, only to lose the game and the series on a walk off sac fly by Enrique Hernandez in the bottom of the 9th. The Fenway Park faithful went wild at yet another epic postseason triumph!

In the National League, the Atlanta Braves faced the Brewers in Milwaukee's American Family Field (formerly Miller Park) last Friday. (History-oriented fans noted that this matchup took place in the Braves' former home city.) Braves pitcher Charlie Morton (formerly with the Rays and Astros) struck out 9 batters and only allowed 3 hits over 6-plus innings, but one of those was a 2-run homer by Rowdy Tellez in the bottom of the 7th. A solo shot by Joc Pederson in the top of the 8th inning narrowed the gap, but the Brewers remained on top, winning 2-1. The Braves won Game 2 thanks mainly to Max Fried, who struck out 9 batters over 6 innings -- the same as Morton the day before. An apparent home run in the 3rd inning by Ozzie Albies (it bounced back from the top of the right field wall) was ruled a double after further review, but the Braves won it anyway, 3-0. In Game 4 on Monday Joc Pederson hit a 3-run home for the Braves in the 5th inning, the only scoring play of the game, as Atlanta took the NL divisional series 3 games to 1.

The exception among the four divisional series was the "clash of titans" between the two winningest teams in the majors this year: the wild card Dodgers (106 - 56) vs. the NL West champion Giants' (107 - 55). It has been a back-and-forth series, with the Giants taking Game 1 by a 4-0 score, handing a rare defeat to Walker Buehler. The Dodgers won Game 2 by a score of 9-2, thanks in large measure to clutch RBI doubles by Cody Bellinger and A.J. Pollock. In Game 3, former Nationals ace Max Scherzer took the mound, and he lived up to his reputation, striking out 10 batters over 7 innings, giving up just 3 hits, one of which was a solo home run by Evan Longoria in the 5th inning -- the only runs scored in that game. Max was furious when he was replaced in the 8th inning, reminiscent of his days with the Nationals. (Too many times in D.C. he didn't get enough run support.) It was the first time Scherzer was tagged for a loss in a Dodger uniform; he was 7-0 with them in the regular season. In Game 4 on Tuesday night the Dodgers took an early lead thanks to an RBI double in the 1st inning, and they never looked back. Final score: 7-2, evening the series at two games apiece and forcing Game 5, which is taking place at Oracle Park in San Francisco this evening. (It's 1-1 as of the 8th inning.)

Wild cards: Red Sox, Dodgers win

The Red Sox made full use of home field advantage in Fenway Park, taking an early 2-0 lead in the AL wild card game against the New York Yankees thanks to a home run by Xander Bogaerts. Former National (and Cub) Kyle Schwarber hit a solo homer in the 3rd inning, and center fielder Alex Verdugo contributed 3 RBIs to Boston's total. The home team prevailed in convincing fashion, 6-2. (See the Postseason scores page.)

With a win-loss record of 106 - 56, the L.A. Dodgers ranked high above the other wild card team, the St. Louis Cardinals. Max Scherzer was pitching for L.A. in Dodger Stadium, but he had kind of an off day. The Cardinals scored a run when he threw a wild pitch in the top of the 1st, but that would be their last run scored. Justin Turner tied the game with a solo homer in the 4th inning, and Chris Taylor hit a fabulous walk-off home run in the bottom of the 9th to win it for the home team, 3-1. Dodger Stadium was virtually filled to capacity, with 53,193 happy fans in attendance.

Tricky dealings in Tampa Bay

A public relations goof put the damper on spirits in St. Petersburg, home of the Tampa Bay Rays. The front office thought it would be a good idea to promote the idea of having the Rays split their season between Florida and Montreal, Canada. The banner they put up behind the outfield seats caused an uproar, however, and was quickly taken down. Personally, I kind of like that idea, but if it is to succeed, it will have to be handled in a very delicate fashion.

Back in May, the minority owners of the Rays filed a lawsuit against franchise owner Stuart Sternberg, accusing him of leaving them out of secret negotiations with Montreal. See tampabay.com

Nationals end bad season badly

The Washington Nationals came close to winning the final two games of the season, facing the visiting Boston Red Sox, who were in a tight four-way race for the two AL wild card spots. In all three games the Nats' starting pitchers pitched into the 6th inning, and in the latter two games they were in line for the win until the bullpen crumbled once again. Friday night's game was quite a pitchers' duel until the 6th inning, when the Red Sox scored 4 runs on back-to-back home runs by Hunter Renfroe and Bobby Dalbec. It's a shame Josh Rogers couldn't keep up his otherwise-stellar pitching record for just one more inning. Final score: 4-2. On Saturday Nats rookie pitcher Josiah Gray (formerly with the Dodgers) struck out 7 while only giving up one run in 6 innings, and the game was tied 1-1 after 8 innings, but the Red Sox scored 4 runs in the top of the 9th and won it, 5-3. In the finale on Sunday, a rookie named Joan Adon (from the Dominican Republic) was the starting pitcher for the Nationals, and he did amazingly well: 9 strikeouts and just 2 earned runs over 5 1/3 innings. The Nats led 5-2 when Erick Fedde gave up 3 runs to the Red Sox in the top of the 7th inning. Kyle Finnegan gave up a 2-run homer to Rafael Devers, and the Red Sox completed their sweep of the Nationals with a 7-5 victory. That put them in the top-seed position for the wild card game, which proved to be crucial. And thus, a very bad season for the Washington Baseball Team (!) ended on a gloomy note.

In Sunday's game there was an emotional moment when Ryan Zimmerman trotted out to first base alone in the top of the 8th inning, then did a ritual U-turn waving to the crowd when it was announced that he was being replaced. He got a standing (and teary-eyed) ovation from the big crowd of nearly 34,000 fans. Since Zimmerman has not decided whether he will return to play with the Nationals this year, that may have been his final moment on the field in a Nats uniform. I certainly hope not. I was aware of the solemnity of the occasion that day, and did my best to see that game in person:

Nationals Park SW ext 2021

It was a beautiful day for baseball in Our Nation's Capital on October 3rd, and since I happened to be in Washington, I drove right past Nationals Park about three hours before game time. Unfortunately, however, I had to attend to More Important Obligations, and was therefore unable to see the Nationals' 2021 finale. The road construction in the foreground is where South Capitol Street is being re-aligned to more smoothly access the newly-completed Frederick Douglass Bridge, just southwest from the old bridge of that same name.

The astonishing magnitude of the Nationals' second-half collapse got me to thinking how this year compares with preceding years, so I came up with the following table. From April through the end of June this year, the Nats won 40 games and lost 38 (.513), but from July until the end of the season their record was a horrific 25 - 59 (.298).

Nats' 1st & 2nd halves

YearWinning %
April - June
Winning %
July - September

The data above pertain to the first and second three-month periods of each season (including March games under April, and October regular-season games under September), not to the actual 81-game halves of each year. (In 2020, no games were played until late July.)

[This post was corrected two days later.]