The Boston Red Sox found more Fenway Park magic Monday, knocking a Tampa Bay Rays team that posted the best record in the American League during the regular season out of the playoffs with a thrilling 6-5 victory. 

Kike Hernandez's sacrifice fly with one out in the bottom of the ninth inning brought home pinch-runner Danny Santana with the winning run in Game 4 as Boston took the Division Series 3-1. 

Earlier in the game, it appeared the Red Sox might cruise to victory. Rafael Devers crushed a three-run homer to spark a five-run third inning for the Red Sox with Rays starter Collin McHugh already out of the game after just two innings. 

But the Rays, who went 100-62 during the regular season, were not done yet. They began chipping away with a run in the fifth, then rookie sensation Wander Franco hit a two-run homer in the sixth. 

Run-scoring hits from Kevin Kiermaier and Randy Arozarena tied the game in the eighth and Kiermaier ensured it stayed that way in the bottom of the inning, gunning down Alex Verdugo with an outrageous throw from center field to third base for a double play that ended a Red Sox threat. 

The reprieve was short-lived for the Rays, as Christian Vazquez led off the bottom of the ninth with a single to left and Christian Arroyo bunted him to third. A misplayed grounder off the bat of Travis Shaw put runners on the corners and Hernandez drove in Santana to set off a wild celebration at the venerable ballpark.

The Red Sox have won eight consecutive games in which they had a chance to clinch a postseason series. Only the Oakland Athletics have a longer such streak, nine in a row between 1973 and 1990. 

Boston will face the Houston Astros or Chicago White Sox in the American League Championship Series. 

 

Longoria, Giants edge Dodgers in Game 3

Evan Longoria's fifth-inning home run off Max Scherzer was the difference as the San Francisco Giants edged the Los Angeles Dodgers 1-0 to put the reigning World Series champions on the brink of elimination. 

Longoria homered on a 0-2 fastball to lead off the fifth, virtually the only blemish for the Dodgers pitching staff as they limited the Giants to just three hits in Game 3. But that was enough, as San Francisco's pitching and defence made it stand up.

Starter Alex Wood and three relievers held the Dodgers to five hits with some significant help from their fielders, as Brandon Crawford in particular made a pair of stellar plays to rob Mookie Betts of hits. 

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.

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.

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