7 things we've learned from '21 postseason

October 13th, 2021

Wednesday’s postseason docket is heartbreakingly blank. Who turned off the baseball?

But this quick postseason pause before the Game 5 finale of the Giants-Dodgers National League Division Series on Thursday night and the Astros-Red Sox American League Championship Series opener Friday night is an opportunity to assess a few of the things we’ve learned so far this postseason.

1. The Braves’ rotation deserves more love

It was the Brewers’ Big Three of NL Cy Young favorite , and that commanded more attention in advance of the NLDS against Atlanta. But we just watched the trio of , and Ian Anderson allow a grand total of four runs (all by Morton, who started two games) in 20 1/3 innings.

OK, OK, so that performance came against a Milwaukee offense that would never be mistaken for the ’27 Yankees … or even the ’87 Yankees.

But Morton has a 2.52 ERA in his last eight postseason starts, Fried has a 2.43 ERA in five career postseason starts and Anderson has allowed just two runs on 14 hits in 23 2/3 innings across five starts in his postseason career. Because the Braves took care of business tidily, Fried and Morton can start Games 1 and 2 of the NLCS on regular rest. And though an iffy bullpen still has more to prove, getting a scoreless series from (4 1/3 innings), (3 1/3 innings), Will Smith (three innings), (1 2/3 innings) and (1 1/3 innings) is a very healthy start.

No matter their NLCS opponent, the Braves will be the underdogs. But they’ll have rested big-game pitchers atop their rotation. So don’t go handing the Game 5 winner of Giants-Dodgers that NL pennant just yet.

2. Sorry, but the Astros are still really good

The court of public opinion has not been kind to the Astros in the wake of the 2017-18 sign-stealing scandal, and they earned the ire. White Sox reliever Ryan Tepera’s baseless allegations that the present-day Astros are still doing shady stuff at home was ill-advised (and ill-fated, considering Houston put up 10 runs on the road in their ALDS clincher). But such swipes are perhaps unavoidable in the aftermath of such a saga.

What made the late-2019 revelations about the Astros so disappointing, though, was the unnecessary nature of it all. This was -- and still is -- a talented team with the lineup depth to do damage without the egregious aid they illegally employed.

Sure enough, the Astros have now bashed their way back to the ALCS for the fifth straight year. Their lineup produced a .288/.371/.432 slash in four games against a White Sox staff that had the AL’s second-best ERA this season. And Houston’s pitching staff limited a tough White Sox lineup to six extra-base hits.

Haters gonna hate, as they say. But well, Houston’s gonna Houston, too.

3. Sometimes stuff ain’t enough

The Rays figured to be a fascinating case study in these playoffs (as tends to be the case with the Rays). They won 100 games despite the departures of Blake Snell and Charlie Morton, the midseason trade of Rich Hill and the midseason injury to Tyler Glasnow. And so they entered the ALDS against the Red Sox with the rawest rotation plan in postseason history.

Games 1 through 3 starters , and had a combined 38 starts in the big leagues. By design and by default, a Rays team that had the second-fewest innings per start (4.6) of any team in MLB this season (only the Orioles had fewer) was counting on the filthy offerings of these largely untested high-upside arms to get through the Boston order effectively a couple of times before turning it over to one of the best bullpens in the game. 

It looked like it might work when McClanahan shut down the Sox for five scoreless innings in a Game 1 win. But neither Baz nor Rasmussen made it out of the third inning in their outings, and that had Kevin Cash mixing and matching even earlier than envisioned.

This is not to suggest that the Rays’ plan was doomed to failure, because, again, McClanahan, Baz and Rasmussen are all tantalizing talents. (And if you think the “nerds lost” because Tampa Bay lost, um, might we introduce you to former Rays executive and current Red Sox chief baseball officer Chaim Bloom … or pretty much every front office in baseball?) But you couldn’t walk away from that ALDS without thinking that the collective inexperience caught up to Tampa Bay and that getting length from your starters still matters in October.

4. The Red Sox were right to give Alex Cora another chance

When Boston announced it had mutually parted ways with Cora in January 2020, after an MLB investigation concluded he helped develop the sign-stealing system that contributed to the Astros’ 2017 World Series title, the press release reeked of reluctance. The Red Sox had no real desire to get rid of Cora, but his role in the Houston scandal was too pronounced to realistically move forward with him as their skipper.

And anyway, MLB wound up suspending him for the 2020 season a few months later, after its investigation into the 2018 Red Sox was concluded.

Cora served his suspension, and his re-hire last November was unsurprising. But if there were any lingering doubts whatsoever that the Red Sox were right to give him a second chance, leading this talented-but-flawed 2021 team -- a team few expected to even reach the postseason at all -- to the doorstep of the World Series extinguishes it.

Boston entered October with tons of bullpen questions, but Cora has routinely pulled the right levers, even when ace simply didn’t have it in Game 2 of the ALDS against the Rays. And his decision to put in the leadoff spot has worked wonderfully.

Cora is now 15-4 in the postseason, giving him the best winning percentage (.789) of any manager with at least 15 postseason games. And he’s 5-0 in potential clinchers. No doubt, he is a difference-maker in the dugout.

5. Rule 5.06(b)(4)(H) and Rule 5.09(a)(11)

The theme here is “things we’ve learned” and -- yep -- we’ve learned these two obscure rules, haven’t we?

Because of the application of the first rule, a ball that bounced off Red Sox outfielder ’s leg and bounded over Fenway’s distinctly diminutive right-field wall cost the Rays a run in Game 3 of their ALDS. And because of the second rule, White Sox catcher was able to run well inside the first-base line and in the way of first baseman ’s throw home (allowing teammate Luis Robert to score from third) without being called for interference.

The MLB rule book is about 150 pages. It’s not exactly “Atlas Shrugged.” And yet we always seem to find something new in that thing this time of year.

6. Coasting has a cost

The first three teams to clinch their divisions this year? The White Sox, Rays and Brewers.

The first three division winners ousted from October? The White Sox, Rays and Brewers.

All of them were taken down in four games.

So the only reasonable conclusion we can come to is that the advantage associated with coasting to a crown (setting up your pitching, resting your regulars, yada, yada, yada) is outweighed by the disadvantage of diluting your competitive edge.

And yes, we reserve the right to completely dismiss this conclusion a year from now, when some team that wins its division by 21 games goes on to win the World Series.

7. We were absolutely right about Giants-Dodgers

The two top winning percentages in MLB this season. A rivalry that spans generations and the country itself. The first modern-era postseason series between two clubs that battled for the division title until the bitter end.

Surely, Giants-Dodgers was one of the most anticipated Division Series in the 26-year history of the format.

But you know how it so often goes when we get our hopes up about something: The anticipation often outweighs the actuality.

Not this time. We’ve seen both clubs rise to the October occasion. We’ve seen introduce himself to a wider audience with a dominant outing in Game 1. We’ve seen do Mookie Betts things, with an incredible outfield assist in Game 2 and a dinger in Game 4. We’ve seen the coming-out party of with his six-out save for the Giants in Game 3. We’ve seen soon-to-be Hall-of-Famer crank out two hits in his 78th career postseason start. We’ve seen and build off their renaissance seasons with huge homers.

Now, after an off-day builds up even more anticipation, we’ll see a sudden-death showdown Thursday night between two 109-win ballclubs.

We only got one Game 5 in this Division Series round. And it’s the only one we need.