Carlos Correa walks off to keep Astros alive
The Braves trampled the Dodgers in NLCS Game 4. Plus, my thoughts on Clayton Kershaw's legacy and MLB's late start times.
The Astros once again staved off elimination, this time thanks to a walk-off home run from Carlos Correa. Stop me if you’ve heard this one before, but the Astros took an early lead on a first-inning solo home run. José Altuve hit the first-inning homers in Games 1, 3, and 4, but this time it was George Springer, turning on John Curtiss’ first pitch, a fastball that caught too much of the plate.
Brandon Lowe put the Rays on the board in the third when he sent a Blake Taylor fastball over the fence in right-center for a solo homer, tying the game. Michael Brantley promptly broke the tie in the bottom half of the third, knocking in two runs with a single to right field. Randy Arozarena remained red-hot, cutting into the Astros’ lead with a solo homer.
Every game in this series has been decided by three or fewer runs, so it had been a tense series for pretty much all 36 innings coming into Thursday’s action. That remained the case in Game 5. In the eighth, Ji-Man Choi led off the frame by completely obliterating a Josh James fastball for a solo homer into the right field stands at Petco Park, tying the game. The Astros went down in order in the bottom of the eighth, bringing a 3-3 game into the ninth inning.
Mike Zunino led off with a single against Ryan Pressly. After striking out Lowe, Pressly uncorked a wild pitch, moving the tying run in the form of pinch-runner Kevin Kiermaier to second base with Arozarena at the plate. Arozarena, however, flied out to shallow right field. Austin Meadows flew out to center to end the inning, giving the Astros a chance to walk it off.
Nick Anderson, who had an outstanding regular season and has been solid in the postseason, remained in the game to handle the ninth for the Rays. He got Alex Bregman to pop up for the first out. Correa then took a first-pitch curve for a ball, swung at another curve, then drilled a high, outside fastball well past the 396 marker in center field for a walk-off solo shot, keeping the Astros alive. The ALCS is now 3-2 in the Rays’ favor.
As ESPN Stats & Info notes, Correa tied David Ortiz for the most postseason walk-off hits with three. Correa has also hit two of the last three postseason walk-off homers, with his teammate Altuve owning the other. In this postseason, Correa is batting .342/.457/.816 with six homers and 14 RBI across 46 plate appearances.
Braves Return the Favor
Undeterred by their 15-3 loss to the Dodgers in Game 3 of the NLCS on Wednesday, the Braves returned the favor, tramping the Dodgers 10-2 in Game 4. The game was close, at least through the first five and a half innings.
The Dodgers got on the board first when Edwin Ríos smoked a Bryce Wilson fastball out to right field for a solo homer. Marcell Ozuna tired the game with a solo homer of his own off of Clayton Kershaw in the fifth.
To that point, Kershaw had been pitching well. Through five innings, he allowed four hits and a walk, and just the one run. He was inducing weak contact from Braves hitters mostly, including two that turned into inning-ending double plays. That changed in the sixth.
Ronald Acuña Jr. reached on an infield single and moved to second base on a throwing error by Kiké Hernández. The wheels began to come off. Freddie Freeman doubled, bringing home Acuña. Ozuna doubled, bringing home Freeman and finally chasing Kershaw from the game. Brusdar Graterol entered but could not put a lid on the Braves’ offense, yielding three consecutive one-out hits – an Ozzie Albies single, a two-run Dansby Swanson double, and an RBI single from Austin Riley. The Dodgers’ third pitcher of the inning, Víctor González, entered, but he too struggled, walking Johan Camargo and allowing an RBI single to Cristian Pache to make it a six-run inning, pushing the Braves’ lead to 7-1. González was finally able to get out of the inning by striking out Acuña and getting Freeman to ground out.
The Dodgers got one run back in the top of the seventh when Ríos hit a bases-loaded sacrifice fly, but that would be the last of their offensive exploits. Ozuna tacked on another solo homer in the bottom half of the seventh. In the eighth, both Freeman and Ozuna knocked in runs with singles to push the lead to 10-2. The Dodgers went down in order in the ninth, barely a whimper as they went down in the series 3-1.
The Astros will have their third go at staving off elimination in Game 6 of the ALCS, sending Framber Valdéz out to the mound to oppose Blake Snell. First pitch is scheduled for 6:07 PM ET.
The Braves will attempt to punch their ticket to the World Series. They have yet to announce their starter, but the Dodgers will pin their hopes on Dustin May. First pitch for that one is 9:08 PM ET.
As happens every time Kershaw struggles in a postseason start, his legacy as a pitcher has been discussed. An MLB.com debate article, for example, asks if Kershaw is a “choker.”
In 2016, for NBC Sports, I went through all of Kershaw’s postseason appearances to that point and noted that the Dodgers’ bullpen allowed a lot of Kershaw’s runners to score, massively inflating his ERA. I did a similar, more thorough analysis the following year. The synopsis:
If the Dodgers’ relievers had done their jobs perfectly, stranding all 16 of runners inherited from Kershaw instead of six, Kershaw’s postseason ERA would be 3.28. Kershaw’s mental fortitude wouldn’t even be a topic of discussion. Of course, one would argue that Kershaw shouldn’t have allowed those runners to get on base to begin with, but the purpose of a bullpen is to sometimes bail out a starter once he gets into a pickle — especially in the postseason. Dodger relievers — notably Pedro Báez — have done an absolutely terrible job of backing up Kershaw over his career and that needs to be remembered when people bring up Kershaw’s perceived postseason issues.
Beyond the bullpen not doing their job behind Kershaw, some of the blame should go on Dodgers manager Dave Roberts for leaving Kershaw in too long. It’s tough, especially in this particular postseason since there are so few days off, but the third-time-through-the-order penalty affects most pitchers, including future first-ballot Hall of Famers like Kershaw. Acuña, leading off the top of the sixth, was facing Kershaw for the third time.
Additionally, Game 4 was not a pristine start for Kershaw; the Braves were hitting him hard. After five innings, of the 13 decisive balls put in play (e.g. no foul balls), eight of them were classified as “hard hit,” registering exit velocities of 95 MPH or higher. Kershaw was not dazzling the way he did in his start against the Brewers in Game 2 of the Wild Card Series, when he tossed eight shutout innings.
It’s easy for me to say with hindsight, but I think if you’re Roberts, you don’t let Kershaw start the sixth inning. And if you do, you have a very short leash on him.
This is not to say Kershaw is blameless. He certainly could have pitched better in many of his 35 postseason appearances, but his various managers and bullpen arms throughout the years have let him down, unnecessarily diminishing his reputation and his legacy. Kershaw is 32 years old, has been plagued by back issues in recent years, and is only under contract through the end of next season, so who knows how much longer he’s going to want to keep pitching. Sadly, his postseason legacy may be etched in stone at this point, and that’s sad. Because of this, many may choose to overlook his otherwise fantastic achievements, which include leading his team to eight consecutive playoff appearances, winning three Cy Young Awards, as well as winning an MVP Award.
MLB’s Late Start Times
Every postseason, MLB’s odd and late start times are a subject of discussion. Tyler Kepner of the New York Times was among those to question MLB’s marketing strategy with the Dodgers-Braves series:
On the East coast, 9 PM is pretty late for a lot of people. Not me, because I’m a vampire, but a lot of families are winding down for the night. Kids are being sent off to bed and melatonin is being taken. It is, however, in the middle of “prime time,” typically viewed as between 8 and 11 PM Monday through Friday. Indeed, while most people are climbing into bed, they’re also turning on their TVs or using their other devices like tablets and smartphones.
While many young people are sleeping, or will soon be sleeping at 9 PM, MLB is capturing a large swath of the remaining demographics. I do share Kepner’s concern that this short-term rush for ratings, however, will come at the expense of creating future baseball fans.
MLB has it tougher now than ever before because the entertainment market is flooded with options. Between the four other major U.S. sports, soccer, and esports as well as all of the streaming options for TV and movies, MLB is competing with so many different companies for eyeballs.
As Marketwatch noted several years ago, MLB has the oldest average audience age in professional sports at 57. That’s up five years from 52 in 2006. Only 7% of MLB’s audience is under the age of 18. What happens when these kids get older? They’ve been enticed by the NFL and NBA, by esports, by YouTube, etc. and have entrenched their viewing habits as such.
What happens to MLB when Boomers and Gen X’ers start dying? Hell, I’m a millennial and one of only a select few that I know actively follows the sport. To whom will MLB sell tickets and t-shirts, and to whom will they advertise? That’s why MLB needs to focus on Gen Z more than anyone else, and these 9 PM ET start times aren’t helping.
What Graphics Department?
The TBS broadcast during yesterday’s Rays-Astros game showed this frightening graphic and I had to share it: