Facing elimination for the second consecutive game, Carlos Correa rose to the occasion on Thursday evening, launching a walk-off home run in the ninth inning to propel the Astros to a dramatic 4-3 victory over the Rays in Game 5 of the American League Championship Series at Petco Park in San Diego. The 26-year-old shortstop’s tiebreaking solo shot -- his sixth round-tripper of the postseason -- came off lights-out closer Nick Anderson, who had allowed only 11 runs with an extra-terrestrial 81/6 K/BB ratio across 51 2/3 innings (including playoff appearances), since being acquired by the Rays at last year’s trade deadline. With the victory in a modern-era bullpen showdown for the ages, Houston staves off elimination and forces a pivotal Game 6 showdown on Friday night.
On the verge of securing their first World Series berth since 2008, Tampa Bay appeared to have all of the momentum entering the late stages of the contest after first baseman Ji-Man Choi walloped a titanic 447-foot game-tying solo shot to right field off hard-throwing righty Josh James in the eighth inning. Yet, the Astros refused to go quietly, becoming just the fourth team in postseason history to rally from a 3-0 series deficit and force a Game 6. The 2004 Red Sox, versus the division-rival Yankees in the ALCS, own the distinction of being the only squad in major-league history to win a best-of-seven series after falling behind by three games. The comeback isn’t complete yet, but the Astros are right back in the mix in this one. They're on the precipice of a truly historic achievement and will be etched into the record books if they force (and win) a decisive Game 7 this weekend.
With left-hander Framber Valdez lined up to take the hill in Game 6, the Astros employed an extremely risky Johnny Wholestaff strategic approach in the high-stakes elimination affair, utilizing seven relief pitchers, -- Luis Garcia, Blake Taylor, Enoli Paredes, Andre Scrubb, Brooks Raley, Josh James and Ryan Pressly -- to keep their postseason hopes alive, and get the ball back into the hands of their newfound staff ace. The 26-year-old certifiable ground-ball machine has allowed four runs on 11 hits with a 17/7 K/BB ratio across 18 innings (three appearances, two starts) this postseason. He pitched extremely well, allowing just two runs on four hits over six innings, but was still saddled with a loss in Game 1 of the series last weekend. After deploying an all-hands-on-deck approach, tossing four relievers -- John Curtiss, Josh Fleming, Aaron Slegers and Anderson -- in the losing effort, the Rays have yet another opportunity to punch their ticket to the World Series on Friday with electrifying southpaw Blake Snell on the mound in Game 6. The 27-year-old lefty, who will be pitching on regular rest, has allowed five runs with a 15/6 K/BB ratio over 15 2/3 innings (three starts) this postseason. He yielded one run over five innings to pick up the win against Valdez in the low-scoring series opener.
A harbinger of Correa’s eventual heroics, George Springer set the tone for their eventual walk-off victory by walloping a leadoff homer -- his 19th career postseason round-tripper -- on the first pitch of the do-or-die contest. The 31-year-old outfielder’s sizzling line-drive to left field registered an eye-popping 115.8 mph exit velocity, making it the second-hardest home run ever tracked by Statcast since it’s inception nearly a half-decade ago back in 2015. The impending free agent’s blistering dinger put the Astros ahead in the opening stanza, but the Rays responded with a game-tying solo shot to right-center field by second baseman Brandon Lowe -- who had been mired in an abysmal 3-for-41 slump at the plate this month -- off lefty reliever Blake Taylor in the third inning. The Astros quickly regained the lead when veteran slugger Michael Brantley lined a two-run single to right field off lefty Josh Fleming in the bottom of the frame.
With his team trailing, Randy Arozarena led their comeback effort, and continued to build his legendary postseason resume in the process. He blasted a towering solo homer to right-center field off hard-throwing righty Enoli Paredes in the fifth inning, slashing the Rays’ deficit to a single run in the process. The 25-year-old burgeoning superstar has gone deep three times over five games in the series. He’s exploded onto the national consciousness, hitting .416 (20-for-48) with 10 extra-base hits over 12 games this month. He’s tied with former Rays superstar Evan Longoria for the most long balls by a rookie in playoff history and his 10 extra-base hits are most by a Rays hitter in a single postseason in franchise history. It’s too small of a sample size to draw any definitive conclusions. However, his playoff heroics, juxtaposed by a stellar .281/.382/.641 triple-slash line with seven homers and four thefts in 76 plate appearances during the shortened regular season, will make Arozarena an extremely popular early-to-mid round selection in fantasy drafts next spring.
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Braves Offensive Explosion Sinks Dodgers
Freddie Freeman delivered a tie-breaking RBI double off Clayton Kershaw as the Braves’ offense erupted for six runs in the sixth inning on Thursday night in a 10-2 blowout victory over the Dodgers in Game 4 of the National League Championship Series at Globe Life Field in Arlington. With the victory, Atlanta takes a commanding 3-1 lead in the best-of-seven series and are one win away from their first World Series appearance since 1999.
On the heels of a stellar performance by rookie right-hander Bryse Wilson, who fired six innings of one-run ball in his playoff debut, the presumptive NL MVP’s extra-base knock catalyzed the Braves’ six-run offensive explosion in the sixth inning. Marcell Ozuna, who belted a pair of solo homers, tallied four hits and also drove in four runs in the lopsided affair, followed with an RBI double into the left-center field gap, chasing the erstwhile ace from the contest. Dodgers manager Dave Roberts turned to hard-throwing sinkerballer Brusdar Graterol, arguably their top reliever this postseason, and eventually left-hander Victor Gonzalez to put out the metaphorical fire, yet the disastrous frame continued to snowball out of control. Dansby Swanson broke the contest wide open with a two-run double down the left-field line before Austin Riley and Cristian Pache followed with RBI singles to extend the lead to an insurmountable six runs.
The Dodgers attempted to mount a late comeback, loading the bases with only one out in the seventh inning, but could only muster a single run courtesy of an Edwin Rios sacrifice fly. Kershaw was saddled with the loss after allowing four runs on seven hits over five-plus frames and the Dodgers’ offense managed only two runs on three hits in the one-sided contest.
The Athletic’s senior writer Andy McCullough, a former Dodgers beat writer for the Los Angeles Times, expertly summarized the perennial contender’s long-standing playoff issues when he tweeted on Thursday night, “The age-old debate for the Dodgers: Is it the offense's fault or the manager's fault or the ace's fault or the bullpen's fault?” At this point in the series, every lever Roberts pulls with the bullpen seemingly produces nightmarish results. Yet, it’s unfair to lay the blame for the team's lack of playoff success solely on the manager. The Dodgers offense has consistently struggled to manufacture runs (outside of a pair of isolated outbursts) in this series. It’s also worth noting that none of the Dodgers’ starters have lasted beyond the fifth inning through four games. It’s unclear whether they’ll be able to solve the major issues that have plagued them so far, but they need to come up with some answers on Friday night if they’re going to extend this series.
Roberts told reporters on Thursday afternoon that he's not ready to name a Game 5 starter, but with their season on the line, it seems like the logical move would be to turn to presumptive Game 6 starter Walker Buehler on three-days rest, or roll the dice with an opener-type option like Dustin May. With his squad in complete control of the series, Braves manager Brian Snitker said Thursday that he will not use left-hander Max Fried, who threw 96 pitches over six frames in Game 1 earlier this week, on short rest in Friday’s Game 5 matchup. He will be held back for a possible Game 6 instead. That decision makes it extremely likely that swingman Josh Tomlin or righty Kyle Wright, who threw only 28 pitches in his epic Game 3 meltdown, will take the ball on Friday night.
Major League Baseball Quick Hits: Nationals outrighted Michael A. Taylor to the minor leagues. The 29-year-old outfielder was a likely non-tender candidate this offseason after compiling an underwhelming .196/.253/.424 triple-slash line across 99 plate appearances this season. He has elected free agency … Mallex Smith, Bryan Shaw and Jimmy Yacabonis have elected free agency after being outrighted off the Mariners 40-man roster … Blue Jays infielder Jonathan Villar has changed his agency group. The 29-year-old impending free agent will be represented by Wasserman moving forward.