1 key storyline for each playoff team today

October 20th, 2021

Tuesday was a truly thrilling late afternoon and evening of baseball, with twists, turns and face-melting moments. And the thing those games ultimately assured, more than anything, was that we were getting even more games moving forward -- more baseball. We’ve got two more games on Wednesday, and because of what happened Tuesday, it’s now certain neither will be the final game of the series. Wednesday’s games are suddenly excruciatingly critical.

Each team comes into its matchup with one major story. Let this serve as your primer: Here’s the biggest thing to watch for each team heading into this game … and the rest of the postseason. Absorb each of these, and then prepare for them to be immediately eradicated after the first pitch.

ALCS Game 4: Astros at Red Sox, series tied 2-2

Astros: Has the offense woken up enough to outpace all the exhausted pitchers?

The Astros, heading into the eighth inning of Game 4, looked ready to lose in the worst way possible. After getting only 1 1/3 innings from starter Zack Greinke, they’d had to dig back into their beleaguered and worn-out bullpen … and that bullpen had, amazingly, delivered 5 2/3 scoreless innings despite having everyone’s arms barely hanging onto their shoulders. But that didn’t matter, because Nick Pivetta and the Red Sox bullpen had held Houston to just one run, and the Astros’ heroic bullpen performance to that point was wasted. Then Jose Altuve homered to lead off the eighth to tie the game, and that opened the floodgates. Next thing you knew, Houston had seven ninth-inning runs and this series was tied.

In the pivotal Game 5, it is heretofore recommended that the Astros score seven runs in an inning again, because it may be needed. Framber Valdez will start the game, and he’s going to have to do a lot better than he did in Game 1 when he gave up three runs in 2 2/3 innings, a short outing that essentially launched the innings shortage the team is racked with right now. The Astros desperately need some innings out of him. Because seven-run ninth innings don’t typically fall from the sky.

Red Sox: So what does have?

For much of the last decade, if you were to ask the question, “What pitcher would you want most on the mound in a huge swing Game 5?” Sale would be one of the first five names on anyone’s lips. But maybe people stopped saying that in 2019, when he had a 4.40 ERA and never quite looked right before having Tommy John surgery. He has looked better in 2021, returning late in the year as the Red Sox have been incredibly, almost monastically patient with him as he recovered. But if there were ever a time to take off the training wheels and have Sale floor it with all he’s got, this is it.

His postseason has been rocky so far. Sale was shelled in Game 2 of the ALDS against the Rays and made it through only 2 2/3 innings against the Astros in Game 1 of the ALCS. The main issue has been with his offspeed pitches, which is a problem when you don’t throw as hard as you used to (and when you’re Sale and known for throwing excellent offspeed pitches). The Red Sox have had a clear, well-constructed plan for getting Sale back up to full speed. This is the precise moment they put in all that work to prepare for. Sale has had some huge moments in his career for Boston. This might be the one where they are relying on him the most.

NLCS Game 4: Braves at Dodgers, Braves lead 2-1

Braves: No one, NO ONE, say the words “28-3.”

As loyal fans and residents of a city and state with a long, painful history of their sports teams breaking their hearts at the worst possible moments, Atlanta and Georgians have it plenty great right now. The Georgia Bulldogs are No. 1 in the country, the Hawks are an NBA title contender, and even Atlanta United is on its way to the playoffs. Heading into the bottom of the eighth on Tuesday, the Braves looked as golden as they have looked in nearly 30 years: Up 5-2 on the mighty Dodgers, a mere five outs away from a commanding, overpowering 3-0 series lead. And then Cody Bellinger, who is making a habit of hitting crushing NLCS homers against the Braves, bashed a game-tying three-run homer, Dodger Stadium went crazy and a series that Atlanta had a stranglehold suddenly felt like it was slipping away.

Look, the Braves aren’t just not out of this series, they still have the advantage; they are up 2-1, after all, and cannot be eliminated before returning to Atlanta. But with a bullpen game at hand today and the Dodgers suddenly looking like they have their mojo back, you have to wonder if the Braves and their fans will be spending a long time wondering how they could come so close only to have it all fall through their fingers again. They are more than used to it by now.

Dodgers: How much longer can they keep going back to the Urías well?

has been such a vital part of the Dodgers’ staff, particularly in the postseason, for so long that you forget he is still just 25 years old. (He’s less than a year older than, say, promising Tigers righty Casey Mize.) Manager Dave Roberts and the Dodgers have relied on him at every turn, which is normal, but this time there have been a lot of turns. Thus, somehow, Urías is starting Game 4 despite pitching in relief in Game 2 on Sunday (and giving up two runs in one inning, for that matter). This is, amazingly, his fourth game in 11 days.

You’d think, even with as important as this game is, there’d have to be a limit on how long he can go, particularly because Roberts surely plans to use him again this series if he gets the opportunity. The rest of the top-shelf part of the Dodgers’ bullpen is mostly rested; Blake Treinen and Brusdar Graterol haven’t pitched since Sunday, when Urías did, and Kenley Jansen should be able to go as well after notching the save Tuesday. But this is still a lot to put on Urías. Though it’s a lot easier to put it on him down 2-1 rather than 3-0.