Today's slate: 4 games, 4 potential clinchers

October 8th, 2020

Whatever your thoughts about how a full day of baseball went on Wednesday, no matter whether your team won or lost, there was one undeniable positive from baseball: No series ended, which means we get four more games of baseball on Thursday. That’s a considerable gift, and one we should remember to cherish when it’s January, and we desperately miss it.

With two Game 3s and two Game 4s on the agenda, there are storylines everywhere. Here’s a key storyline coming into Thursday for each team, in each game.

Braves-Marlins, Game 3 (2 p.m. ET, FS1)
Braves lead series, 2-0
Game 3 FAQ: Lineups, pitchers, more

Marlins: Can their most exciting pitcher keep their season alive?

Sixto Sánchez wasn’t necessarily the best Marlins pitcher in 2020, but he sure is the one who is most riveting to watch. He’s definitely the one with the highest upside, and probably the guy you want most on the mound when you're down 2-0 with your season on the brink. He also has an advantage that Sandy Alcantara and Pablo López didn’t have: He doesn’t have to face Max Fried or Ian Anderson, but rather Kyle Wright. This is the first game the Marlins have had the starting-pitching advantage, and they clearly need it. The Marlins are building their franchise around pitchers like Sánchez performing in big spots. And there aren’t many bigger than trying to win to keep your season alive.

Braves: Can they continue to ignore the postseason demons?

Quick: What’s the last season the Braves reached the NL Championship Series? The answer, amazingly, is 2001, the one that they lost to the eventual World Series champion D-backs in the NLCS after beating the Astros (then still in the NL) in the Division Series. B.J. Surhoff was on that team. Julio Franco was on that team. Bernard Gilkey was on that team. There’s only one active player in baseball (Albert Pujols) who played that whole season.

This isn’t a Seattle Mariners, never-make-it-to-the-playoffs LCS drought: The Braves have the fifth-most wins in all of baseball since 2001. (The four teams above them have a combined 13 World Series appearances between them.) The Braves have been bumping their head on the NLDS ceiling for nearly 20 years, even losing four Game 5s in that time. This team is undefeated in this postseason so far and looks like it’s ready to eradicate the two decades of frustration. If they can’t finish it off Thursday … do they start hearing the footsteps of postseason ghosts again? Or is Ronald Acuña Jr. too young and too brash to remember, or care, about any of that?

A’s-Astros, Game 4 (3:30 p.m. ET, TBS)
Astros lead series, 2-1
Game 4 FAQ: Lineups, pitchers, more

Astros: How are they going to patch together all those innings?

It sure looked all set for the Astros in the seventh inning on Wednesday, didn’t it? Their starter Jose Urquidy had given up four homers, but they had a 7-4 lead and the bullpen hadn’t given up a run all postseason and just needed to get through three innings to win the series and take the next five days off. Instead, Chad Pinder hit a three-run homer off Josh James, the Astros had to use two more pitchers of an already-thin bullpen and, worst of all, they might not be able to start Zack Greinke in Game 4.

If Greinke’s arm soreness isn’t gone by 3:30 p.m. ET on Wednesday, Cristian Javier, who has pitched out of the bullpen so far this postseason, will have to make the start. And even if Greinke does start, you have no idea how he will look. These five-games-in-five-days Division Series will put a strain on your pitching staff, and the Astros have already gotten nearly half their innings so far from their 'pen. And if you think this is bad … wait until what happens if they don’t clinch Thursday and have to piece together nine more innings in a Game 5 on Friday.

A’s: Can Frankie Montas be his No. 1-starter self when he’s needed most?

Montas is probably the most talented starter on either of these teams right now. This year hasn’t gone how he wanted, with a 5.60 ERA in 11 regular-season starts … which is actually only five fewer starts than he made last year. He has fallen enough that this is his first postseason start -- he pitched out of the 'pen in the Wild Card Series and earned a win -- but he still has that raw stuff. (He actually had the highest strikeout rate of his career this year.) The A’s have been hoping Montas could be their ace for several years now. This would be the time to rise to that label.

Yankees-Rays, Game 4 (7 p.m. ET, TBS)
Rays lead series, 2-1
Game 4 FAQ: Lineups, pitchers, more

Yankees: Can they get enough pitching? Or any pitching?

Hey, don’t listen to me on this one. Listen to Trevor Bauer:

Jordan Montgomery is going to get the call to start after two rough outings for the Yankees, but there’s no question that his leash will be short, particularly with Zack Britton and Aroldis Chapman fully rested after the Game 3 blowout. (Chapman is yet to even pitch in this series.)

With the Yankees' offense, Montgomery and whomever comes after him (Deivi García first, probably) won’t have to be perfect: Giancarlo Stanton is apparently going to provide a good portion of run support all on his own. But that’s 15 runs in two games the Yankees pitchers have given up, to a team that’s not supposed to be that powerful, or at least doesn’t have their lineup as their primary strength. The Yankees don’t have to have great pitching. But they have to have some.

Rays: Is Randy Arozarena a god, or the god?

Of the three players involved in the Cardinals-Rays trade last offseason, Arozarena was the one talked about the least when it was made. Top 100 prospect Matthew Liberatore (who went to St. Louis) and later-traded José Martínez (who went to Tampa Bay with Arozarena) both were the headliners. And now Arozarena is batting third for a team that’s one win away from stomping out the Evil Empire and putting up a postseason batting line that’s so absurd it makes you almost wince: .600/.636/1.250. (Giancarlo Stanton is the only guy who has hit more homers than him this postseason.)

It turns out that Arozarena was precisely what this good-but-not-great offense needed, and his hot streak has turned the Rays into an entirely different team. If he can keep that up, the Rays can match the Yankees at the plate, to go along with their clear pitching advantage. Arozarena only had 64 regular-season at-bats this year and will actually maintain his rookie eligibility in 2021. But he might be the most valuable, and important, player in baseball right now.

Padres-Dodgers, Game 3 (9 p.m. ET, MLB Network)
Dodgers lead series, 2-0
Game 3 FAQ: Lineups, pitchers, more

Padres: Can they possibly recover from that momentum shift?

When Fernando Tatis Jr. hit that blast off Brusdar Graterol to deep center field at Globe Life Field in the seventh inning of Game 2 of this series, you thought the Padres were about to explode in this series, I thought the Padres were about to explode in this series and Tatis definitely thought the Padres were about to explode in this series. After all, that’s exactly what happened in the Wild Card Series: When Tatis hit a three-run homer in Game 2, the entire series turned around. You just knew the Padres were winning after that.

But something funny happened on that ball’s trip over the center-field wall: Cody Bellinger made a leaping, incredible, high-five-everyone-nearby catch that stopped all of the Padres' party momentum dead in its tracks. And then Manny Machado and Graterol had a war of words, the Dodgers scored two more runs in the next half inning and the Padres fell one run short in the ninth and this game was over. Is the series over? The Padres can get rolling like no other team in baseball. But can they get rolling after that? We’ll see what Machado and Tatis bring to Game 3, because the Padres’ beleaguered pitching staff will need some runs.

Dodgers: Can they keep everything easy-does-it?

As MLB Network’s Ken Rosenthal noted after Game 1: The Dodgers are “built to withstand virtually any obstacle.” That was the case again in Game 2. Clayton Kershaw gives up two solo homers to start to make it a close game, Bellinger brings back the Tatis homer, the Dodgers scratch two more runs together and the bullpen (mostly) shuts them down.

The Dodgers are winning games like clockwork so far, like there’s a formula that only they have or understand. They look impervious right now. They’re not, actually, impervious: No baseball team is. But the Padres have poked them for weaknesses this entire series, but, as close as they got in the ninth inning of Game 2, they have found none. The Dodgers only need protect their flank one more time.