We had four elimination games on Thursday, and three teams were sent packing. The Los Angeles Dodgers finished off the San Diego Padres, the Atlanta Braves completed a sweep of the Miami Marlins and the Houston Astros eliminated the Oakland Athletics. That leaves the New York Yankees, who stayed alive by beating the Tampa Bay Rays to force a winner-take-all Game 5 on Friday night.
Here are the stars, turning points and takeaways from each of Thursday's games.
What it means: The Yankees outdid the bullpen experts to force a decisive Game 5 in the American League Division Series in San Diego. New York put together one of its more complete games of the postseason, holding the Rays' bats at bay, allowing only three hits and taking advantage of the few opportunities Tampa Bay's elite arms allowed. Left-hander Jordan Montgomery was able to wiggle in and out of trouble through four innings of work, allowing just one run. From there, the Yankees' bullpen, which has been suspect at times, worked like clockwork: Chad Green, Zack Britton and Aroldis Chapman combined for five hitless innings with Kyle Higashioka once again behind the dish, having earned the starting job over the struggling Gary Sanchez.
Southern California's marine layer, a stiff breeze that kicked up for Game 4, tried to push back any ball threatening to leave Petco Park, but massive swings by Luke Voit (a solo shot in the second) and Gleyber Torres (a two-run blow in the sixth) accounted for three of the Yankees' five runs.
All of the Yankees' relievers threw fewer than 25 pitches, which will be an advantage for their pen, as it will be all hands on deck for Game 5 on Friday night. Gerrit Cole will start on short rest for the first time in his career. -- Marly Rivera
Next up: Game 5, with a spot in the American League Championship Series on the line, Friday night in San Diego.
What it means: This will not be the last time the Dodgers and Padres play a meaningful game in the near future. While the Dodgers on Thursday reiterated in the postseason what they had demonstrated during the regular season -- that they are a better team -- their 12-3 victory that cinched a division-series sweep felt like a prelude for things bigger and better on both sides.
To the Padres, it marked the end of their foray back into competitiveness, and with young talent dotting the roster and still filling the minor leagues, there should be a day soon enough that the gap between them and the Dodgers isn't as large as this series exposed.
And yet as the Dodgers' offensive output against a train of Padres pitchers in Game 3 illustrated, this L.A. team is so good, so instantaneously dangerous, that its greatest weakness -- a questionable closer -- might not even be necessary because of how easily they can score runs. Twelve of them on zero home runs is anomalous in 2020 -- and it's just what the Dodgers can do. A playoff-record five hits from catcher Will Smith registers similarly: On any given night, there are a half-dozen hitters in Los Angeles' lineup every bit as good as him. -- Jeff Passan
Next up: For the Dodgers, a National League Championship Series date with the Braves, the only other team left in the playoffs that hasn't lost a postseason game yet. For the Padres, some questions to answer after a season that despite their loss was a big success.
What it means: The Astros didn't possess the pitching depth to match the A's going into this series. Their path to victory was obvious: They needed to hit like the Astros of old. And they did just that. A decorated lineup that languished through the shortened season finally came to life at Dodger Stadium, which consistently provided warm day games that favored the hitters.
Carlos Correa, George Springer and Michael Brantley each provided multihomer performances during the series, and the Astros amassed 33 runs in four games. Eleven of those runs, on 14 hits, came in the Game 4 clincher, with Correa going 3-for-4 with five RBIs and one 427-foot home run. The dagger was provided by Jose Altuve, who struggled mightily during the regular season but crushed a 428-foot home run to straightaway center field in the seventh, his sixth hit in 15 at-bats this series.
The Astros will have their challenges in the next round, a seven-game series with no off days in between. Zack Greinke, who gutted through 14 outs in Game 4, is clearly not right. The rest of the rotation is nowhere near as accomplished. And the bullpen is composed of young pitchers who were mainly starters in the minor leagues. But those are problems for another day. The Astros -- hated by most of America after the sign-stealing scandal and clearly determined not to care -- are heading to their fourth consecutive ALCS. -- Alden Gonzalez
Next up: The Astros will open the ALCS on Sunday in San Diego against either the Rays or the Yankees. The A's, meanwhile, begin their offseason with some questions to answer.
What it means: The gap between even two disparately matched teams doesn't always show up in a short series, but it sure did in this one. The Braves throttled the underdog Marlins in every way imaginable. Atlanta got airtight pitching, timely defense and an offense that kept the scoreboard clicking both with and without home runs.
The Marlins did not look ready for prime time, which really should have surprised no one. They were a 31-29 team that was outscored by 41 runs during the season. Miami has more work left ahead of it in its quest to construct a perennial winner. Still, from overcoming an early-season COVID-19 outbreak to rarely seeing their home ballpark in the opening weeks of the campaign, the Marlins overcame a lot to get this far. Better days lie ahead, and establishing an organizational identity as one of resilience is not nothing for a franchise that has for so long lacked an identity of any sort. Kudos to Don Mattingly and his squad.
Now Atlanta will move up in class after polishing off Cincinnati and Miami without breaking a sweat. By eliminating the Marlins in three games, now the Braves can make the short trip from Houston to Arlington, Texas, and enjoy three days off before the NLCS begins Monday. Thus, manager Brian Snitker and his staff can set up their pitching plan however they see fit. The Dodgers present a considerably more formidable test for Atlanta, but so far, the Braves appear to be more than ready for it. -- Bradford Doolittle
Next up: Atlanta's NLCS matchup with Los Angeles will begin Monday night in Arlington. Miami heads into the offseason with questions to answer after a surprising run has come to an end.