MLB Playoff Picture 2021: Most Important Players for Remaining ALCS, NLCS Games
The League Championship Series round of the 2021 MLB postseason is down to its last four games.
Atlanta and the Houston Astros hold 3-2 advantages in their respective series as they head home looking to clinch World Series berths.
The two LCS leaders are headed in different directions, though. Houston rallied from a 2-1 deficit to defeat the Boston Red Sox twice at Fenway Park. Atlanta, meanwhile, failed to close out its 3-1 lead with Max Fried on the mound at Dodger Stadium on Thursday.
Houston used an eight-inning gem from Framber Valdez to take the lead after Game 5, but it needs to find another strong pitching performance from Luis Garcia to avoid a Game 7. Boston's bats lit up Garcia and Jake Odorizzi in Game 2 to shift the balance of power in its favor, and that could happen again Friday.
Atlanta faces the daunting task of playing against Max Scherzer and Walker Buehler in Games 6 and 7. It will counter with Ian Anderson and Charlie Morton. While Morton has been fantastic this season, Atlanta will hope it does not have to go the right-hander to finish off the series in a winner-takes-all Game 7.
Luis Garcia, SP, Houston
Garcia left Game 2 after he faced one batter in the second inning.
Boston proceeded to use the momentum gained from a first-inning grand slam by J.D. Martinez to pile on Odorizzi with another grand slam off the bat of Rafael Devers.
Garcia can't afford to have another brutal first inning inside Minute Maid Park. Houston needs at least four innings out of the right-handed hurler in Game 6. Garcia finished the regular season with an 11-8 mark, but his form drifted a bit in September. He allowed three or more earned runs in three of his five September starts. He walked multiple batters in four of those five appearances.
The 24-year-old still found a way to reach the fifth inning in each of those appearances. That is what Dusty Baker has to hope for Friday.
If Garcia pitches better, the Astros could go to Cristian Javier for two innings before turning over the ball to Phil Maton and Kendall Graveman. The ideal setup would be to use those relievers to set up a Ryan Pressly save opportunity.
But if Garcia is outmatched by Boston's bats again, Houston will have to stretch out its bullpen once more, which may hurt the availability of some relievers for a potential Game 7 on Saturday.
Rafael Devers, 3B, Boston
Devers' second-inning grand slam in Game 2 was one of three home runs he produced in the ALCS.
He is tied with Enrique Hernandez for the most ALCS home runs on the Boston roster and is second to the outfielder in hits with seven.
The Boston third baseman has hit two home runs off Houston relievers in the series. He got the best of Odorizzi on his Game 2 grand slam, and he hit a dinger off Ryne Stanek in the eighth inning of Game 4.
Devers' power against Houston's relief staff could be important for the late stages of Games 6 and Game 7, if the ALCS gets to that point. He has come up clutch in some vital situations over the past few years. He went 3-for-4 in the ALDS Game 4 win over the Tampa Bay Rays. He also had a home run in Game 5 of the 2018 ALCS against Houston, which sent the Red Sox into the World Series.
The 24-year-old should not feel any pressure stepping to the plate inside Minute Maid Park because of his clutch hits in the past there. If he is up in a critical situation in Game 6, Devers could provide the key hit that allows Boston to play in a Game 7 on Saturday.
Ian Anderson, SP, Atlanta
Atlanta can't afford the NLCS to get to a seventh game.
The NL East champion would face Walker Buehler in a winner-takes-all game, and it is rare for the right-handed hurler to have consecutive poor playoff starts. For Atlanta to avoid that situation, Ian Anderson needs to deliver a strong performance inside Truist Park on Saturday.
He lasted only three innings in NLCS Game 2. He gave up two earned runs on three hits and walked three batters.
Anderson's two shortest postseasons outings have come against the Dodgers. He lasted three frames in Game 7 of the 2020 NLCS. The good news for Atlanta is he is capable of turning in playoff gems. He struck out six batters over five innings in NLDS Game 3 versus the Milwaukee Brewers. He also pitched four one-hit innings versus the Dodgers in Game 2 of last year's NLCS.
The right-handed hurler does not need to be perfect in his four or five innings of work, but he needs to keep the Los Angeles bats at bay. If he holds the Dodgers to two runs or fewer, he has the potential to match Max Scherzer for his time on the mound.
However, if Anderson struggles to gain control against the Dodgers lineup again, the NL West side could head into Game 7 with all of the momentum on its side.
Trea Turner, 2B, Los Angeles Dodgers
The top of the Dodgers order needs to put pressure on Anderson right away in Game 6 (and potentially Charlie Morton in Game 7).
Trea Turner is the perfect player to make Atlanta's next two starters uncomfortable and put the Dodgers in the lead. He is coming off a 3-for-4 performance at the plate, and he has the most experience playing against Atlanta in the Dodgers lineup from his time with the Washington Nationals.
The Dodgers second baseman produced a pair of multi-hit games during a four-game series at Truist Park in June. He also had a hit in each of the past six regular-season games he played versus Atlanta.
Turner reached base safely twice and stole his only base of the series in NLCS Game 1. Look for him to be more aggressive on the base paths if he reaches in Game 6.
If Turner gets into scoring position early, it could affect how Anderson and potentially Morton approach their at-bats against Corey Seager and Will Smith. That may lead to a mistake or two from the Atlanta starters.
Mookie Betts could provide the same impact from the top of the Dodgers lineup, but Turner comes into Game 6 off of a better Game 5 performance, and he has more experience against the Atlanta pitching staff. That could help him earn a slight edge in the most important game of Los Angeles' season.
Statistics obtained from Baseball Reference.