Five Things We Learned from the Division Series

Two of four teams who had byes are now sitting at home after losing.

The Division Series really lived up to its name. Three of the four best-of-five sets matched up teams who battled each other 19 times previously this season: Houston Astros vs. Seattle Mariners (American League West), Los Angeles Dodgers vs. San Diego Padres (National League West), Atlanta Braves vs. Philadelphia Phillies (NL East). Only the New York Yankees (AL East) vs. the Cleveland Guardians (AL Central) featured two divisions.

Maybe it was that intimacy that helped determine the four teams that advanced to the League Championship Series. Now we have the Padres facing the Phillies in the NLCS, which began Tuesday in San Diego, and the Astros vs. the Yankees in the ALCS starting Wednesday in Houston. It is the Astros’ sixth straight trip to the ALCS, and they face the Yankees for the third time in that span. So far in the playoffs, three of the four 100-win teams (Dodgers, Braves, Mets) have been eliminated, two by the Padres.

 

Too Much Rest?

 

From the Small Sample Size Department comes this: Of the top two seeds in each league, three faced elimination in Game 4, with the Yankees able to survive and make it to game 5. Only the Astros, seeded first in the AL, were the outlier. In the new playoff format, the Dodgers (No. 1 in NL), Braves (No. 2 in NL), Astros, and Yankees (No. 2 in AL) received byes into the Division Series. This meant a five-day break as the Wild Card Series teams battled. For a sport that relies on day-to-day routines, the lack of live action is a disruption of timing.

Meanwhile, the winners of the Wild Card Series built momentum not only from the opening round but from how they finished the regular season. Most of those teams had meaningful games up until the end. Even so, the higher-seeded teams won Game 1 in three of the four series (Philadelphia the exception). That could be a result of having a fully rested ace going up against a No. 4 starter.

Playing at home in the postseason rarely has a major impact, but when the series flipped venues for Game 3, three of the four teams hosting were doing so for the first time in quite a while. The Mariners last hosted a postseason game in 2001, while the Padres (2006) and Phillies (2011) also were at home for the first time in more than a decade. So the fan bases injected another level of energy into the playoff atmosphere, which boosted all three teams. While the Astros overcame the Mariners in a 1-0 win in 18 innings, the Padres and Phillies took Game 3 and closed out the Dodgers and Braves, respectively, in Game 4.

The Guardians, who last host a home playoff game in 2018, took a 2-1 series lead over the Yankees before falling in five games.

Little Brothers Triumph

 

It is tough being a little brother. You idolize your big bro and want to be just like him. But when you play games against each other, big bro doesn’t let you win. When it came to the Dodgers-Padres and Braves-Phillies series, there was definitely a big brother-little brother feel, especially in the West Coast duel.

The Dodgers have been the dominant regular-season force, winning the NL West for the ninth time in 10 seasons with 111 wins, tied for the fourth-most victories in MLB history. The only blip came last season, when the Dodgers won 106 games, only to lose the division to the rival San Francisco Giants by one game. The Padres were expected to compete with the Dodgers for the West crown this season, but San Diego had to battle its own demons first. Under the leadership of manager Bob Melvin, the Padres stuck together through the shocking news of Fernando Tatis Jr.’s season-ending suspension, a 5-14 record vs. L.A., and finally slayed “the dragon up north,” as owner Peter Seidler referred to the Dodgers.

The Braves, meanwhile, had won the last five NL East titles and were the defending World Series champions entering their series with the Phillies. Philadelphia had struggled to get back to the postseason since losing to the St. Louis Cardinals in the 2011 NLDS. The front office spent money on free agents Bryce Harper, Nick Castellanos, and Kyle Schwarber while patchworking a pitching staff around homegrown ace Aaron Nola. It all paid off this weekend, which included a magical moment from J.T. Realmuto, who became the first catcher in postseason history with an inside-the-park homer.

 

The Power of Yordan

 

Astros left fielder Yordan Alvarez hit 37 homers during the regular season, yet somehow kind of flew under the radar. That could be because of that Aaron Judge guy with the Yankees and his AL single-season record 62 blasts. It also could be that Alvarez played in just 135 games, going on the 10-day injured list just before the All-Star break due to a right hand injury, then missing a little time a few weeks later with an injured left hand.

Regardless, the left-handed slugger hit four more homers than he did in 2021 in 67 fewer at-bats, while improving his batting average from .277 to .306. Well, it didn’t take that long for Alvarez to announce that he was going to be a problem in the postseason. With the Astros down 7-5 with two outs in the bottom of the ninth of Game 1 vs. the Mariners, Alvarez cranked the three-run walk-off homer off Robbie Ray for an 8-7 Houston win. It was the first postseason walk-off homer when his team was trailing by multiple runs.

As if that wasn’t enough, Alvarez followed that up in Game 2 with a go-ahead two-run homer in the sixth inning of the Astros’ 4-2 triumph. And while he went 0-for-7 in Game 3’s 1-0 18-inning win, Alvarez’s presence was certainly felt every time he stepped into the batter’s box. That also made Alvarez the first player in MLB history to have at least two go-ahead homers in the sixth inning or later in a postseason career — and he did it in a span of seven innings.

 

Epic Extras

 

Thankfully, the postseason doesn’t have the Manfred Man rule for extra innings. Otherwise, MLB fans wouldn’t have been treated to two terrific extra-inning games in the first two rounds. In the Wild Card Series, it was the Guardians surviving in 15 innings against the Tampa Bay Rays when Oscar Gonzalez launched a walk-off homer.

In the Division Series, the Astros and Mariners took the drama a step further. Like the Rays-Guardians, the Astros and Mariners were scoreless heading into the 18th inning, when Houston rookie shortstop Jeremy Peña launched a 3-2 pitch from Penn Murfee for a leadoff homer to put the only run of the game on the scoreboard. No previous postseason game had been scoreless for as many as 15 innings and this matched three others for the longest game in terms of innings.

There are usually unsung pitching performances in these games and there are three to point out. First, the two starters who helped set the tone in front of the raucous Mariners fans. Astros right-hander Lance McCullers Jr. went six scoreless innings with two hits, two walks, and seven strikeouts, while Mariners rookie George Kirby had seven scoreless innings with six hits, no walks, and five strikeouts. Then, to close things out, Astros right-hander Luis Garcia, typically a starter, came on for the final five innings, allowing two hits, no walks, and six strikeouts.

 

Yankees Survive

 

The youngest team in MLB put up quite a fight, but the team with the most World Series titles is moving on. Despite two games being postponed due to rain in New York, the Yankees used strong pitching and homers from Giancarlo Stanton and Aaron Judge to oust the Guardians 5-1.

The AL East champs didn’t have a great second half and had fans biting their fingernails as their division lead shrunk, but behind a dominant performance from Gerrit Cole in Game 4 and then Nestor Cortes keeping the Guardians at bay in Game 5, the Yankees are one step away from returning to the World Series for the first time since 2009.

In addition to the pitching, the long ball is what carried the Bronx Bombers. Harrison Bader, the trade-deadline acquisition who didn’t homer in 14 games in pinstripes, hit three homers, while Stanton and Judge each hit a pair. Stanton hit a three-run shot in the first inning of Game 5 to give the Yankees all the offense they would need.

 

Feature image by Michael Packard (@CollectingPack on Twitter) / Photography by Scott Winters & Ken Murray / Icon Sportswire

Steve Drumwright

Steve Drumwright is a lifelong baseball fan who retired as a player before he had the chance to be cut from the freshman team in high school. He recovered to become a sportswriter and have a successful journalism career at newspapers in Wisconsin and California. Follow him on Twitter @DrummerWrites.

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