Crunch-Time Breakdown: Key Moments for NLCS Game 6 & ALCS Game 7

With both an NLCS Game 6 and an ALCS Game 7 yesterday, October 17th was the biggest day on the MLB calendar to date this year. For as easy as it is at times to rag on Major League Baseball for what Major League Baseball does, this was a great evening for the game. Two win-or-go-home matchups as a Saturday double-header. A block of about seven straight hours of close, intense baseball with excellent storylines: the Braves trying to return to the fall classic for the first time since the 90s, the Dodgers trying to finally get over the hump, the little engine that could that is the Rays and of course, the oft-hated Houston Astros.

And with big days like yesterday come big moments. In retrospect, I wanted to take time to highlight one big half inning from each of yesterday’s games and re-visit its impact. Consider this a review of where the tide could have turned as I take you through a pivotal moment pitch-by-pitch. This is Crunch Time Breakdown.

We start with our afternoon game.

Its early. The Los Angeles Dodgers, down in the series 3-2 but hosting the Atlanta Braves have just taken a 3-0 lead on the strength of back-to-back solo home runs by Corey Seager and Justin Turner. They then added a third run on an RBI single by last year’s MVP Cody Bellinger. The Dodgers have to feel good about themselves going into the 2nd inning. They’ve ambushed the Braves best starter Max Fried for three early runs and their own ace Walker Buehler threw just 8 pitches in a breezy top of the first. He re-enters in the 2nd to face Atlanta clean-up hitter Travis d’Arnaud.Click the tweeted links below for video of the action as well.

D’Arnaud vs. Buehler

D’Arnaud is patient, potentially trying to make Buehler work after such a quick first inning. He takes a fastball right down the middle and a borderline heater up and away that gets called a ball. A non-competitive slider down and away pulls the count to 2-1. Buehler then tries to throw a fastball on the same plane as that slider, down and away but in the zone.

D’Arnaud is ready for it and stings it hard on a line to second baseman Kike Hernandez who leaps but has it knock off his glove. Hernandez keeps its near him but can’t catch it on the fly. D’Arnaud has an infield single by inches. Man on first, no one out.

Albies vs. Buehler

Switch hitting 2nd baseman Ozzie Albies comes to the plate. Buehler mixes his pitches. A curveball down and away is taken for a strike. A cutter down and in is near Albies’s feet for a ball. Albies then takes a good swing and fouls off a fastball up and away in the zone. Buehler has thrown three different pitches to three different quadrants so far, but then doubles up on a fastball in the same spot that Albies fouls off.  It’s still a 1-2 count when Buehler throws a curveball in the same spot up and away in the zone.

Buehler hung it, and Albies does a great job of waiting back and beating the shift. He hits it just to the left of the shortstop Seager, who is currently the fielder closest to third base on the infield on this play. D’Arnaud gets to second and Albies has a single as left fielder AJ Pollock gets the ball back in. Men on first and second, no outs.

Swanson vs. Buehler

Its clear that Buehler wants to attack his former college roommate (as mentioned on numerous occasions in the broadcast) with breaking pitches. Buehler starts him with two sliders, one down and out of the zone and another that paints the outside corner for a strike. A curve away and in the dirt brings the count to 2-1. Falling behind in the count, Buehler changes course and fires a fastball up and away. The reason for the previous breaking pitches becomes obvious.

The Braves shortstop pulls it on a line past Seager (back in his normal spot) and into left where it lands for a single in front of Pollock. D’Arnaud reaches third, but holds there, in a move that Braves third base coach Ron Washington may later regret. The broadcast claims that D’Arnaud froze to make sure the liner got past Seager. Replays prove this not to be the case. D’Arnaud read the ball correctly, but he is held at third. FS1 didn’t give a great look of where D’Arnaud was when Pollock fielded the ball, but it did look like Washington made the call to hold him up early and D’Arnaud was content to ease up into third base. Despite being a catcher, the Atlanta backstop was only a slightly below average runner in terms of sprint speed this year. His average is 26.3 ft/s and the league average is about 27 ft/s. He ranked 296th out of 454 qualified players.

On the other side of the ball, Pollock’s arm isn’t good, period. He rated in at a -2.0 in Fangraphs Outfield Arms Runs in the shortened 2020 season. That’s good for 60th best out of the 68 outfielders that spent 300 innings patrolling the grass this season. I understand the desire to play it safe here. A below average runner lands at third with the bases loaded and no one out. Why risk it when you have three shots to bring him home? However, Pollock air mailed the throw to home even without D’Arnaud running. Even worse for the Braves is what is to come.

Holding D’Arnaud at third is a good move as long as one thing happens. The batters that follow Swanson MUST be able to put the ball in play. This isn’t a given with the bottom third of Atlanta’s order coming up. Third baseman Austin Riley and left fielder Nick Markakis both cashed in with weighted Runs Created+ values of 89 on the season (100 is average, higher is better). Center fielder Cristian Pache follows them. He had 4 Major League plate appearances coming into the playoffs. But again, odds are in the Braves favor. Bases loaded, no one out.

Riley vs. Buehler

Buehler knows what lies ahead of him and keeps his cool. He’s going to rely on the old number 1 to get through the weak underbelly of this Braves lineup. Riley’s at bat is absolutely lambasted by John Smoltz on the broadcast, but I actually disagree.

Riley takes a good hack at a fastball on the outer half for the first pitch and just fouls it back. Maybe he pulled off a bit, it was still a good swing. Buehler then challenges him down in the zone with another fastball. Riley swings hard again but doesn’t make contact. Down 0-2, Riley’s at bat is in trouble, and nothing is going to help him with what is about to come. Buehler might have made his best pitch of the night. 99 mph straight paint on the outside corner. Riley did well just to foul tip it into Dodgers catcher Austin Barnes’s glove for the strikeout. Mike Trout isn’t touching that pitch. Strike three. Bases loaded, one out.

Markakis vs. Buehler

For all intents and purposes, this is the biggest at bat of the inning. A ball in play still scores a run as long as it doesn’t result in a double play or infield fly. Markakis is the 2nd best contact hitter on this Braves squad. His K-rate of 16.3% is only worse than MVP candidate Freddie Freeman.

Buehler is unfazed by this and Markakis honestly misses his pitch. The first offering of the at bat is down but over the middle of the plate for a strike. Markakis takes it. He doesn’t know it, but it’s the best pitch he is going to get. Perhaps it’s a double play ball if he makes contact, but he also could have handled it. Buehler moves on to blow 98 mph up and away past Markakis who swings but is way behind. Down 0-2, maybe he regrets taking that first pitch now. Buehler goes back up and away two more times. The first is too far out of the zone but was a good chase pitch that Markakis lays off. The second nails the corner but Markakis fouls it off, his bat just fast enough to reach a pitch up and on the outer half. Buehler finally changes eye levels and goes down and in but misses. Markakis takes, to his credit, and now its 2-2.

The at bat culminates with a 100-mph fastball down and away that had plenty of the zone, but Markakis doesn’t offer. I surmise it was a hittable location but an unhittable speed. We’ll never know as Markakis leaves the bat on his shoulder and the Braves have no squandered two chances with the bases loaded. Buehler has struck out Atlanta’s 2nd hardest hitter to strike out and is now one out away from getting out of this jam.

Pache vs. Buehler

Before the at bat begins, Barnes goes out to talk to Buehler. This is probably just to change the signs. Remember, Albies has been on second for two full batters now and may have decoded them.

Pache is a glove-first center fielder but seems to have good bat-to-ball skills. Unfortunately, the time for a run scoring simply through contact has passed. Buehler starts the at bat with his tenth fastball in a row, down and away and taken for a strike at 99 mph. He returns with an unhittable cutter down and away running away from Pache. Its on the black and Buehler has made it an easy 0-2 count. He then changes course with a fastball above the zone on 0-2 that Pache is able to foul off. Buehler then reaches into his bag for his first off-speed pitch since Swanson and throws a slider at the bottom of the zone. His first non-fastball in thirteen pitches is a quality strike and Pache rolls over on it (unfortunately MLB Film Room didn’t have video of it).

Seager picks it up, throws it over to Max Muncy at first base and that’s the inning. Buehler walks off the mound and the FS1 broadcast plays the Ferris Buehler theme. The Houdini act is achieved in an incredible job by Buehler to bare down, attack the bottom of the Braves order with fastballs and let circumstances work in his favor.

I’m not going to sit here and rail on Washington for not sending D’Arnaud around third with no one out. I’m not going to get on Riley or Markakis too much either for not putting the ball in play. In hindsight maybe Riley should have shortened up a little bit. In hindsight, maybe Markakis should have taken a hack at the 0-0 fastball that was the best pitch of the at bat. But Buehler executed. He knew the scouting report on the hitters placed in front of him and just blew them away with the fastball. Give him a lot of credit. The moral to this story? Big moments aren’t usually big moments. They tend to be smaller moments that don’t seem so big but when enough of them don’t go in your favor they turn big.

This would be the Braves best chance to cut into their deficit. Braves starter Max Fried would settle down and perform admirably, not allowing another run. Markakis would later lead off the 7th with a triple and score, but he would be the only Brave to cross the plate all night. Having been able to put up a crooked number in the 2nd after the Dodgers had just taken charge of the game could have turned this contest entirely on its head. The expected number of runs to come out of a bases loaded and no one out situation is 2.25. The Braves would have to feel better about themselves and their chances vs. Buehler had they brought the deficit back to one immediately. They just didn’t execute.

For those that didn’t see, 3-1 was your final in favor of the Dodgers. Game 7 is tonight at 8 pm.

Speaking of Game 7s, we had one last night as well. This was a close affair between the Houston Astros and Tampa Bay Rays with Tampa hosting. Momentum felt in Houston’s favor coming into the night, being down 3-1 in the series after Game 4 but having won two in a row. Friday night’s Game 6 in particular felt like the Rays were holding the bats a little extra tight, like they were a little over intent on not blowing their series lead.

Our moment for this game comes later. To this point the Rays haven’t had much to worry about. Early home runs by outfielder Randy Arozarena, who honestly might be the hottest hitter on the planet right now, and catcher Mike Zunino put the Rays up 3-0. They have also received a stellar pitching performance from experienced veteran Charlie Morton, who was removed somewhat controversially in the 6th when he allowed just a mere walk and infield single while nursing a 4-0 lead. Morton had only 66 pitches at the time but rather than trust his starter manager Kevin Cash went to Nick Anderson for the pivotal 3rd time through the Astros order. Anderson had been dominant all regular season. He allowed just 5 base hits in 16 1/3 innings pitched but has allowed 7 base hits in the ALCS alone, obviously struggling in the series. Still, he escaped the men on the corners jam in the 6th and he is our pitcher come the 7th where our moment occurs. Its still 4-0 Rays and slugging Astros shortstop Carlos Correa leads off. This alone is intriguing because just last night Correa’s walk off blast to push us to a Game 7 in the first place came off Anderson. Can Correa ignite the rally to get Houston on top again?

Correa vs. Anderson

For a moment it looks like he can. Anderson leaves a fastball in the fat part of the zone on the first pitch, just like the pitch he delivered the previous night that ended the game.

To his credit, Correa hits it hard, but he hits it on a line right in the tracks of Rays sure-handed center fielder Kevin Kiermaier. One pitch, one out.

Bregman vs. Anderson

This at bat is an example of the Rays analytics team at its finest. The Rays decide to go with a 4-man outfield to face Alex Bregman, moving 2nd baseman Brandon Lowe to right field and shifting Arozarena to right-center in a look that you would be more accustomed to seeing in slow pitch softball. Of all hitters in yesterday’s lineup, Bregman was the least likely to hit the ball on the ground (33.6% of all contact in play) and the 2nd most likely line drive hitter (25% of all contact in play). Tampa Bay is looking to play the odds. 2/3 of the balls Bregman is going to hit aren’t on the ground and likely won’t be playable on the infield. The Rays are working to that tendency.

Anderson, who was more than rickety last night and has already looked rough with the gopher ball that he just served up to Correa starts this at bat with a fastball down and away out of the zone for a ball. He then follows that up with a curveball that he doesn’t bury but finds the top of the zone for a taken strike. He then yanks a fastball to his glove side that at least by the estimate of TBS’s version of K-zone is way off the plate.

Bregman, in a fine piece of hitting, goes with the pitch and serves a line drive down the rightfield line. The broadcast had just been talking about how Bregman has been scuffling but worked hard on going the other way in batting practice. This work has just paid off. However, so does the Rays’ defensive positioning. With 4 outfielders, I surmise Lowe is able to play closer to the line on a right-handed hitter. Bregman had the 2nd fewest opposite field hits of any member of the Astros starting lineup. Under normal circumstances the Rays are playing him to pull and this ball is down the right field line for a double. Instead, Bregman is standing on first with a single. This sounds small, but it’s really huge. Man on first, one out.

Tucker vs. Anderson

Anderson’s woes continue. He makes a pretty good pitch, probably his best pitch of the inning so far to left fielder Kyle Tucker, a fastball down and in in the zone but Tucker smokes it. This is on brand for Tucker. His best exit velo is on balls down and in (96.1 mph). He basically averages a “hard hit” every time he makes contact on a pitch down and in. Every other corner of the zone is a cold spot for him. Yet, Anderson goes for the wrong corner and pays for it with a line drive single to center field. Bregman makes it to third but could be crossing the plate right now if not for the Rays’ defensive positioning a play ago. It’s still 4-0 but men are on the corners with 1 out.

Gurriel vs Anderson

Anderson starts the struggling first baseman, Yuli Gurriel with another lousy curveball. He’s only thrown 2 in the inning so far and both are left up above the zone. This one is blatantly non-competitive and Gurriel takes it easily. Likely in a concerted effort to induce a double play, Anderson goes back to the curve despite its ineffectiveness so far. He hangs this next one… badly. Up and over the middle of the plate.

This pitch could constitute a one run ball game; at the very least a hard-hit single would score Bregman and keep the rally going. Instead, Gurriel fails to execute. He beats the ball into the ground for a routine grounder to short. This is light work for Rays shortstop Willy Adames, who flips to Lowe, who has returned to second base. There’s just one more final key to this play. Lowe makes the turn, but in seeing the average footed Gurriel running (27.2 ft/s), is a little nonchalant with his offering to first. The throw nearly pulls first baseman Ji Man Choi off the bag! A good stretch and even better footwork keep Choi on the base and the ball in this glove. Another little detail, with a huge outcome. The Rays defense has not only kept Bregman from scoring two different ways this inning but was strong enough to make Anderson, who was hanging onto control of this game by the skin of his teeth this inning, scoreless now through 1 1/3 innings.

That Bregman run is huge. The Astros would go on to score two in the 8th off of a combination of Anderson and Pete Fairbanks. With the score 4-1 going into the 8th instead and with all other things being the same, the Astros most consistent hitter, DH Michael Brantley would be striding to the plate as the tying run inning with men on the corners and one out. Further, his ensuing RBI single makes Bregman the go-ahead run as he returns to the batter’s box. When the Astros come up in the 9th, they would do so always one swing away from tying the game after scoring 2 runs in the 8th. Granted, one change in the matrix likely changes other things as well, but common-sense dictates, if Bregman scores in the 7th, the game becomes a heck of a lot tighter.

These two big half innings are the tale of two different stories. Both involve teams with a deficit trying to scrounge their way back into the game. In both situations they fail, but for completely different reasons. Buehler executed his pitches and took advantage of some admittedly weak hitting in the process. Anderson got a little lucky. More accurately, the players and coaching staff around him made him better. This was really an opportunity for the “Rays Way” to shine. They did the little things in the field to keep themselves afloat.

All this taken from just two half innings of action. Anyone who finds baseball boring just doesn’t know what to look for. The devil is in the details. This nuance didn’t just make the game interesting, in a way it could have decided it. Who knows what will strike the final blow in tonight’s Game 7 between the Braves and Dodgers.

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