2021 MLB playoffs: Red Sox dominate Rays, Astros five-run inning, and all the best postseason moments

Welcome to the 2021 MLB playoffs! The journey to the World Series is here and Friday features a quadruple-header of division series games:

Apparently, Houston doesn’t have a problem. Chicago was 85-10 (.895) with a multi-run lead this regular season, best in the AL.

However, the Astros’ five-run seventh inning lifted them over the White Sox for a commanding 2-0 series lead.

Sure, Milwaukee is home to the reigning NBA champs, but it sure looked like a baseball town on Friday.

Rowdy Tellez got the party started with his two-run homer in the seventh inning. Good news for Brewers’ fans: Milwaukee finished 9-1 in games that Tellez hit a homer during the regular season, and the Brewers followed that trend against the Atlanta Braves on Friday.

Fresh off of Nelson Cruz and Randy Arozarena‘s Game 1 heroics, the Boston Red Sox and Tampa Bay Rays met back at the “Trop” on Friday. After being shutout in their prior meeting, the Boston Red Sox made sure to get on the board in the first inning. The Tampa Bay Rays attempted to steal their thunder as Jordan Luplow fired back with a first-inning grand slam.

However, Tampa Bay seemed to run out of fuel after the first inning as the team only scored once more for the remainder of the game, while Boston went on to add 12 more runs to its final score.

Up next: Game 1 between the Los Angeles Dodgers and San Francisco Giants.

Dodgers-Giants could be the most epic division series ever. How many Fridays do you get to binge watch Lucas Giolito, Corbin Burnes, Charlie Morton and Walker Buehler pitching?

Here are some of the top moments from Friday’s games:

San Francisco didn’t waste any time getting on the board.

The local support for the SoCal vs. NorCal rivalry is already coming out, and the band Smash Mouth is all about Giants third baseman Kris Bryant.

Hey now. He was once an all-star.


Series tied, 1-1

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Xander Bogaerts, Alex Verdugo, Kike Hernandez, J.D. Martinez and Rafael Devers all hit home runs in the Red Sox’s 11-6 win vs. the Rays.

1. That was a wild one. There were seven runs in the first inning alone between the two teams. Chris Sale lasted just one frame after allowing five runs. The Red Sox hit five home runs — setting a franchise record for home runs in a postseason game — the rest of the way to rally from that 5-2 first-inning deficit. The much-maligned Boston bullpen held it down the final eight innings. The heralded Tampa Bay bullpen couldn’t get the job done tonight. The Red Sox pounded out 20 hits.

The biggest key: Boston’s two-strike hitting, a reminder they had one of the best offenses in the majors. For all the attention the Toronto Blue Jays’ high-powered attack received throughout the season, the Rays actually scored more runs than the Jays and the Red Sox scored just 17 fewer. (Do you get the idea that facing Baltimore pitching helped all these AL East teams?) During the regular season, the Red Sox led the majors in two-strike RBIs and extra-base hits. Check out their two-strike hits: Enrique Hernandez’s first-inning double (0-2 curveball from Shane Baz), Xander Bogaerts’ third-inning home run (3-2 fastball from Baz), Alex Verdugo’s third-inning home run (2-2 cutter from Collin McHugh), Hernandez’s fifth-inning home run (2-2 slider from McHugh), Bogaerts’ fifth-inning single (1-2 slider from Matt Wisler), J.D. Martinez’s fifth-inning 3-run home run (2-2 slider from Wisler), Hernandez’s sixth-inning double (3-2 cutter from David Robertson), and then four more in the ninth.

Eleven hits in one game with two strikes is ridiculous enough — even the Red Sox hit just .180 with two strikes in the regular season — but four home runs and three doubles is just absurd.

Martinez, back in the lineup after missing the wild-card game and Game 1 of this series with a sprained ankle, had the big blow, the three-run homer that broke a 5-5 tie.

2. What a night for Hernandez, who had the first five-hit game of his career — regular season included. He became the 10th player with five hits in a postseason game. He also became just the fifth player with four extra-base hits in a postseason game with his home run and three doubles. He joins Albert Pujols (2011 NLCS, 3 HR, 1 2B), Hideki Matsui (2004 ALCS, 2 HR, 2 2B), Bob Robertson (1971 NLCS, 3 HR, 1 2B) and Frank Isbell (1906 World Series, 4 2B). Martinez added four hits as well. The ankle is still bothering him as he hobbled around the bases, but it looks like he’s OK at the plate. And now the Red Sox return home, where they went 49-32 and love to hit: Their .831 home OPS was best in the majors.

3. Alex Cora had the quick hook on Sale, who threw 30 pitches in the first inning, including the grand slam to Jordan Luplow. Not wanting to let the game get away early, Cora brought in Tanner Houck in the second and he allowed one run over five excellent innings of work. This followed the quick hook for Eduardo Rodriguez in Game 1, with Nick Pivetta getting long relief duties. It helps having five starters you can use like this, and we saw Cora deploy his starters in relief back in 2018 as well.

Still, the Red Sox are in good shape. They’ll have Nathan Eovaldi ready to go on full rest in Game 3, after his strong outing in the wild-card game. Cora might then have to return to Rodriguez on short rest in Game 5, but Rodriguez threw just 41 pitches in his start. If necessary, Game 5 would be Wednesday, so that could be a Sale/Houck combo on four days of rest, or given the way the Rays have hammered the two Boston lefties, maybe Houck gets the start.

Ryan Brasier is also looking like a big weapon out of the bullpen. You might remember him from the 2018 playoff run, when he came out of nowhere to have a great two final months and was a key setup guy through the postseason. He fell back to Earth in 2019 (4.85 ERA) and spent most of 2021 injured, pitching just 12 innings in the majors (all in September). He finished with eight scoreless appearances, however, earned a spot on the playoff roster, got two outs in the wild-card game (well, one was the out on Aaron Judge at home), and came on in the seventh in this game and struck out the side on 13 pitches.


Brewers lead the series, 1-0

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Rowdy Tellez slugs a 2-run home run to put the Brewers on top in the 7th.

1. My colleague Brad Doolittle sent me a text early during this game: “Every ball in play in this series is going to feel like a victory.” Indeed, this shaped up as a low-scoring series: The Brewers don’t have a great offense (sixth in the NL in runs, but 14th in batting average, eighth in OBP and 11th in slugging) while the Braves have more a low-OBP, high-slugging attack and have to face that high-octane Brewers rotation, with Josh Hader looming in relief.

Sure enough, Corbin Burnes and Charlie Morton locked up in a scoreless pitchers’ duel through six innings. It was a little surprising Morton came back out in the bottom of the seventh. He had trudged slowly off the mound after the sixth and Joe Simpson, on the Braves’ radio broadcast, offered that Morton looked tired. Indeed, after striking out nine in the first five innings, he had no strikeouts in the sixth, walking Dan Vogelbach before getting three fly ball outs.

We mentioned this decision that managers will have to make all postseason in one of our preview pieces: It’s the third time through the order, the starter is pitching well, what do you do? So far in this postseason, managers have defaulted to the quick hook; that’s the way the game is generally managed these days, especially if the game is close. Brian Snitker, perhaps displaying some lack of confidence in his bullpen and acknowledging Morton’s strong postseason history, let Morton go back out for the seventh. Morton hit Avisail Garcia leading off the inning and Rowdy Tellez clocked a 1-2 fastball over the fence in right-center for a two-run homer. It was a terrible location; Travis d’Arnaud set up high and outside, but Morton missed middle-in, right in Tellez’s sweet zone. Two batters too many.

2. The Braves will kick themselves for not scratching across at least one run against Corbin Burnes in the first inning. The possible NL Cy Young winner, who averaged just 1.8 walks per nine innings in the regular season, walked Jorge Soler and Freddie Freeman leading off the game, throwing 16 pitches in the process as he showed some early postseason jitters. The 3-2 pitch to Freeman was off the glove of catcher Omar Narvaez, so Soler made it all the way to third base, putting runners at the corners with no outs.

But Ozzie Albies hit a hard grounder to Tellez, who stepped on first and fired a perfect throw home to get Soler – not the hardest of plays, but Tellez isn’t exactly known for his glove. It’s the kind of play that can help win a postseason game. It’s always interesting to see how speed can affect these games. We saw it in Game 1 of the Red Sox-Rays series with Randy Arozarena, who created two runs with his speed (scoring from first on a hit when the Boston center fielder Enrique Hernandez bobbled the ball and then later his historic steal of home).

Burnes threw another wild pitch to allow Freeman to advance to third, but fanned Austin Riley to end the inning. He threw 22 pitches and would throw 18 more in the second inning before finally settling down into the groove we saw all season, throwing 51 pitches over the next four innings before getting lifted for a pinch-hitter.

3. We learned a little how Craig Counsell is going to manage his bullpen without setup man Devin Williams – not sure the rest of this series, but the rest of the postseason if the Brewers advance. Starter Adrian Houser pitched the seventh and eighth innings – and starter Freddy Peralta was warming up in the eighth. The Brewers still have Eric Lauer as a potential starter and since Peralta didn’t pitch he probably still goes in Game 3 (Brandon Woodruff starts Game 2). But it looks like Houser will be deployed as a multi-inning weapon. Note what Counsell didn’t do: He didn’t bring in Brad Boxberger in a close game and he didn’t bring in Hader until the ninth, even after Joc Pederson homered off Houser with two outs in the eighth. Hader didn’t pitch more than one inning all season, so maybe we won’t see him for any four- or five-out saves after all, even without Williams.

The Braves did get a leadoff walk by Freeman off Hader and a one-out single from Riley. Catcher Omar Narvaez then made a gutsy play on Adam Duvall’s little trickler in front of the plate, throwing to second to just get Riley for the second out – again, note that a speedy runner would have made it or forced Narvaez to throw to first, putting the go-ahead runner in scoring position. Pinch-hitter Orlando Arcia then grounded out to second. In the end, one swing was the difference in the game. That may be the story for the rest of the series.

Legendary Milwaukee play-by-play announcer Bob Uecker’s shoe game is on point.


Astros lead the series 2-0

1. The key sequence came in the seventh inning when the Astros scored five runs to break open a 4-4 game — a rally that fans of old-school, put-the-ball-in-play baseball certainly appreciated. With the top of the Houston lineup coming up, Tony La Russa brought in lefty Aaron Bummer — left-handed batters Michael Brantley and Yordan Alvarez would be up second and fourth in the inning. Nothing wrong with the move. Bummer has been a key contributor to a White Sox bullpen that ranked second in the majors in strikeout rate. He fanned 75 in 56⅓ innings and allowed just three home runs.

It just didn’t work — indeed, none of La Russa’s moves worked out. Jose Altuve would hit a leadoff ground ball single up the middle. After getting Brantley, Alex Bregman lined a base hit up the middle, a hit that glanced off Bummer. Alvarez followed with a go-ahead ground ball single — right up the middle. A hard-hit ball is one classified as 95 mph or better and while none of the hits were exactly rockets, two would be classified as hard hit … barely:

Altuve: 95.6 mph

Bregman: 90.8 mph

Alvarez: 95.0 mph

There was some good luck/bad luck on each ball. The expected batting averages on each hit according to Statcast metrics:

Altuve: .110

Bregman: .460

Alvarez: .210

Bregman’s ball had a higher hit expectancy because it was a line drive. Altuve’s ball often goes for an out these days, but the White Sox did not have a shift on as the ball bounced harmlessly up the middle. The White Sox also did not have a shift on for Alvarez, although his hit might have gone through regardless. The Astros made contact against a good pitcher and that can lead to good things.

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Kyle Tucker delivers a two-run jack to left field to give the Astros a 9-4 lead in the seventh inning.

2. After that, La Russa brought in Craig Kimbrel, who had been lights out with the Cubs earlier this season but ineffective since coming over in a trade (5.09 ERA, five home runs in 23 innings). Yuli Gurriel lined out for the second out, but Carlos Correa smoked a 98-mph fastball to right field that Leury Garcia butchered into a two-run double — he turned the wrong way and the ball soared over his head. Not an easy play, but one Adam Engel probably makes. But La Russa had pinch-hit Cesar Hernandez for Engel in the top of the inning, shifting Garcia from second base to right field.

Worth pointing out: Kimbrel and Hernandez were Chicago’s big acquisitions at the trade deadline. Hernandez hit so poorly he didn’t start the first two games of the series. Kimbrel struggled after the trade and then let this game get away (and now has a 4.76 career ERA in the postseason, compared with 2.26 in the 2021 regular season).

Kyle Tucker then hit a two-run home run into the Crawford Boxes in left field for the 9-4 lead — probably the only stadium in the majors where that ball is a home run. Yeah, power ball works, too.

This Houston lineup looks even tougher than last year’s that reached the ALCS, or even the 2019 powerhouse that lost in the World Series. Remember, Alvarez was out with an injury last year. Tucker showed improvement hitting .294 with 30 home runs. Those two give the Astros the left-handed power to go with all their right-handed boppers. Correa said after the game that making Lucas Giolito run up his pitch count was the key. Giolito would throw 90 pitches and walk five batters in just 4⅓ innings. The Astros can work counts, they can crush fastballs and they can put the ball in play better than everybody else.

3. Even before losing Game 1, this game looked heading into the series as one the White Sox had to win. With Framber Valdez starting for the Astros, it would be the one chance Chicago would get against a left-handed starter. All the White Sox top batters were right-handed or switch-hitters, while Luis Robert (1.235 OPS) and Jose Abreu (.969 OPS) in particular both crushed lefties. Chicago did manage to score four runs off Valdez and knock him out of the game in the fifth inning, but Dusty Baker emptied his pen with five right-handed relievers to close out the game. Baker has used closer Ryan Pressly — interestingly in the eighth inning in this game — in both games with big leads, but in a five-game series with a day off before Game 3, you can’t blame him for going all-out. Don’t give the other team a chance to breathe. Now Houston is one win away from reaching its fifth straight ALCS (only the 1990s Braves with eight in a row and the 1971-75 A’s with five straight have done that).

Houston’s own Paul Wall was in the house



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