Max Muncy’s absence sinking Dodgers; Tanner Houck’s emergence saving Red Sox
Over 10 hours and four games, the arc of Major League Baseball’s playoffs were vastly altered Friday, when every Division Series in both leagues were in action. At least a tripleheader awaits on Monday, while the National League will take center stage with two games on Saturday, the AL on Sunday.
For now, only the Houston Astros are aligned for a sweep in the AL, with the specter of a Game 5 strong in the other ALDS.
So what did we learn from a long day’s journey from Houston to Milwaukee to Tampa Bay and then San Francisco? Here’s four takeaways from Friday’s action:
Less than Max effort
Lost in the haze of MLB’s chaotic final day of the season might have been its most important development: An elbow injury that will likely sideline Max Muncy throughout the playoffs.
And after two games without their most disciplined hitter, there’s a decent chance the Los Angeles Dodgers’ stay in these playoffs will be a brief one.
Take nothing away from Logan Webb, whose postseason debut evoked memories of San Francisco Giants legends Tim Lincecum and Matt Cain, as he punched out 10 Dodgers over 7 ⅔ shutout innings in the Giants’ 4-0 victory.
Yet you combine Game 1 of this NLDS with the Dodgers’ impotent performance in squeaking out a 3-1 win over St. Louis in Wednesday’s wild-card game, and it’s possible they have a Muncy Problem.
Webb was fabulous, walking nobody and giving up five hits, just one for extra bases. It’s likely nobody was hitting him on this chilly night in China Basin.
Yet it was also probably a little too easy. Webb needed just 92 pitches to take down nearly eight innings, the Dodgers rarely working even a three-ball count. It’s a marked contrast to Webb’s last two starts against the Dodgers, during which he lasted five and six innings, respectively, the Giants winning those late-July games 2-1 and 4-2.
Muncy started in both of them and in the July 21 game saw 18 pitches in four plate appearances in one of them; only Chris Taylor saw more (19).
It was a similar story in two recent games against Cardinals ace Adam Wainwright. The Dodgers dinged him for four runs in 8 1/3 innings of a 5-4 loss on Sept. 8. Wainwright threw 104 pitches and Muncy saw nearly a quarter of them, absorbing a team-high 22 pitches and hitting a sixth-inning homer.
In the wild-card game, without Muncy? Wainwright went 5 ⅓ innings but only gave up one run – Justin Turner’s solo homer, the Dodgers’ only extra-base hit until Taylor’s walk-off against reliever Alex Reyes.
Muncy ranked sixth in the major leagues in StatCast’s overall plate discipline metric, and his .973 OPS ranked third in the NL. He’s not always essential to the Dodgers’ attack, but with Taylor flailing and Cody Bellinger a shell of his usual self, the Dodgers are a far easier lineup to navigate these days.
Taylor sat Game 1, but manager Dave Roberts aid he’ll start Game 2 in center, with Bellinger moving to first. Perhaps Kevin Gausman’s two-pitch repertoire will be more to the Dodgers’ liking in Game 2. Or Julio Urias and Max Scherzer ensure they aren’t climbing uphill from the jump in Games 2 and 3, easing some pressure on hitters.
But big picture or small, the Dodgers are a punchless bunch. And right now, the defending World Series champions are very much on the ropes.
Had it not been coined by an ad agency to sell auto insurance, “Life comes at you fast” would make a decent mantra for October baseball.
Speaking of which, Tanner Houck, how do you feel about being the No. 2 starter for the Boston Red Sox?
In a span of just a few innings, the Red Sox went from crushed to in command of their AL Division Series against the Tampa Bay Rays. Their Game 1 and 2 starters, lefties Eduardo Rodriguez and Chris Sale, combined to record eight outs, stressing their pitching staff and shoving them deep in what looked like a 2-0 hole in a best-of-five series.
Then, they handed the ball to Houck in the second inning of Game 2 and got out of the way.
Houck chewed up five innings and yielded just two hits, enabling a record-setting offensive performance to turn a three-run deficit into a two-run advantage and, eventually, a 14-6 Red Sox win that evened the series.
How pivotal was Houck’s performance?
Well, the Red Sox went from facing an elimination game in Game 3 to handing the ball to ace Nate Eovaldi at Fenway Park with a chance to push the Rays onto the brink of elimination.
Here’s a pair of not-so-bold predictions: This series is going five games, and Houck will start Game 5 for Boston.
He’s certainly earned that much by saving the Red Sox’s season not once, but twice. In Game 161, Houck started three days after a 41-pitch relief performance, and spun five perfect innings against the Washington Nationals. So in two essentially must-win games, that’s 10 innings pitched, two hits, 13 strikeouts and no walks.
Red Sox manager Alex Cora’s October aggressiveness paid huge dividends in 2018, in the manner in which he deployed his bullpen. He ignored Sale’s track record in quickly hooking him both in Game 162 and Game 2 of the ALDS.
This decision will be far easier – Houck, essentially, has made it for him.
Churn and burned
Perhaps you’ve heard a thing or two about the Rays’ uncanny ability to pluck fringe players from baseball oblivion, sprinkle some analytics on them and watch the magic unfold. One hundred wins, miniscule payroll – same as it ever was.
But both the upsides and perils of roster churn were exposed in their XX-X loss to the Boston Red Sox.
As the craziness of trade deadline day wound down on July 30, the Rays made a characteristically quiet deal, acquiring light-hitting outfielder/first baseman Jordan Luplow from Cleveland.
In Game 2, Luplow blasted a grand slam off Sale in the bottom of the first inning, giving the Rays a 5-2 lead and what seemed to be total command of their ALDS.
It was a 5-5 game when Matt Wisler entered in the fifth with a runner on. Wisler was designated for assignment by the San Francisco Giants on June 9, and the Rays acquired him in trade shortly thereafter despite a 6.05 ERA. It’s clear what intrigued the Rays – Wisler’s 12 strikeouts per nine innings – and sure enough, he magically trimmed his ERA to 2.15 in 29 ⅓ innings with Tampa Bay.
Yet the playoffs are often when pedigree catches up to a player. And in the blink of an eye – a Xander Bogaerts single, a towering J.D. Martinez three-run home run – it was 8-5 Boston and the series suddenly took on an entirely different tenor.
That’s the risk of rolling with rookie starters in Games 1 and 2 – it will likely leave a lot of innings for relievers to absorb. And Shane Baz, making just his fourth career start Friday, recorded just seven outs. It resulted in the Rays’ rare failure of their depth
Big man clinic
So many fantastic athletes on the Milwaukee Brewers, from former MVP Christian Yelich, season savior Willy Adames and Gold Glove outfielder Lorenzo Cain. None materially contributed to the Brewers’ 2-1 Game 1 conquest of the Atlanta Braves.
Nope, it was a scoreless game until the bottom of the seventh inning, when Avisail Garcia, all 250 pounds of him, absorbed a Charlie Morton pitch on his wrist to put a man on base. Rowdy Tellez, the 250-pound first baseman acquired from Toronto in July, followed with a two-run homer to right, providing the Brewers’ only scoring.
Combine those guys with Dan Vogelbach, who drew a walk an inning earlier and carries 270 pounds on his 6-foot frame, and the lesson here is obvious: Big is beautiful.
And it never hurts for a team to acquire players that appear to exemplify their mascot.
This article originally appeared on USA TODAY: MLB playoffs: Four takeaways from the four Division Series games