12 big storylines for today’s LCS games

October 12th, 2020

The League Championship Series, as of today, will both be underway. It can be difficult to keep all the madness straight. So join us, throughout this week, for our daily previews -- a look, for each series, at the three major storylines for each team heading into that day’s games.

There has never been as postseason like this one, but we have now reached the point where things have settled in and the schedule resembles a “normal year.” The settings have changed, but this is the postseason, and postseasons always let us know one thing for sure: Every night, you’re going to be reminded that you know nothing. The storylines are going to change every day. Here are three storylines for each team heading into Monday’s games.

Game 2: Astros-Rays, 4 p.m. ET, TBS
Rays lead series, 1-0
FAQ: Lineups, pitchers, more

3 Astros storylines

1. Is Jose Altuve back? There really isn’t anything much more surreal than looking at Jose Altuve’s baseball card stats and seeing that he hit .219 this year. Jose Altuve! .219! But the old Altuve appears to have returned in October: He has a 1.054 OPS and was responsible for the only Astros run in Game 1, a first-inning homer. (Yes, I know he struck out for the final out, but Diego Castillo is no slouch.) Altuve now has more homers than any second baseman in LCS history and more postseason experience than anyone on either team, and he has had a difficult year that he’s eager to forget about. Staying hot this series would go a long way toward making that happen.

2. Can McCullers make it 2017 again? Let us never forget how good Lance McCullers Jr. was in the postseason in 2017. He had a 2.61 ERA in a variety of roles, including closing out Game 7 of the American League Championship Series against the Yankees with four scoreless innings. He also started Game 7 of the World Series and set the Astros en route to a series-clinching win, in a game that was closed out by Charlie Morton -- the man he’ll be facing in Game 2!

McCullers was perfectly fine in 2020, coming back from Tommy John surgery to look essentially the same as he always has, though his one start this postseason was a wobbly one (four innings, five runs allowed in Game 1 of the AL Division Series against Oakland). With no days off in these series, the Astros may need innings from him as much as anything else.

3. Is it time to make a change at first base? Yuli Gurriel was having a nightmare postseason -- 2-for-24, no extra-base hits -- before he came to the plate with the bases loaded, one out, down by one in the top of the eighth in Game 1. Gurriel’s free-swinging nature got him in trouble again, grounding into a double play that eradicated the Astros’ best scoring chance of the night. It’s not easy to figure out who would replace him at this point, but at 2-for-25, and after that killer of a DP, manager Dusty Baker has to at least be considering every option he has.

3 Rays storylines

1. Is Randy Arozarena just going to win every MVP from now on until the end of time? Arozarena took his 31st postseason at-bat in Game 1, which is almost exactly half as many as he had in the regular season. Between the regular season and postseason, he's had just 119 at-bats in his two-year career. He’s averaging a home run every 7.8 at-bats this postseason, and he’s doing it against the best pitchers in the world. He’s brash and funny and, as we’ve all discovered, he’s an incredible dancer. His Game 1 homer broke Framber Valdez’s spell over the Rays and allowed them to get back into the game.

Arozarena (born in 1995) is only three years older than the Rays' organization … and he could emerge as the face of the franchise.

2. Are they going to wear those hats again? OK, so yeah, it’s probably a little silly to be yammering about hats when the stakes are this high. But come on: It hasn’t felt so 1999 in here since they announced they were doing another "Matrix" sequel. Wearing the old Devil Rays hats in their first ALCS game since 2008 is a bit of a boss move, if you ask us, and considering it just got them a Game 1 victory, it would be tempting the baseball gods to switch now. You might find the hats ugly (and trust those of us who were there: the old Devil Rays were ugly). But Game 1 might have been the best thing they’ve ever been a part of. Who are you, hat skeptic, to mess with history?

3. Are there enough guys who can get the big hit? You can forgive Rays fans if they were terrified for most of Game 1 that they were going to end up losing. That’s often what happens when teams miss as many opportunities as the Rays did, leaving nine runners on and passing up on many chances to expand a one-run lead. Diego Castillo ended up being so good in relief that the Rays didn’t end up paying for it. Arozarena and Mike Brousseau’s exploits have disguised a little bit that the Rays aren’t hitting that well this postseason -- Joey Wendle is the only regular hitting over .300 other than those two, and he doesn’t have a single extra-base hit.

When do they start just pitching around Arozarena? (What a weird thing to end up saying.)

Game 1: Braves-Dodgers, 8 p.m. ET, FOX
FAQ: Lineups, pitchers, more

3 Braves storylines

1. How much of this can the pitchers keep up? The Braves knew they had a solid offense coming into the postseason: They had three legit MVP candidates atop their lineup, after all. But the most amazing thing about the Braves so far, and the reason they haven’t lost a postseason game yet, has been the pitching: They’ve thrown four shutouts this postseason. (That’s as many as they had during the regular season.) Max Fried and Ian Anderson are the big arms, and they line up perfect 1-2 for this series, but don’t forget that Kyle Wright threw six scoreless innings in Game 3 of the Marlins sweep as well.

The Dodgers’ offense swamps both the Reds’ and the Marlins’, so don’t expect many shutouts. But if the Braves can keep pitching close to this, they’ve got a puncher’s chance.

2. Can Freeman have the series of his life? Freddie Freeman, who might just win the MVP this season, was terrific in his first two playoff series, going 4-for-5 in the infamous Wild Card Game loss to the Cardinals in 2012 and hitting .313 in a four-game loss to the Dodgers in 2013. But then his team didn’t return to the playoffs for five seasons, and while he was the fully established team leader by 2018, his postseason results haven’t been what you’d expect. In his last four series, he's batted .204 (11-for-54) with just two homers (though he did have a walk-off single in Game 1 of the Wild Card Series against Cincinnati.)

Freddie Freeman, in many ways, has been the story of 2020: He was incredibly ill with COVID as the year started, returned to a hero’s welcome and then put together the best season of his career on the best team he’s ever played on. This is the farthest he’s ever made it in the playoffs. A hot series would make 2020 his year more than anyone else’s.

3. Is this Acuña’s moment? Our greatest stars look for the biggest stages for their abilities. There might not be a more truly talented player in all of baseball than Ronald Acuña Jr., a guy who can do everything and make it look absurdly easy. But, for reasons both fair and (mostly) unfair, there is a sense that he still hasn’t ascended to the level of stature and fame that a player as overflowing with talent as him should. In the way that, say, Juan Soto -- as close to a peer as Acuña has in this game -- did last postseason for the Nationals.

Is the National League Championship Series when Acuña makes the game his, the way so many expect him to? The Braves’ World Series chances may depend on it.

3 Dodgers storylines

1. Will their only “weakness” reveal itself? The postseason is supposed to test even the most accomplished regular-season team. But the Dodgers, as Ken Rosenthal pointed out, seem to have all potential fires extinguished before they can ever get raging. Got a Fernando Tatis Jr. ready to hit a series-altering homer? There’s Cody Bellinger leaping over the fence to bring back a homer. Got a great starter ready to shut you down? A deep lineup eventually will wear him down.

The one possible weakness might be at the back of the bullpen, where Kenley Jansen has seen his velocity decline the last few weeks and had to be bailed out of Game 2 of the NLDS by Joe Kelly. You can be sure that Dodgers fans will be watching Jansen’s next outing even more intently than usual.

2. What is Mookie’s big moment? It’s easy to forget now that the Dodgers have him signed for so many years in the future, but the whole idea of bringing in Mookie Betts in the first place was to get the Dodgers closer to a title this year -- winning one, you know, right now. The Dodgers have come so close to winning a World Series for several years now, and they’ve constantly fallen just short. But we all know what’s different now: Mookie is here. He has a title under his belt already with the 2018 Red Sox, he has a long-term contract and, at last, now he has some fans to play in front of in 2020.

Mookie’s already a superstar. But now he could become a legend.

3. How will they respond when someone finally pushes back? The Dodgers haven’t really had a second of stress all season. They cruised in the NL West, they swept the Brewers, they swept the Padres. But when you are a World Series-title-or-bust team like the Dodgers are, eventually something’s going to happen to make you sweat a little bit. The Dodgers have had enough postseason disappointments to know when a dicey situation is on the horizon, and there isn’t a player on this team who isn’t aware how many years over the last half-decade the Dodgers have fizzled out.

They haven’t had a reason yet to revisit all the bad memories. But all it takes is one loss to start.