Houston Astros manager Dusty Baker compared Jose Altuve and Carlos Correa to NFL greats Tom Brady and Rob Gronkowski after the star pair helped take down the Boston Red Sox in Game 1 of the American League Championship Series (ALCS).

Altuve and Correa each homered for the Astros, who rallied to top the Red Sox 5-4 in Friday's ALCS opener at Minute Maid Park in Houston.

The Astros wiped out a 3-1 deficit behind Altuve's two-run homer in the sixth inning – his 20th postseason home run as he became the fourth player to achieve the feat.

Correa then completed the comeback in the seventh with his 18th playoff homer – tied for seven-most all-time, while he recorded his 55th postseason RBI, the most among active players.

Baker hailed Altuve and Correa after the Astros drew first blood in the best-of-seven matchup, likening them to Tampa Bay Buccaneers superstars Brady and Gronkowski.

"It's kind of like Tom Brady and [Rob] Gronkowski," Baker said, with Brady and Gronkowski enjoying great success together with the New England Patriots and now the Buccaneers.

"They know how they think. They know probably what they eat for dinner, what they like and what their kids like."

Altuve became the fastest player (68) to reach 20 playoff home runs.

The World Series winner has now scored 11 runs in Houston's five playoff games this season. According to Stats Perform, that is tied with Carlos Beltran (2004) for the most runs in any five-game span in a single postseason.

"He is just so dangerous," Correa said of Altuve. "His track record in the playoffs is insane, and he just inspires me. He inspires me without saying much."

"When I walk into that clubhouse in spring training and I see this guy that has won MVPs, Silver Sluggers, batting titles, Gold Gloves, Hank Aaron Awards," added Correa. "Every single award you can imagine, he has won it, and then he shows up to spring training wanting to work on different things to get even better."

Correa celebrated his fourth career go-ahead home run in the seventh inning or later of playoff games, the most in postseason history.

"He is amazing. He likes this kind of game," Altuve said of Correa. "He wants to go out there and hit big homers. It seems like he expects to go out there and do it, so if you're expecting something, eventually you're going to make it happen, and that's him."

Correa's heroics prompted the Astros star to drop his bat and point to his wrist after homering against the Red Sox.

"It's to my team-mates," Correa explained. "When the playoffs start, they always tell me 'it's your time now to go out there, hit homers.' They told me to hit the watch, when I hit the homer.

"I did it in Chicago [in the ALDS] the first time on my own, and today they told me 'if you hit a homer, hit them with the, it's your time'."

Carlos Correa and Jose Altuve lifted the Houston Astros to a 5-4 victory over the Boston Red Sox in Game 1 of the American League Championship Series (ALCS).

Correa and Altuve homered as the rallying Astros drew first blood in the best-of-seven series at Minute Maid Park in Houston on Friday.

The Red Sox, who stunned the Tampa Bay Rays in the AL Division Series (ALDS), led 3-1 early on the road – Kike Hernandez the architect with a solo shot in the third inning.

But the Astros wiped out the deficit behind Altuve and 6.1 scoreless innings from their bullpen.

Altuve levelled the game with a two-run homer in the sixth inning – his 20th postseason homer as he became the fourth player to achieve the feat.

The Astros star also became the fastest player (68) to reach 20 playoff home runs. Altuve has now scored 11 runs in Houston's five playoff games this season. According to Stats Perform, that is tied with Carlos Beltran (2004) for the most runs in any five-game span in a single postseason.

Correa then completed the comeback in the seventh with his 18th postseason homer – tied for seventh-most all-time, while he recorded his 55th playoff RBI, the most among active players.

It saw Correa celebrate his fourth career go-ahead home run in the seventh inning or later of playoff games, the most in postseason history.

Hernandez – the fourth player to have multiple four-plus hit games in the same postseason, after Albert Pujols (2011), Robin Yount (1982) and George Brett (1985), homered again for the Red Sox in the ninth but it was not enough to prevent the Astros from winning.

Game 2 is back at Minute Maid Park on Saturday.

 

Dodgers at Braves

World Series champions the Los Angeles Dodgers will open their National League Championship Series (NLCS) at the Atlanta Braves on Saturday.

Los Angeles Dodgers manager Dave Roberts says Max Scherzer was his "ace in the hole" after using him in the ninth inning for his first career save in Thursday's 2-1 series-deciding win over the San Francisco Giants.

Scherzer slammed the door on the Giants to clinch a 3-2 National League Division Series victory for the Dodgers after Cody Bellinger's RBI single for Justin Turner to score the go-ahead run in the ninth inning.

The 37-year-old right-hander, who had started Game 3 for 10 strikeouts across seven innings, was handed the ball to save the game on this occasion after warming up in the bullpen. It was Scherzer's first career save in his 432nd appearance.

"It was seeing the flow and how the game was going to play out, knowing we have an ace in the hole and trying to find the ultimate leverage spot to use him," Roberts told reporters after the game. "How the game played out, it made a lot of sense."

Roberts had used five pitchers before Scherzer's introduction, starting Corey Knebel before Julio Urias took over in the third inning, tossing down five strikeouts across four innings.

The game was tied at 1-1 leading into the ninth inning when Bellinger, who has had a season to forget, drove in Turner.

Bellinger, the 2019 National League MVP, hit at .165 with 10 home runs and 36 RBIs during the regular season, but he has batted at .294 with three RBIs in the postseason.

"Even for me, it's like going into that at-bat prior where he punched, he saw close to 10 punches, he grinded and competed, that last at-bat there was fight in there," Roberts said about Bellinger.

"It wasn't about mechanics, it was about a fight. It was me versus you. Cody versus [Giants pitcher] Camilo Doval.

"He got a huge hit. Like I said, Cody has grown a lot from adversity. For him to come up with the big hit, I'm very happy for him."

The result means the Dodgers have reached the National League Championship Series, where they will face the Atlanta Braves. The Dodgers are through to this stage for the fifth time in six seasons.

LA had to overcome the Giants, who boasted the best majors regular season record at 107-55, but Roberts said they were not content with that.

"I think what great ball clubs have the ability to do, is understand the gravity of a moment and a series in this case," he said. "Give everything you have to that series, which we did.

"It was a huge series but we also understand our job is not done. Now our focus turns to the Braves."

World Series champions the Los Angeles Dodgers clinched their spot in the National League Championship Series (NLCS) for the fifth time in six seasons after a 2-1 victory over the San Francisco Giants in the winner-takes-all showdown.

The Giants suffered ninth-inning heartbreak in Game 5 of the Division Series decider after Cody Bellinger drove in the go-ahead run, while the MLB playoff concluded in contentious fashion on Thursday.

Dodgers ace Max Scherzer – in his 432nd career appearance – got his first professional save for the Dodgers after former NL MVP Bellinger continued his bright postseason by driving in Justin Turner for the decisive run in the ninth.

The Dodgers, who became the first team in MLB playoff history to have their relievers pitch 8.0-plus innings with 12 or more strikeouts and no walks in a game, will now face the Atlanta Braves in the best-of-seven NLCS, starting on Saturday.

After five scoreless innings, the game came to life in the sixth with Corey Seager landing an RBI double from starting pitcher Logan Webb to drive Mookie Betts home to give the Dodgers the lead.

Betts finished the game with four hits, becoming the first player in Dodgers history to achieve the feat in a winner-takes-all playoff contest.

But the Giants responded immediately with Darin Ruf crushing a solo homer to level the game up at the bottom of the sixth inning.

Giants ace Webb finished with seven strikeouts across seven innings, while Julio Urias came on in the third inning, tossing down five K's across four innings.

At the top of the ninth inning with two runners on, Bellinger hit Camilo Doval low into right centerfield with an RBI single.

Bellinger delivered the game-winning RBI in a serious-clinching victory for the fifth time in his career – the most by any player in MLB postseason history, according to Stats Perform.

The game ended on a controversial call for Wilmer Flores' check swing from Scherzer's slider called a swing and third strike to end the Giants' campaign following their remarkable 107-55 regular season.

 

Red Sox at Astros

The opening game of the American League Championship Series (ALCS) takes place on Friday as the Houston Astros host the Boston Red Sox. Framber Valdez and Chris Sale will start on the mound for the respective sides.

Jorge Soler's availability for the National League Championship Series (NLCS) remains unclear but the Atlanta Braves are preparing to be without him.

Soler, who won the 2016 World Series with the Chicago Cubs, was pulled from the Braves' line-up for Game 4 of the National League Division Series (NLDS) against the Milwaukee Brewers following a positive COVID-19 test.

The 29-year-old will miss at least five days before the joint COVID-19 committee can clear him.

Atlanta are due to open their NLCS matchup against either the Los Angeles Dodgers or San Francisco Giants on Saturday.

Soler moved to the Braves from the Kansas City Royals in July and has hit a combined .223 with 27 homers and 70 RBIs during the regular season.

The Braves are awaiting Soler's clearance having been removed from their 26-man roster, however, manager Brian Snitker is preparing to be without him for the whole best-of-seven NLCS.

"We've got to approach it like I don't know if he'll be here for the NLCS," Snitker told reporters on Thursday.

"That's how we have to approach it. Until he shows up and is cleared and does everything that MLB needs him to do, we're going to look like it's like he's not going to be here."

Soler was the 2019 American League (AL) home run leader with the Royals and delivered 14 home runs and 33 RBIs in 55 games following his move to the Braves.

"I don't know that this team has been dependent, as we've shown, on one guy all year, quite honestly," Snitker added. "The guys keep playing the game.

"Would you like to have him? Yeah. If we don't, so be it. Just go out and win however else we can."

St. Louis Cardinals have parted company with manager Mike Shildt owing to "philosophical differences", president of baseball operations John Mozeliak has announced.

Shildt guided the Cardinals to three straight playoff appearances in his four seasons in charge and was named National League (NL) Manager of the Year in 2019.

The Cardinals earned the second NL Wild Card spot this season after an impressive run of form, though they lost 3-1 to the Los Angeles Dodgers last week on a walk-off home run.

Shildt still had another year to run on his contract, but Mozeliak revealed on Thursday that the 53-year-old has been relieved of his duties.

"We decided internally it would be best to separate now," Mozeliak said at a news conference. 

"We have determined that we have a philosophical difference in the direction of our Major League club. 

"Where we felt the team was going, we were struggling to get on the same page."

Shildt, who replaced Mike Matheny in July 2018 after 14 years working in other positions, departs the Cardinals with a record of 252-199.

Walker Buehler was hailed by his team-mate Mookie Betts and manager Dave Roberts after playing a crucial role in the Los Angeles Dodgers' win over the San Francisco Giants.

The Giants had the chance to book their spot in the NL Championship Series (NLCS) on Tuesday, but they were instead blown away by the Dodgers.

Buehler, coming in off three days' rest for the first time, was at his best, giving up just one run on three hits while striking out four batters in 4.1 innings.

Betts and Will Smith both homered in a convincing 7-2 win that sets up a winner-takes-all finale at Oracle Park in San Francisco on Thursday.

"I just know when our backs are against the wall that we have a guy named Walker Buehler that ends up getting us out of it," Betts told reporters. 

"He did it again today, but we got one more game. Julio [Urias] has to bring us home."

Roberts added: "I told [Buehler] after he came out, I was like, this is something now, you've checked a box.

"You've pitched in big games, elimination games, Game 163, and all this other kind of stuff, but never pitched on short rest. And a box was checked, and you came out ahead."

Buehler himself lauded the spirit and grit the Dodgers showed to level the series at 2-2 and keep their hopes alive.

"Tonight's a great example of 26 guys coming together and figuring out a way to survive," he said.

Dusty Baker explained how "love" is the secret to public enemy number one the Houston Astros' success after they advanced to their fifth consecutive American League Championship Series (ALCS).

The Astros stormed through to the ALCS thanks to Tuesday's 10-1 rout of the Chicago White Sox – Houston becoming the third team ever to appear in five successive league championship series and the first to do so since the Atlanta Braves featured in eight straight from 1991 to 1999.

Houston have not been popular among opposition teams and fans after the Astros were found to have stolen signs of opposition teams en route to winning the MLB World Series three years ago, as well as for part of the 2018 campaign.

Astros general manager Jeff Luhnow and manager A.J. Hinch were subsequently fired by Houston in January after they were initially suspended for the entire 2020 campaign by the league.

Amid the backlash, the Astros have continued to perform and manager Baker hailed Houston, who will face the Boston Red Sox in the ALCS.

"They've been doing that really since last year," Baker told reporters. "And then it was accentuated this year even more. I don't know if they feed off it necessarily, but we've been constantly bombarded by negatives, you know, especially on the road.

"But these guys, they came in – they come to play, and they love each other. And I remember talking to Bill Russell years ago, a few years ago, and I asked him, man, how did you win all those championships in Boston, and he told me, you know – I thought he was going to say Red Auerbach, you know lot of hard work, but he told me that they loved each other, and they love each other.

"Love can take you to heights you never thought you could get to. And they feed off of each other and pull for each other on a daily basis. And one guy falls down, and the next guy, you know, picks him up. And, boy, this was a heck of a series. It was a downer night before last whenever we played when we got beat pretty badly, but on a daily basis, they don't take one day into the next unless it was good. You know, I love this team, and the city loves them, and that's what counts."

Astros star Carlos Correa tied Albert Pujols for the most playoff RBIs among active players after reaching 54 on Tuesday.

Houston team-mate Jose Altuve also hit his 19th postseason homer – matching George Springer and future Hall of Famer Pujols for fourth all-time.

Baker hailed Correa, saying: "Carlos has been one of the greatest big game players in the history of the Astros and even the history of the game, and I don't hear him talking about it.

"He just wants to play for his team-mates and wants to win. You know, when you win, that puts pressure on the organisation to maybe do something in the future, and this is his home. I've heard him say that many, many times. You know, he grew up in this organisation and grew up in the city of Houston.

"Just like I was talking to him just like me, I grew up with the Braves as a kid, and then you grow into a man, you realise that business is business, but you still got to play with the enthusiasm of a kid, and you play for your teammates, and hopefully that transcends to something good for us in the future."

A Christian Vazquez home run in bottom of the 13th inning gave the Boston Red Sox a 6-4 walk-off win over the Tampa Bay Rays, who believed they had taken the lead in the top half of the inning only to see their hopes dashed. 

Sunday's win gave the Red Sox a 2-1 lead in the American League Division Series (ALDS) in the best-of-five series, and Boston can close it out with a victory at Fenway Park on Monday.

That outcome seemed unlikely in the top of the 13th inning after Tampa Bay's Kevin Kiermaier drove a ball off the top of the wall in right field with Yandy Diaz running from first base. 

With Diaz about to round third and head for home, the ball caromed off Boston right fielder Hunter Renfroe's right hip and back over the wall. 

After all six umpires consulted as a group and two of them talked to MLB replay officials afterward, they put Kiermaier at second base and Diaz at third, and Mike Zunino struck out for the fourth time in the game to end the threat with the scored still tied 4-4. 

The umpires made the correct call, with MLB Rule 5.05(a)(8) stating "the batter and all runners shall be entitled to advance two bases" when a fielder deflects a fair ball over a fence, but the Rays felt hard done by considering Diaz would have scored easily on the play.

Umpire Sam Holbrook told reporters afterward it was "very simple from an umpire's standpoint", noting that they would only have been able to exercise their own discretion about where to place the runners if they determined Renfroe knocked the ball out of play intentionally. 

Rays manager Kevin Cash did not argue once umpires explained the situation to him, but his team could not extend the game from there. 

In the bottom of the 13th, Renfroe walked with one out and Vazquez homered to end it, becoming the first Red Sox player to hit a play-off walk-off homer since Marry Ramirez in 2007.

Despite a shaky start in Chicago, the White Sox stayed alive in their best-of-five series with an action-packed 12-6 win over the Houston Astros. 

White Sox starter Dylan Cease recorded only five outs before being pulled from the game as the Astros built a 5-1 lead after the top of the third inning with their eyes on a sweep. 

The Chicago offence suddenly woke up, exploding for five runs in the bottom of the inning on homers by Yasmani Grandal and Leury Garcia, then adding three more the following inning. 

By the time Chicago tacked on an additional three runs in the eighth, every hitter in the White Sox line-up had recorded at least one hit as they scored double-digit runs in a postseason game for the third time in franchise history, after 2005 (14) and 1959 (11).

 

Rays at Red Sox

Tampa Bay (100-62) won five more games than anyone else in the American League (AL) during the regular season, but the Rays' postseason could come to an end with a loss to the Red Sox in Game 4 on Monday. 

The Los Angeles Dodgers fought back on Saturday, getting to San Francisco Giants starter Kevin Gausman early and knocking him out later in the game as the reigning World Series champions evened their National League Division Series (NLDS) with a 9-2 road victory. 

The Dodgers got their offence back on track after being blanked by Giants starter Logan Webb in Game 1, pounding out 11 hits at Oracle Park before heading home for Monday's Game 3 in the MLB playoffs. 

Oddly enough, it was Dodgers pitcher Julio Urias who got everything going with a run-scoring single in the second inning as Los Angeles earned a 2-0 lead that the Giants answered with one in the bottom of that inning. 

Both teams' bats stayed quiet until the sixth, when the Dodgers drove Gausman from the game and broke it open with two-run doubles from Cody Bellinger and AJ Pollock. 

They piled on three more against the Giants' bullpen in the eighth thanks to a Will Smith solo homer and RBI singles from Matt Beaty and Corey Seager. 

Urias did his job on the mound, too, limiting NL West champions San Francisco to one run in his five innings of work before four Dodgers relievers finished it off. 

Urias lowered his postseason ERA to 2.68 in 19 career appearances while improving his record to 7-2. The seven wins equal former Giants ace Madison Bumgarner for the most postseason victories by a pitcher aged 25 or younger. 

In the other NLDS matchup, Max Fried was brilliant on the mound as the Atlanta Braves evened the series with a 3-0 defeat of the Milwaukee Brewers.

Fried allowed just three hits and did not walk a batter while striking out nine in his six innings of work before three Atlanta relievers finished off the shutout. 

The Braves scored twice in the third inning on an RBI single by Freddie Freeman and a double by Ozzie Albies, and Austin Riley added a home run in the sixth for insurance. 

The series moves to Atlanta on Monday for Game 3.

 

Rays at Red Sox

After pounding out 20 hits in a 14-6 Game 2 rout to even the series, the Boston Red Sox will look to keep it going as they return to Fenway Park for Monday's Game 3, with Nathan Eovaldi set to start against the Tampa Bay Rays' Drew Rasmussen. 

The San Francisco Giants shut out the prolific Los Angeles Dodgers led by Logan Webb as they secured a 4-0 win and a 1-0 lead in the National League Division Series on Friday.

The Dodgers, who were shut out just five times in the regular season, could not convert any of their five hits on Friday, while the Giants delivered three home runs.

Seven-time All-Star Buster Posey got the Giants on the board with a two-run blast in the first inning from Walker Buehler, who allowed six hits across six-and-one-third innings.

Buehler still managed five strikeouts on the mound for the Dodgers but he was over-shadowed by Giants right-hander Webb, who tossed down 10 Ks across seven-and-two-thirds scoreless innings.

Kris Bryant, who had three hits to mark an outstanding game, padded the Giants' lead in the seventh inning with a left-field home run from a tiring Buehler.

Brandon Crawford, who had 24 home runs across the regular season added, another in the eighth inning, recording his second career post-season homer to add insurance.

 

Astros launch into 2-0 lead

The Houston Astros produced a five-run rally in the seventh inning to take a commanding 2-0 lead in the American League Division Series (ALDS) against the Chicago White Sox with a 9-4 victory.

But the Astros had to come from behind, trailing 4-2 after Luis Robert, who had two runs, three hits and one RBI for the game, touched down at the top of the fifth inning.

Jose Altuve, who had a great defensive game in the field, and Alex Bregman levelled it from a Yuli Gurriel base hit, before the five-run rally in the seventh underlined by Kyle Tucker's two-run shot.

With two out and two on leading 5-4, Carlos Correa's powerful shot to right-field eluded Leury Garcia, driving in two runs before Tucker padded the advantage.

 

Sale loses his puff

Boston Red Sox starting pitcher Chris Sale endured a nightmare first inning, allowing four hits and five earned runs as the Tampa Bay Rays opened up an early 5-2 lead. Sale was pulled after that before the Red Sox launched an admirable fightback in a run-fest 14-6 victory over the Rays to square up their ALDS. Tanner Houck steadied on the mound, with five strikeouts across five innings allowing only one run and two hits.

 

 

Burnes still on fire

Corbin Burnes continued his excellent regular season form in the Milwaukee Brewers' opening game of their NLDS with six scoreless innings and six strikeouts in a 2-1 win over the Atlanta Braves. Burnes, who finished the regular season with an MLB-best 2.43 ERA, set up the victory before Josh Hader closed it out, with Rowdy Tellez scoring a two-run homer in the seventh inning.

 

Saturday's results

Houston Astros 9-4 Chicago White Sox
Milwaukee Brewers 2-1 Atlanta Braves
Boston Red Sox 14-6 Tampa Bay Rays
San Francisco Giants 4-0 Los Angeles Dodgers

 

Dodgers at Giants

The Dodgers will look to bounce back in Game 2 against the Giants, with Julio Urias and Kevin Gausman starting on the mound for the respective sides.

Randy Arozarena's memorable steal of home base during the Tampa Bay Rays' 5-0 defeat of the Boston Red Sox in their ALDS Game 1 opener had been a long time in the making.

It was a historic night for Arozarena, who became the first player in playoff history to steal home and hit a home run in the same game.

Arozarena was also the first to pull off the feat in a playoff clash since 2016 and the first to complete a straight steal of home since 1955.

Rays manager Kevin Cash said the leading contender for Rookie of the Year had been in his ear about attempting the move for some time.

"He's asked me all season long, 'Verde, verde, verde' – green light," Cash said. 

"We finally gave it to him."

Arozarena explained why he opted to pull off the audacious move.

"I noticed the pitcher kind of wasn't keeping attention to me. I was able to take a big enough lead and take that base," Arozarena said. 

"That's the first time I've ever stolen home."

With 11 playoff homers, Arozarena is tied second with Carlos Beltran and Jim Thome for the second most of all time, behind only Babe Ruth on 12.

His number is the most of any rookie in MLB history, with Evan Longoria a distant second on six.

"I just focus a little bit more [in playoff games],"Arozarena said. 

"Luckily it's happening in October, when it means it's closer to the World Series."

A trio of rookies starred as the Tampa Bay Rays began the road back to the World Series with a 5-0 win over the Boston Red Sox in Game 1 of the American League Division Series (ALDS). 

After posting an AL-best 100-62 record during the regular MLB season, the Rays got standout performances from pitcher Shane McClanahan and hitters Wander Franco and Randy Arozarena as they opened their defence of the AL pennant at Tropicana Field. 

McClanahan scattered five hits in five shut-out innings on Thursday, striking out three without walking a batter in his first postseason start. 

The Rays became the first team in MLB playoff history to have two rookies post an extra-base hit and another rookie toss a scoreless start in the same game, per Stats Perform.

His team-mates gave him run support early, as Franco doubled home a run in the first, then came around to score on a Yandy Diaz single. The 20-year-old phenom would add another double in the seventh.

Nelson Cruz, who at 41 is more than twice as old as his Dominican countryman Franco, went deep in the third for his 18th postseason home run. 

Not to be outdone, the breakout star of the 2020 playoffs – though still technically a rookie – Arozarena added a majestic solo shot to left in the fifth inning, then stole home in the seventh. 

According to Stats Perform, Arozarena is the first player in MLB postseason history to hit a home run and steal home in the same game. 

Tampa Bay will send another rookie to the mound in Game 2 as Shane Baz takes the ball against Red Sox veteran Chris Sale. 

The Houston Astros opened the other ALDS with an emphatic 6-1 victory over the Chicago White Sox as Lance McCullers Jr. was dominant on the mound for the home side. 

McCullers allowed four hits and did not walk a batter in 6.2 shut-out innings while striking out four, making him the first Astros pitcher to go at least that long in a postseason game without a walk since Brandon Backe against the White Sox in the 2005 World Series.

In 15 career postseason games, McCullers has a 2.87 ERA and has struck out 9.62 batters per nine innings. 

Yordan Alvarez entered the game with just 14 hits in 58 postseason at-bats (.241) but he was the hitting star for Houston in Game 1.

The designated hitter reached base three times in four trips to the plate, driving in a run with a double in the third inning and another with a solo homer in the fifth. 

While Alvarez did the heavy lifting, Jose Altuve provided the highlight of the night with a nifty slide to score from third on an Alex Bregman grounder to third base in the third inning. 

Game 2 is Friday in Houston with the Astros sending Framber Valdez to the mound against Chicago's Lucas Giolito. 

 

Dodgers at Giants

Eternal rivals the Los Angeles Dodgers and San Francisco Giants have each won 107 games this season, and they open their National League Division Series (NLDS) with Walker Buehler and Logan Webb on the mound on Friday. 

Up until this point, it has been a season to remember for the San Francisco Giants, who are playoff-bound for the first time since 2016.

A franchise-record 107 wins and the best record in baseball saw the Giants fend off reigning World Series champions and rivals the Los Angeles Dodgers for the National League (NL) West title.

It was San Francisco's first division crown since 2012 as they ended the Dodgers' streak of eight straight NL West trophies.

San Francisco's World Series charge is being spearheaded by their golden oldies – Brandon Crawford, Brandon Belt and Buster Posey – after a tough couple of years, with Gabe Kapler overseeing dramatic improvement with a stacked roster of experienced veterans.

 

From afterthoughts to contenders

As the Giants prepare for the NL Division Series (NLDS) against the aforementioned Dodgers, it is safe to say they entered the 2021 season as afterthoughts in their own division, despite missing the playoffs by just one win in last year's coronavirus-shortened campaign.

All eyes were on the star-studded Dodgers and a surging San Diego Padres franchise hot off signing Fernando Tatis Jr. to the third-richest contract in MLB history – a 14-year, $340 million deal – after both bolstered their already impressive squads. The Dodgers brought in reigning NL Cy Young Award winner Trevor Bauer and eventually future Hall of Famer Albert Pujols plus ace Max Scherzer and Trea Turner. The Padres acquired frontline starters Yu Darvish and Blake Snell in blockbuster trades.

Without a postseason berth since losing to the Chicago Cubs in the 2016 NLDS, the Giants needed an historic campaign to dethrone the Dodgers in the NL West and hold off an exciting Padres squad.

Despite boasting the oldest roster in the majors with an average age of 30 years and 313 days, they achieved just that and became the first NL team to win more than 106 games since the 1986 New York Mets.

 

 

Rejuvenated veterans thriving under Kapler

Eyebrows were raised when the Giants and president of baseball operations Farhan Zaidi hired Kapler to succeed beloved San Francisco figure and future Hall of Famer Bruce Bochy in 2019. Kapler's two-year stint with the Philadelphia Phillies left a lot to be desired. But his shortcomings have long been forgotten as the Giants and their roster reap the rewards of Zaidi's decision.

"They're a teaching staff," reliever Tony Watson said of Kapler's coaching staff, which included MLB's first full-time female assistant Alyssa Nakken. "You could see the improvement of guys throughout the roster, one through 26. It wasn't just the young guys that were coming up and still developing, you saw Buster, [Crawford], [Longoria] and Belt changing their swings and changing the way they go about their days. That's a tribute to all 14-15 staff members and being able to relay information and ideas."

Belt (33), Crawford (34) and Posey (34) were all part of San Francisco's World Series-winning team in 2014, and, despite their advancing years, have all improved under Kapler's management.

Belt enjoyed the best 162-game campaign of his career thanks to his .597 SLG, .975 OPS and 29 homers (surpassing the 18 he hit in 2015 and 2018). It was the same for Crawford (.522/.895 and a career-best 24 home runs).

Belt, Crawford and Darin Ruf (.519/.904) have all enjoyed career years in both SLG and OPS. When factoring at least 100 plate appearances and a team playing in 155 or more games, the 2021 Giants are the first franchise since the Cardinals in 2004 to have three-plus players with career years in both SLG and OPS.

Posey – who is looking to become the first NL player since Sandy Koufax and Johnny Podres to win four World Series rings with the same team – boasted his best SLG (.499) and OPS (.889) since the Giants were crowned world champions in 2012. His 18 homers were his most since his 19-homer campaign six years ago.

Fellow veteran Evan Longoria also enjoyed a return to form, with the 35-year-old’s SLG (.482) and OPS (.833) numbers his best since his penultimate season with the Tampa Bay Rays in 2016.

It is a similar theme with San Francisco's pitchers – starters Kevin Gausman (2.81), Anthony DeSclafani (3.17) and Logan Webb (3.03) finishing the regular season with career-high ERAs.

Gausman (227) heads into the postseason with a career-best 227 strikeouts, while DeSclafani (152) only managed more strikeouts in 2019 when he struck out 167 batters during his time with the Cincinnati Reds. Gausman finished the year behind only Corbin Burnes in Stats Perform's Strike+ metric, which measures which pitchers rack up both whiffs and called strikes.

 

Depth shines in the Bay Area

The Giants achieved a first in their 137-year existence, hitting 241 home runs in a season for the first time. They achieved the feat without a single 30-homer hitter on their roster – the highest number of homers without a player reaching at least 30 home runs in MLB history.

It was a collective effort. Case in point: The Giants had 17 players with at least five homers this season – an MLB record. Belt (29), Mike Yastrzemski (25), Crawford (24), Wilmer Flores (18), Posey (18), LaMonte Wade Jr. (18), Ruf (16), Alex Dickerson (13), Longoria (13) and Austin Slater (12) all reached double digits.

Rather than rely on stars like Posey, Belt and Crawford, the Giants – who hit 103 game-winning RBIs, the second highest in the majors since 1974, ended the season with six players aged 30 or older among the team's top four in home runs – the highest figure since 2014, ahead of the 2018 Giants (five).

"It's just been such a collective effort. Contributions up and down," Posey said. "We set the [franchise] record for homers [in a season] and pinch-hit homers. Those are some examples. You've got most the home runs ever for the team and nobody has 30."

 

Of San Francisco's home runs, 18 came in pinch-hit situations – a single-season MLB record, eclipsing the 2016 Cardinals.

This season's Giants are unlikely to produce an MVP or Cy Young Award winner, but their championship run is fuelled by a selfless approach.

San Francisco's quartet of Gausman, Logan Webb, Alex Wood and DeSclafani further solidified the team-first mentality – helping the Giants rank second in the majors with a 3.24 ERA in 2021. Run suppression was aided by the Giants suppressing the longball, as the team finished with an average of 0.93 homers allowed per game this season, the best in the majors.

While their NLDS opponents may have more star power, the Giants counter with one of the deepest and most talented squads in franchise history. Their opening playoff series should be an instant classic, and the Giants have proved they'll be a tough out for any team they face.

Los Angeles Dodgers' match-winner Chris Taylor was only trying to hit a single before his walk-off home-run in Wednesday's 3-1 win over the St Louis Cardinals in the National League Wild Card Game.

Taylor, who did not start the game, came up with the decisive moment from Cardinals closer Alex Reyes at 1-1 in the ninth inning with Cody Bellinger on base.

The 31-year-old, who was a 2021 All Star before losing form late in the season, hit the fifth walk-off winner in a winner-take-all game in majors' history.

Taylor became the first player with a walk-off home run in a winner-take-all game since Edwin Encarnacion in the 2016 Wild Card game.

" I was taking that pitch all the way," Taylor told ESPN after the game. "Let him [Bellinger] get in a scoring position. Once he got there [to second base], I was honestly only trying to hit a single.

"Not try to do too much. He gave me a good sighter to hit and I was able to get it up in the air."

Taylor finished the regular season batting at .254, with 20 home runs, 129 hits and 73 RBIs, with a .782 OPS, although he had not homered in his past 15 games.

Dodgers manager Dave Roberts opted not to start Taylor due to his form but praised him for his impact.

"Honestly the openness from a lot of the players and being ready when called upon," Roberts said.

"I know it sounds trite and easy, to be ready to perform when your number gets called. You might not start the game but you can still impact the game. Clearly you saw Chris Taylor won the game for us."

It was also the second walk-off win to advance in the postseason for Dodgers in their history, with the previous time occurring in 1978 in the NL Championship Series against the Philadelphia Phillies.

The result means the Dodgers will take on the San Francisco Giants in the NL Division Series, marking the first time two teams with 105-plus regular season wins have met in the postseason.

"That's going to be fun," Taylor said. "Two of the best regular season records of all time. We've been battling all year. I expect a hard-fought series."

Justin Turner also homered to level the game in the fourth inning after Tommy Edman got home in the first inning to give the Cardinals an early lead. Turner's home run extended his franchise record for postseason homers with 13.

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