Heading into the ALCS, it felt like the series would hinge on whether the Astros’ high-contact ways would be able to undo the Rays’ dominant starting pitching and bullpen. Would they find enough holes, or work their way through the Rays’ staff to eventually see them weaken through sheer attrition? The latter might still happen, as we’re only two games in. What that consideration doesn’t fully take into account is that once the Astros put those balls in play, the Rays just might have a guy there every time.
The Rays defense has been the story so far, as they’ve taken a 2-0 lead in the series. We’ve already been through Manuel Margot’s catch in the 2nd. But in Game 2, the Astros made some loud noises at the plate. Their issue was that most of those balls ended up enveloped in leather. Here’s a handy list of exit velocities throughout the game for Houston and what they resulted in:
- Alex Bregman in the ninth— 98.4 MPH: Lineout to to center
- Carlos Correa in the eighth — 101.1 MPH: Forceout to third
- Alex Bregman in the 5th - 103.0 MPH: Groundout to short
- Alex Bregman in the eighth — 103.4 MPH: Groundout to third
- George Springer in the fourth — 105 MPH: Groundout to second
- Alex Bregman in the first — 106.8 MPH: Lineout to short
(Alex Bregman is going to be questioning his view of the universe if this keeps up much longer, which is probably what the whole team needs anyway.)
There were similar outcomes in Game 1. What you’ll notice is that all of these come off the bats of righties, as the Rays’ shifting against right-handers ranks among the most in the game, while being among the more conservative against left-handed batters. The Astros will tell themselves that this is all luck and as long as they keep hitting the ball this hard, eventually things will break their way. And to an extent that’s true. But the Rays are one of the best defensive teams for a reason. Frankly, two reasons: One, they’re a lineup full of defensively gifted players and two, they’re generally positioned in the exact right spot. Given that the former means greater range and the latter means they’re using that range from the right spot, and you’re baseball’s version of the 2000 Ravens or the like.
The Astros might not get to wait long enough for the averages to break their way, because the Rays bend those their way so often.
What this series has shown is what baseball is missing. Thanks to the Astros high contact rate, the baseball viewing public has been treated to the excellence of Joey Wendel at third, or Willy Adames at short, or the yoga/sleight-of-hand show that Ji-Man Choi puts on at first. Or all three outfielders the Rays sport who can all make plays. It’s action, it’s stuff.
While the focus is always on strikeouts in the game now, and walks, that’s really missing out on this stuff. The positioning of the Rays certainly helps, and puts all these guys in position to make these incredible plays. The idea of depriving them of this by banning shifts is asinine, and the Rays are showing why. Now MLB just needs to find a way to make it happen more often.
On the other side of the draw, the slight fear any Dodgers fan would have had is matching up the bullpens consistently, and Dave Roberts having to make too many decisions. The Dodgers have done their best for years to try and manager-proof the roster, and yet Roberts always seems to find a way to make one or two choices in October that leave you wondering just how much he’s been along for the ride during this run instead of driving the bus.
Roberts was in a tough spot thanks to Kenley Jansen drinking from the wrong chalice. As the home team and in a tie game in the top of the 9th, any save situation was gone and with the top of the lineup due up the next two innings for the Braves, Jansen at the peak of his powers would have been the pick to pitch the ninth and probably 10th. But given that he’s now a mystery box, Roberts opted for Blake Treinen. Didn’t work, as Treinen promptly gave up a bomb to Austin Riley, but that happens.
The problem for Roberts was bringing in a lefty, Jake McGee, to face Ozzie Albies. Albies crushes lefties, which he did once again for a two-run homer that ended Game 1 as any kind of contest.
Roberts used Dustin May for 1-⅔ innings, and whether that puts him in jeopardy for a start later in the series we’ll have to see. What’s clear is that the Dodgers need a brilliant start from Clayton Kershaw today, or suddenly they may be looking at yet another laundry list of playoff questions.
For the Braves, the startling thing about their ninth-inning rally was that all four hits were with two strikes, and the Braves generally aren’t shy about striking out.