The heat is turning up in the 2020 MLB playoffs, as two teams that seemed to be on the ropes -- the Astros and Dodgers -- punched back Wednesday, making both championship series a little more interesting.
Here's a breakdown of the games, some numbers to know, a hot take of the day and more as you prep for Thursday's twin bill.
What's on tap
All times Eastern; all series best-of-seven played at neutral sites
The Rays have made the big plays, had a couple of big hits with runners on and took advantage of some key Jose Altuve errors, but it's not like they've crushed the Astros across the board. Yes, the overall pitching advantage the rest of the way still weighs in the Rays' favor, especially in the bullpen, but Randy Arozarena feels a bit like a one-man offense at times. Brandon Lowe, Tampa Bay's best hitter in the regular season, has struggled so much in the playoffs -- he's in a 1-for-32 slump -- that Kevin Cash benched him in Game 4. The Rays need Lowe to start delivering.
If the Rays are to clinch the second World Series trip in franchise history, there are two hitters in particular they need to shut down. George Springer had the big two-run home run off Tyler Glasnow in Game 4 and has 12 home runs since the beginning of September (tied with Arozarena and Adam Duvall for most in the majors, including the playoffs). Altuve also homered, for the fifth time in six games, and has five multihit games in Houston's playoff contests.
It's probably Johnny Wholestaff day for the Rays, but the pen is in good shape. For the Astros, Cristian Javier's relief outing means their Game 5 starter is up in the air. Dusty Baker said it won't be Framber Valdez on short rest, so it looks like a bullpen game, which means Baker will likely be using some relievers who haven't pitched in high-leverage moments yet in this postseason. -- David Schoenfield
Game 4 is often the most interesting chess match of a seven-game series since it usually matches up each team's No. 4 starter, and when the series is 2-1 it becomes a huge swing game. Well, this is no ordinary Game 4.
For the Dodgers, Kershaw gets the call, but his back issues still raise a red flag on his potential effectiveness and how deep he can go. After the Game 3 blowout, however, the Dodgers' bullpen is in good shape. Dustin May remains an interesting option -- unless Dave Roberts is indeed saving him for Game 5, in which case Kenley Jansen might be needed at some point for some key outs. (He threw an easy 1-2-3, 10-pitch inning in Game 3.)
Here's what ESPN injury analyst Stephania Bell had to say about Kershaw's status:
One of the keys to navigating chronic back issues as an athlete is understanding how to best manage flare-ups so that relatively minor episodes stay, well, minor. That appears to be what Kershaw, who has been dealing with back pain intermittently for several years, seems to be doing fairly successfully. Opting for relative rest instead of a Game 2 start after experiencing back spasms perhaps staved off a worsening of his overall condition. Now, just days later, Kershaw is set to start in Game 4, barring a last-minute setback.
But, what to expect performance-wise? While no two episodes are identical, there is the 2018 season when Kershaw missed a little over three weeks in June due to a lower-back strain. When he first returned to the mound, he was limited to 55 pitches in three innings; his second outing saw him work five innings delivering 68 pitches. Over the first two months of the 2018 season, Kershaw averaged 97 pitches per outing; upon his return from injury his numbers increased gradually over five starts as the team worked him back to a full load. Notably, his strikeout rate dipped initially upon returning to the mound but remained relatively stable in subsequent weeks as his endurance returned.
While that injury incident was clearly more serious for Kershaw in terms of time missed and required a slower ramp-up to activity as a result, it is not irrelevant here. The silver lining to his prior experience is that Kershaw likely understands better than most what he needs to do at the onset of any back-related symptoms to help keep them in check. Hopefully that will pay dividends in terms of keeping the spasms at bay as he returns to work Thursday night; the question might be how deep he can go into this game, especially if he struggles to deliver strikes.
As for the Braves, they're rolling the dice on Wilson. I'm a little surprised they didn't opt for an opener to face Mookie Betts and the top of that lineup to decrease the likelihood of another early Dodgers lead, but given that the Braves shifted less than any team in the majors, they tend to play things old school. Thus, the inexperienced Wilson, who'll be making his playoff debut. He won't be expected to go deep in the game, but despite the blowout, the Braves' bullpen is in good shape thanks to the four-inning, 92-pitch relief effort from Huascar Ynoa. Other than Shane Greene, none of the Braves' top eight relievers pitched in Game 3. If this game is close, it shapes up as one of those contests in which the managerial decisions loom especially large. -- Schoenfield
Updated odds for every series
Based on projections of ESPN's Bradford Doolittle
Astros-Rays: Rays 93.0% to advance
Braves-Dodgers: Braves 55.7% to advance
Running World Series odds
NL: Dodgers 31.2%, Braves 28.4%
AL: Rays 38.3%, Astros 2.2%
Hot take of the day
In this space Wednesday: "I think the Dodgers come out swinging and knock around Kyle Wright." Moral of the story: We will not let you down here at Hot Take! Trust us.
OK, maybe we didn't anticipate the Dodgers knocking out Wright with an 11-run first inning, but that was some offensive outburst for the Dodgers in the first three innings. There's a good chance it continues in Game 4 against Bryse Wilson, who hasn't pitched since the end of September and allowed 28 baserunners in 15⅔ innings in the regular season.
So today's Hot Take: The Dodgers come out swinging and knock around Bryse Wilson. Oh, and Clayton Kershaw is going to pitch five innings of one-run ball, and the Dodgers' bullpen will finally deliver. Dodgers win 6-2 and even up the series. -- Schoenfield
Stat of the day
Career statistics in the postseason are rather skewed with the added playoff games over the years, but Jose Altuve and George Springer matched some mighty impressive names Wednesday night. Both hit their 18th career playoff home run, tying Mickey Mantle and Reggie Jackson for fifth all time. Altuve and Springer homered in the same playoff game for the fourth time; the only pair of teammates to do that more often is Springer and Carlos Correa (7).
About last night ...
Game 4 of the ALCS was a bit of a redemption story, as Altuve, plagued by throwing errors this postseason, made all the plays in the field and knocked in two runs at the plate as the Astros stayed alive with a 4-3 win over the Rays. Tampa Bay still leads the series 3-1. ... When we say Game 3 of the NLCS was pretty much over before it started, we really mean it. The Dodgers had a 1-0 lead after two pitches, a 6-0 lead after 22 pitches and an 11-0 lead after setting a postseason record for runs in one inning. L.A. cruised to a 15-3 win, handing the Braves their first loss of the playoffs.
Social media post of the day
The Dodgers scored 15 runs, the 13th time in postseason history a team has scored 15+ runs in a game— Sarah Langs (@SlangsOnSports) October 15, 2020
They ALSO left 12 runners on base, the most left on base in any postseason game by a team that scored 15+ runs
What could have been...
Best moment of the MLB playoffs to date
The stage was set for another Fernando Tatis Jr. moment, but Cody Bellinger snatched it away. Bellinger's home run robbery, plucking what would have been a go-ahead shot by Tatis in the seventh inning of Game 2 of the National League Division Series, kept the Padres at bay -- barely -- and will take its place in Dodgers lore, particularly if L.A. wins it all.
Cody Bellinger. Instant classic. pic.twitter.com/TPRnAFFuMo— MLB (@MLB) October 8, 2020
The running MLB playoffs MVP
Randy Arozarena has gone from an unknown outfielder to this October's breakout star. Going into the playoffs, you might have been asking, "Who is this guy?" But the Rays' trade for him has been a huge factor in their postseason dominance. Since Sept. 1 across regular-season and postseason games, Arozarena's 12 home runs are tied with George Springer and Adam Duvall for the most in baseball. And while his long balls have made a big impression, Arozarena also leads all hitters in the postseason with 39 total bases (and is leading in hits and extra-base hits). Also, he has been flashing some leather in the outfield and some sweet celebration dance moves on the field.