For Yankees, Extended Game 2 Showed Limits of Their Bullpen

Before Carlos Correa even stepped to the plate in the bottom of the 11th inning to clobber his walk-off homer to end Game 2 of the American League Championship Series, the Houston Astros had already gained an upper hand. By taking advantage of Yankees starter James Paxton’s uneven command and forcing his early exit on Sunday, the Astros triggered a chain of events that eventually led to the decisive J.A. Happ-Correa matchup.

Happ was the ninth Yankees pitcher of the game, setting a new franchise postseason record. The Astros, on the other hand, needed only six pitchers because their standout starter, Justin Verlander, held steady long enough to pitch into the seventh inning with the score tied.

“If you can kind of put some pressure on them and you get some matchups in your favor, they’re going to continue to make those moves,” Astros Manager A.J. Hinch said of the Yankees after his team’s 3-2 win to even the best-of-seven series at one game apiece.

Two games into the A.L.C.S., one theme is already clear: With the Yankees and Astros fielding two of the best offenses in baseball, the margins for error on the mound are extremely thin — and the differences in the two clubs’ pitching staffs only makes the decision-making harder.

The Astros are relying heavily on their rotation aces — Gerrit Cole, who starts Tuesday; Zack Greinke and Verlander. Their ability to pitch not only well but deep into games is a luxury because it minimizes the impact of the weaker links of their pitching staff. The Yankees, on the other hand, are happy to squeeze as much as possible out of their stout bullpen, which is guided by five relievers — Tommy Kahnle, Adam Ottavino, Zack Britton, Aroldis Chapman and Chad Green.

Until Sunday, the Yankees’ bullpen (and their powerful offense) had successfully mitigated the shortcomings of their starting rotation. And Paxton had been their best starter entering Sunday: Since Aug. 2, he had a 2.74 earned run average and had guided his team to 12 wins, including one in the postseason.

Still, he is not on the same level as Verlander or Cole, both of whom logged over 200 innings and 300 strikeouts during the regular season. So even though the Yankees trailed by only one run with one out in the third inning, Manager Aaron Boone emerged from the dugout and signaled for Green to replace Paxton. The Astros were 4-for-10 with two walks against Paxton, and Boone couldn’t play with fire any longer. With no game on Monday and 10 relievers at his disposal, he felt confident he could get 20 more outs from his bullpen. Problem was, the Yankees would ultimately need more on Sunday as the game went to extra innings.

“You’re playing it to win the game,” Boone said. “You’re not playing it to, ‘What if we go 13, you know?’ You’re playing it to, ‘What gives us the best chance to win here?’ And the bottom line is we end up giving up a third run in the 11th inning. I’d say from a run prevention standpoint it went pretty well.”

It was also a more-aggressive strategy than the one Boone employed last October, when he drew some criticism for leaving pitchers in too long. After Green tossed two innings on Sunday, Ottavino entered in the fifth to face the top of the Astros’ lineup. Ottavino’s wicked slider seemed to be a perfect counter for Astros outfielder George Springer, who is one of the best in baseball at slugging fastballs.

But Ottavino threw a slider over the heart of the plate that Springer blasted to left field for a homer that tied the score at 2-2. “I have a lot of confidence in my slider, obviously, but credit to him: He didn’t miss it when I made the mistake,” Ottavino said of Springer.

As the innings progressed, Boone cycled through his other stout relievers. He pushed Kahnle to two and one-third innings, his longest outing since Game 1 of the 2017 A.L.C.S. After Chapman tossed a scoreless ninth inning, Boone turned to C.C. Sabathia, Jonathan Loaisiga and Happ, all of whom struggled during the season.

Sabathia, a longtime starter who had recently dealt with shoulder soreness, got one out in the 10th inning. But Loaisiga walked both batters he faced. Happ escaped that inherited jam, but faltered himself an inning later on the first pitch he threw to Correa.

It was here that the absences of Dellin Betances (Achilles injury) and Domingo German (administrative leave) were felt acutely. The Astros, thanks to Verlander’s long outing, were able to outlast the Yankees.

“We pitched really well,” Britton said. “It came down to making one more mistake than they did.”

The battle of slim margins could be further complicated by weather: Forecasts were calling for rain on Wednesday before and during Game 4, which is set to start at 8 p.m. If postponed, Games 4 and 5 would be pushed back a day.

That might prove most beneficial for the Astros, since the quality of their starting pitching drops off significantly after Verlander, Cole and Greinke. Wade Miley, the Astros’ fourth starter during the regular season, was left off the A.L.C.S. roster after a rough September. Greinke, who started Game 1, could pitch on Thursday on regular rest.

The Yankees’ plan for Game 4 was, in Boone’s words, for their bullpen to be “unleashed.” They were successful during the regular season with similar nontraditional pitching strategies, going 12-7 when employing an opener. Boone said Happ, a starter during the regular season, could be an option to pitch in some fashion in Game 4. But with a rain postponement, the Yankees could avoid that entirely and have Masahiro Tanaka, an October master, return on regular rest on Thursday in a rematch with Greinke, who he faced in Game 1.

In that game, Tanaka and Greinke each spun six innings, but Tanaka’s were spotless and Greinke allowed three runs. The only Yankees to pitch after Tanaka that day: Ottavino, Britton and, once the lead was large, Loaisiga.

Cardinals’ Hit or Miss Offense Is Missing Again

ST. LOUIS — The baseball schedule is so unforgiving that most teams, by the end, know just who they are. The St. Louis Cardinals are still searching, and they are running out of time.

In the first two games of the National League Championship Series against the Washington Nationals, the Cardinals lost twice and scored just one run. A pinch-hitter, Jose Martinez, was 2 for 2. The rest of the hitters were 2 for 55.

“It’s just pretty obvious,” said Paul Goldschmidt, who singled to break up Max Scherzer’s no-hitter in the seventh inning of Game 2. “You score one run, you’re not going to win many games.”

If you score 10 in the first inning, you have a much better shot. The Cardinals did that in their division series clincher in Atlanta, coasting to a 13-1 victory. But the Nationals have unplugged their offense and hidden the power cord.

“That’s kind of been the story of our season, really,” first baseman Matt Carpenter said. “Our offense, at times, has been hit or miss. We’ve had stretches where we’ve struggled to score and we’ve had stretches where we’ve just poured it on. Hopefully we can get one where we pour it on here in the next couple of days, get some confidence back and get some guys rolling.”

But the Cardinals could not solve the soft-throwing Anibal Sanchez on Friday night, or the hard-throwing Scherzer in the shadows on Saturday afternoon. Now Stephen Strasburg awaits them in Game 3 on Monday at Nationals Park, with Patrick Corbin to follow in Game 4.

Strasburg has 21 strikeouts and one walk in 15 October innings, with a 2.40 earned run average. Corbin, a two-time All-Star, was 8-2 with a 2.40 E.R.A. at home in the regular season.

“I feel like we’re road warriors,” Cardinals second baseman Kolten Wong said. “We’ve found our niche on the road; we know how to play on the road. We know the pitchers we’re up against, the odds we’re up against. But that’s what we’re all about. That’s what we love.”

The Cardinals are an unlikely underdog. They are playing in their 10th N.L.C.S. in the last 20 seasons, and their 11 World Series titles are second only to the Yankees’ 27. But they missed the playoffs the last three seasons as the Chicago Cubs and the Milwaukee Brewers took over the N.L. Central, and needed an all-around effort to return.

“This year, we have a complete team that is doing a lot of different things well that we haven’t been doing the last few years,” starter Adam Wainwright said. “This year we played much better defense, this year we ran the bases much better, this year our starting pitching was a little better, this year our bullpen was certainly much better. We have more thump in the middle of our lineup than we’ve had in years.”

The thumpers — Goldschmidt, Paul DeJong and Marcell Ozuna — combined for 94 homers this season. But the Cardinals had only 210 homers over all and 764 runs scored this season, both figures ranking last among teams with winning records.

That sets these Cardinals apart from their last championship team in 2011. Those Cardinals were a wild-card team, but they led the N.L. in runs scored and beat three Philadelphia Phillies aces — Cliff Lee, Roy Oswalt and Roy Halladay — in a first-round upset. They battered another ace, the Milwaukee Brewers’ Zack Greinke, in the N.L.C.S., and ravaged the Texas Rangers’ bullpen in the World Series.

This time, the Nationals’ aces have dispatched the Cardinals with ease, and relievers Sean Doolittle and Daniel Hudson — who returned to save Game 2 after missing the opener for the birth of his daughter — have been sharp this month.

The Cardinals have hope in Game 3 because of their starter, Jack Flaherty, a 23-year-old right-hander with a 1.13 E.R.A., postseason included, since the All-Star break. The rookie Dakota Hudson, a 16-game winner in the regular season, will start Game 4.

“This series is far from over, and we have a guy going that’s really the best guy in baseball in the second half, undisputed, going for us on Monday,” Manager Mike Shildt said, referring to Flaherty. “I’m very optimistic, still, about this series.”

This is how the Cardinals scripted it, after all, managing their young pitchers’ workloads so they would be available in October. It was a deliberate effort not to repeat the Nationals’ infamous decision to shut down Strasburg before the 2012 playoffs to protect his long-term health. The Cardinals beat Washington in the division series that fall, and it took four more tries for the Nationals to advance to the N.L.C.S.

Now that they have, they seem eager to make it a short stay. They could be just two games away from the World Series, which has not come to Washington since 1933.

“The atmosphere in the playoffs at Nationals Park has been incredible,” Scherzer said. “They come out and they go nuts from the first pitch. So I have a feeling it’s even going to be more crazy given what we have done, and really our first postseason win as an organization. I think it means a lot to everybody in D.C.”

Unless the Cardinals quickly solve Scherzer’s fellow pitchers, the District can start planning the party.

Read the Polls. Debate Them. Definitely Don’t Count on Them.

DALLAS — Around the time the University of Oklahoma’s spirit squad, the Ruf/Neks, fired its shotguns, it was possible to catch the hoarsely hollered words of two men clad in crimson and cream.

“Hey, Georgia lost!” one shouted as he raised his phone and Oklahoma celebrated the No. 6 Sooners’ win over No. 11 Texas in Saturday’s Red River Showdown.

“They did?” came the reply.

Indeed. But what did that mean for Oklahoma and its fans as they left the Cotton Bowl? Nobody really knows, especially with the first batch of College Football Playoff rankings coming on Nov. 5.

Unranked South Carolina’s double-overtime upset of No. 3 Georgia on Saturday showed how quickly a season’s lifelines can come and go. And Oklahoma, which was ranked fifth in the Associated Press Top 25 poll that was released on Sunday afternoon, may well prove to be another case study in the boomeranging nature of media and coaches' rankings — and the limits of their influence, especially when the selection committee that picks the teams for the biggest games only starts speaking two-thirds of the way through the season.

“The rankings and all of that are out of our control; we’re not the ones who pick the rankings,” said Pat Fields, a sophomore safety for Oklahoma. “But what we can do every week is try to be dominant — dominate defensively, offensively, on special teams, play our best game every single week, hit our standards every single week and then however things shake out at the end of the year is how it’s going to shake out.”

Most coaches and players who otherwise deem preplayoff rankings as potentially season-crippling sideshows at least concede that the early polls are handy guides and fabulous fodder for jousting with co-workers, in-laws and fellow sports talk radio callers or barflies.

But Wisconsin, with what fast became the nation’s mightiest defense, had a preseason ranking of No. 19 and has quickly reached No. 6. Michigan did another of its fast fizzling acts, going from No. 7 to as low as 20th and now 16. Georgia, which fell to No. 10, seemed poised for another run for a championship, especially after it outlasted Notre Dame in September. Remember Central Florida?

In interviews across the country, including some in Dallas on Saturday, coaches and players suggested those shifts and the rhythms of rankings during the season increasingly made daily mind-set management at least as crucial as avoiding a false start on fourth-and-short. Daily dissections of polls, they argue, should be left to presidential campaigns, not football teams, even as chatter persists among fans and is amplified on cable television and the internet.

“We’re a team that doesn’t really pay attention to too much outside stuff,” said Creed Humphrey, an offensive lineman for Oklahoma. “Of course, it’s hard — everybody’s got social media and stuff, and they see stuff all the time — but our main focus always has to be on the next opponent.”

With Oklahoma’s most menacing regular-season opponent now defeated, and the buzz around the Sooners certain to grow, the team’s ability to adhere to the philosophy Fields and Humphrey espoused will be tested.

Few programs are as eager for a big breakthrough. Oklahoma, which started this season at No. 4, has reached three semifinal games and lost all of them. It has not played for a national championship since the 2008 season, and it has not won one since the 2000 season. (More broadly, the Big 12 has not had a team win a national title since Texas did it to end the 2005 season.)

This year, Oklahoma’s defense is a far more suffocating unit than its recent predecessors, and it recorded nine sacks on Saturday. The offense, which leads the country at 622 yards per game, is built around Jalen Hurts, the graduate transfer quarterback who played at Alabama and is in contention to become the third straight Sooner to win the Heisman Trophy.

“That’s an extremely talented and well-coached team, led by an exceptional quarterback that had a heck of a day,” Tom Herman, the Texas coach, said, his demeanor mostly downtrodden but maybe also a little awed. “They’re really, really good.”

Up until Saturday afternoon, though, Oklahoma’s résumé looked like that of a formidable team that was also open to castigation for not having faced a serious test. Not one of Oklahoma’s first five opponents was ranked.

For the Sooners, it was just an added bonus that Georgia happened to crumble around the same moment that time expired in Dallas. Fields, the safety, appeared stunned as he learned that the Bulldogs had lost, and he fleetingly weighed how it could change the course of Oklahoma’s season.

“That’s big for us,” he finally said. “But we can’t focus on that too much because we know, realistically, at the end of the day, if we dominate every single game and we win out, we know the likely outcome. We try not to focus on the external too much because it just allows for distractions.”

It was essentially an echo of Noah Burks, an outside linebacker for Wisconsin, late last month.

“There’s been some stuff that we’ve seen on social media that’s kind of added fuel to the fire, but for the most part, we try to be the same team every week,” Burks said.

As the sport prepares for the sixth season of playoff rankings, there is history to show that even surveys conducted around the time of the selection committee’s meetings in suburban Dallas are only so insightful. Consider 2017, when the A.P. poll had Alabama, Georgia, Ohio State and Wisconsin in the top four at the end of October.

Two days later, the first round of playoff rankings favored Georgia, Alabama, Notre Dame and Clemson. Ohio State was No. 6 and Wisconsin stood at No. 9. By the end of the season, Oklahoma was chosen for a semifinal and Notre Dame was No. 14.

Even after this past weekend’s scrambling of the pecking order, expect more shifts, and perhaps many more.

No. 4 Ohio State could face Wisconsin twice, once in late October and again in the Big Ten’s title game. No. 1 Alabama and No. 2 Louisiana State will play in November, and both still have dates with No. 11 Auburn. No. 3 Clemson has to contend with South Carolina. Georgia could still wind up playing for a Southeastern Conference title, where Alabama or L.S.U. might be ripe for an upset. There is a distinct possibility that Texas, now No. 15, and Oklahoma will meet again to determine the Big 12 champion.

And not one of those matchups contemplates the almost entirely unforeseen upsets, like the one South Carolina dealt Georgia.

After all, the rankings now don’t matter much.

Nationals Pitching Puts an Old-School Tactic on the Cutting Edge

ST. LOUIS — For all the new wisdom in baseball, some theories stay timeless. One in particular guides Mike Rizzo in building annual contenders for the Washington Nationals.

“I was taught early in my scouting and G.M. career that once you have starting pitching, anything is possible,” said Rizzo, the Nationals’ general manager, “and if you don’t have it, nothing is possible.”

In the first two games of the National League Championship Series at Busch Stadium, even no-hitters seemed possible from the Nationals’ starters. Anibal Sanchez carried one into the eighth inning of Game 1 and Max Scherzer into the seventh inning of Game 2. After Saturday’s 3-1 victory over the St. Louis Cardinals, the Nationals headed home with a two-games-to-none lead and a chance to clinch their first trip to the World Series in Washington.

Sanchez blanked the Cardinals for seven and two-thirds innings in Game 1, and Scherzer for seven innings in Game 2. Both allowed only one hit. The Cardinals will not get much of a break in the next two games, when the Nationals will start Stephen Strasburg and Patrick Corbin, who combined to go 32-13 this season.

“Starting pitching is absolutely our biggest strength,” reliever Sean Doolittle said on Friday, adding that Sanchez’s aggressive approach had a calming influence on the bullpen. “They absolutely set the tone for this team.”

That is just how Rizzo likes it. He started his professional career as a minor league infielder in 1982, a year in which 90 major leaguers threw the minimum 162 innings required for the earned-run average title. This season — in a league with four more teams — that total had dropped to 61.

But four of those pitchers are members of the Nationals. Another four pitch for the Cardinals and four others for the Houston Astros.

The Yankees had just one qualified pitcher this season (Masahiro Tanaka), but still: With three of the four remaining teams built around sturdy rotations, is it fair to spot a trend? Could durable starters working deep into playoff games be the new — old — way to win in October?

“I don’t know; I think it was just the guys that are doing it,” Scherzer said. “Next year it will be the bullpens. The year after that it will be starters. There’s just so many ways to win baseball games through pitching, and we have seen it over the years.”

We may never again see a series like the 2005 American League Championship Series, when the Chicago White Sox got four complete games and used their bullpen for only two outs in a five-game series en route to a World Series title. But on consecutive days in these playoffs, Walker Buehler threw a career-high 117 pitches for the Los Angeles Dodgers, Gerrit Cole worked eight innings for the Astros and Sanchez and Scherzer flirted with no-hitters.

Through two games of the N.L.C.S. — even before the opener of the A.L.C.S. — starters had already lasted at least seven innings 11 times this postseason. That was two more times than the total for the entire 2018 postseason, and one more than in 2017.

“When you’ve got incredible pitchers out on the mound — Justin Verlander and Gerrit Cole and those guys — if you have an ability like that, you want to get those guys out there as much as you can,” said the Cardinals’ Adam Wainwright, who lost to Scherzer on Saturday but has worked 15 innings in his two starts this month. “When you’re just looking at one month to live forever, you’re talking about every game as a must-win. That’s kind of how teams are approaching it, and they’re putting their best athletes on the field.”

The Nationals have already used Scherzer, Strasburg and Corbin in relief this postseason, as the Red Sox did with all five of their starters in their championship run last October. That can be risky for the long-term — most of those Boston starters fell apart this season — but in the moment, it is probably the smart play, with plenty of historical support.

Using starters as relievers is nothing new in the postseason. Walter Johnson, Lefty Grove and Warren Spahn did it long before baseball added layers of playoffs ahead of the World Series, and many modern starters have done it, from Verlander to Noah Syndergaard to Cole Hamels.

The strategy can backfire — as it did with the Dodgers’ Clayton Kershaw in the division series finale against Washington on Wednesday — but the possibility of seeing the best pitchers more often adds extra sizzle to October.

“In the five-game series, you’ve got to get creative and you’ve got to take the ball at every single chance you can get,” Scherzer said. “In the seven-game series, the way you’re set up, this is more like the regular season.”

The Nationals and the Cardinals both plan to use four starters in this series, as most teams do in the best-of-seven format. For Washington, that means three pitchers in Scherzer, Strasburg and Corbin whose combined salaries total $525 million — and Sanchez, who signed last December for two years and $19 million.

Sanchez, 35, has been in the majors since 2006, when he threw a no-hitter as a rookie for the Marlins. Friday’s effort was not even the first time he had allowed no hits when starting a L.C.S. opener: He also did it in 2013, for Detroit in Boston, but he lasted only six innings. Sanchez threw 116 pitches that night, and the Tigers’ bullpen lost the no-hitter in the ninth.

This time Sanchez nearly took care of things on his own, baffling the Cardinals with an array of off-speed pitches — including one type of changeup his teammates call “the Butterfly” — and a fastball that rarely tops 91 miles an hour. When first baseman Ryan Zimmerman made a diving catch on a liner to start the eighth, Sanchez expected to finish the gem.

“I think that I had it, for sure,” he said, adding that a similar highlight had preserved his no-hitter for the Marlins. “Zimmerman, he caught that ball and I said: ‘O.K., always behind a no-hitter, a good play has to happen.’ And I said, ‘O.K., I had it.’”

Alas, two batters later, Jose Martinez ruined the script by lining a 1-2 changeup to center for a clean hit. Paul Goldschmidt ended Scherzer’s bid on Saturday with a line-drive single to left to start the seventh. But the games emphatically illustrated why the Nationals invested in Scherzer in free agency in 2015 and in Sanchez last winter.

“When he’s on, he’s carving people up,” Rizzo said of Sanchez. “He’s hitting four quadrants of the strike zone with three or four pitches. He’ll invent a pitch if he has to during the game. His dexterity on the mound, that allows him, with finger pressure, to make different movements on fastballs. I saw him pitch so many times, we knew him intimately. It was a pretty easy choice to go after him when we needed another starter.”

Perhaps veteran starters will command more attention in free agency this winter, after pitchers from last year’s frigid market like Sanchez, Tampa Bay’s Charlie Morton, Texas’ Lance Lynn and Houston’s Wade Miley all pitched well on contracts that each totaled $30 million or less.

Rizzo, for his part, only knows that it works for his team, which stood two victories from its first World Series after Sanchez’s magic act.

“My job isn’t to show the industry anything — it’s just to put together the team that fits for us,” Rizzo said. “Over the years we’ve put together quality clubs that compete for championships each year, and starting pitching has been our backbone.”

What to Watch for When the Yankees and Astros Play in the A.L.C.S.

HOUSTON — The heavyweight matchup of two of baseball’s most dominant teams begins Saturday night at rollicking Minute Maid Park, where the Yankees will take on the Houston Astros in Game 1 of the American League Championship Series.

As far back as May, when it became clear that these were the two best teams in the American League, anything less than an epic encounter for a World Series berth would have been a disappointment. Adding to the enticing backstory is that it is also a rematch of the 2017 A.L.C.S., which the Astros won by taking Game 7 at home.

But these Yankees are improved and more experienced than the team from two years ago. They won 103 games in the regular season and came into this best-of-seven series riding a wave of momentum after easily eliminating the Minnesota Twins in a three-game sweep. The Astros, winners of 107 games — the most in baseball — had a harder time in the division series, needing five games to dispatch the Tampa Bay Rays.

Houston used Gerrit Cole, its best pitcher, in the clinching win against Tampa Bay, so he will not be available until Game 3 of the A.L.C.S. But Cole likely would be available to start if there is a decisive Game 7.

That is no small factor, considering that Cole has been unbeatable for more than four months during one of the most remarkable runs in baseball history. His last loss was on May 22, and he has gone 18-0 since then, setting a major league record by passing Roy Face (1959) and Carl Hubbell (1936). Over that stretch, his E.R.A. is 1.66 and the Astros are 22-2 during his starts, including his two wins in the postseason. Cole struck out 25 batters in those two games, setting a record for most strikeouts in a division series.

But over all, it is difficult to say where the advantage lies with two teams that are both so good.

The Yankees have a fearsome lineup stacked with what appear to be nothing but No. 3 and 4 hitters, and its bullpen is stocked with closers.

The Astros have two great starters — Cole and Justin Verlander — and a lineup of proven, clutch hitters. Their bullpen is not as strong, but they have arguably the best home-field advantage in baseball. Minute Maid Park is usually loud, but in the playoffs, the intensity multiplies, as the Rays found out.

“Did you hear the crowd today?” Rays catcher Travis d’Arnaud said after Game 5. “It’s explosive. Even from announcing their lineups and when every one of their guys took the field, the crowd exploded every time. They won so many games here and they earned the right to home-field advantage and I’m sure the fans appreciate that, too, and will cheer even louder.”

The Astros are playing in their third-consecutive league championship series. The last team to do that was the Detroit Tigers, anchored by Verlander, from 2011 to 2013.

The first pitch is at 8:08 p.m. Eastern time as Zack Greinke starts for the Astros and Masahiro Tanaka takes the mound for the Yankees.

Here are a few things to look for during the game.

Houston won 60 games at home, the most in baseball and 14 more games than it won in its stadium last year during the regular season. Last year, the Astros lost all three home games to the Boston Red Sox in the A.L.C.S. All three of their playoff wins this year have come at home.

Tanaka pitched Game 2 of the division series, but Yankees Manager Aaron Boone flipped him and James Paxton for the A.L.C.S. Tanaka made four starts at Minute Maid Park during the regular season, going 0-1 with a 5.73 E.R.A. But he has experience starting here during the playoffs. In 2017, he started Game 1 of the A.L.C.S. at Minute Maid Park and pitched well through six innings, allowing only four hits and two runs (although Houston won that game, 2-1). That same series, he was brilliant at Yankee Stadium in Game 5, throwing seven scoreless innings with only three hits in a 5-0 Yankees win.

Greinke has pitched well since he joined the Astros in July, going 8-1 with a 3.02 E.R.A. His lifetime record at Minute Maid Park is 8-3 with a 3.42 E.R.A.

In his last start, Greinke was rocked in Game 3 of the division series against the Rays, giving up six runs in less than four innings in Tampa. In 12 career starts, half of them with the Los Angeles Dodgers, Greinke is 2-5 with a 4.58 E.R.A.

Could Beltran, the former Astros player who now works for the Yankees as a special adviser, be an X-factor? He was a teammate of Astros Manager A.J. Hinch in Kansas City and Hinch knows that Beltran will give the Yankees as much information as he can recall from his time with Houston in 2017. Beltran is also an expert sign stealer — using crafty (while still legal) methods.

Real or Imagined, Baseball Spying Causes Angst in the Playoffs

HOUSTON — Carlos Beltran has not played in a Major League Baseball game for two years, since he helped the Houston Astros win the 2017 World Series. Now he works for the Yankees, and in an odd twist, the Astros could be preparing for him just as they prepare for Aaron Judge and Gleyber Torres, two of the Yankees’ best uniformed personnel.

Beltran works as a special adviser to Yankees general manager Brian Cashman, and the Astros know firsthand that he has a special skill. As a player, Beltran developed a reputation as one of the best sign stealers in baseball, a practice that is permissible as long as no outside help, particularly technology, is used.

Beltran, as far as anyone can tell, used only his wits.

“Oh, he’s the best at it,” Astros Manager A.J. Hinch said on Friday.

“We are very aware. I mean, Encarnacion is really good at it,” Hinch continued, referring to Edwin Encarnacion, the Yankees’ designated hitter. “The teams that are elite at it are as dangerous as ever. You’ve got to be aware, you are always aware.”

Stealing signs — or the potential threat of it — could become a game within the game during the American League Championship Series between the Yankees and the Astros, which begins Saturday night at Minute Maid Park. The Astros must at least prepare for the possibility that Beltran will be debriefed about any inside knowledge he has about his former club, and they will guard against him, Encarnacion or anyone else looking to break their secret codes.

But it goes both ways. The Yankees will surely employ counterespionage measures of their own, in part because the Astros were under suspicion of illicit sign stealing during last year’s A.L.C.S., although Major League Baseball cleared them of any wrongdoing.

Call it paranoia, but being paranoid does not mean the other team isn’t trying to swipe your signs.

Sign stealing has existed in baseball for as long as there have been spikes and gloves. Often, it is legal, such as when players on the bases or in the dugout use their own mental dexterity to decipher the other team’s signs. Roberto Alomar, the Hall of Fame second baseman, was one of the best ever at stealing signs, whether from catchers, third base coaches or managers, but many others perfected the craft, too.

Likewise, there is a rogue history of using forbidden tools to enhance sign-stealing capabilities. The 1951 New York Giants used a telescope and a buzzer to steal signs from the scoreboard in center field at the Polo Grounds, and the 2017 Boston Red Sox were caught using Apple Watches to transmit information.

During the 2015 A.L.C.S., the Kansas City Royals suggested that the Blue Jays were using people in the stands to relay signs in Toronto. Russell Martin, then with the Jays, denied it, but said the Yankees had done that when he played for them.

The possibility that the Astros use center-field cameras at their park to steal signs — for which there is no evidence — was brought up during Game 5 of the American League division series. Seth McLung, a former pitcher with the Tampa Bay Rays and Milwaukee Brewers, noticed on television that Rays catcher Travis d’Arnaud was running through extra sets of signs. McLung never accused Houston of doing anything wrong, but he wrote on his Twitter account that the extra signs meant that the Rays were suspicious.

Were the Rays concerned? D’Arnaud had no evidence that there was illegal sign-stealing going on, but like a nervous A.T.M. user shielding keystrokes even when no one is around, he took no chances. As McLung pointed out, the Rays were using three sets of signs, even when Houston didn’t have runners on base peering into the catcher’s signs — the most common method of swiping signs.

“Yeah, we were just making sure that nothing was happening,” d’Arnaud said after the Astros beat the Rays, 6-1, to clinch that series. “I was giving three signs with nobody on. We just wanted to make sure that nothing was going on.”

As it turned out, Tyler Glasnow, the Rays starter, was tipping his pitches — inadvertently doing something in his windup to signal to the hitters what kind of pitch was coming. That is not uncommon in baseball, but it is self-inflicted, and a totally separate issue from sign stealing.

The Astros scored four times in the first inning, and after he came out of the game, Glasnow looked at video and said it confirmed his fear that he had been tipping.

Glasnow’s admission undercut the theory that the Astros had benefited from illicit intelligence gathering, but that certainly did not stop the Rays from continuing their countermeasures. After all, the game’s history breeds suspicion.

“I’m not sure,” Rays left fielder Austin Meadows said when asked after Game 5 about sign-stealing concerns. “I really have no comment on that. I don’t know if there’s cameras or not, but obviously they did a good job putting four on the board early in the game, and that kind of shifted momentum to their side.”

Hinch dismissed the idea that the Astros had used any technology to enhance their code-breaking capabilities. But like the Rays, he said, his team must guard against the possibility that others are spying. To do otherwise would be a dereliction of duty.

“Everybody is worried about pitch tipping and everybody’s worried about stealing signs across the league,” Hinch said. “Everybody’s doing it, not just to us, but to everybody. I’ve watched so many games this year where everybody is paranoid that they’re giving something away. We were running through multiple signs with nobody on base because that’s the era that we’re playing in. You’ve got to guard against every advantage that you think somebody can get.”

Billy Witz contributed reporting.

The Inevitable Cardinals Meet the Suddenly Clutch Nationals

ST. LOUIS — His team’s hometown is a hotbed of espionage, but even by Washington standards, this is a bold surveillance operation. While the Nationals face the St. Louis Cardinals in the National League Championship Series, one of their top scouts will be staying at the home of the manager of a potential World Series opponent.

The scout is Bob Boone, and the manager is his son, Aaron, who guided the Yankees to the American League Championship Series. Bob Boone, a vice president and senior adviser for the Nationals, will track the Yankees’ games against the Houston Astros in the A.L.C.S. He will do it by commuting to the games in New York from Aaron’s home in Connecticut.

“I’ll ride in with him; I won’t even need a car,” Bob Boone said in Los Angeles late Wednesday night, after the Nationals had roared back to win Game 5 of their division series at Dodger Stadium. “But he never talks too much about baseball, anyway. And he’s on the stat-side, big-time — and that just starts an argument with me.”

The Nationals took a first step to the World Series on Friday, humbling the Cardinals, 2-0, in Game 1 of the N.L.C.S. at Busch Stadium. Anibal Sanchez held the Cardinals hitless until Jose Martinez’s pinch-hit single with two outs in the eighth. He left the game after that, but Sean Doolittle preserved the one-hitter.

For the first game, at least, the Nationals looked as comfortable in a new setting as Boone might have expected. Boone is 71, and a memorable series from his playing career has particular relevance to his current team.

Boone was the catcher for the Philadelphia Phillies, who won the best-of-five N.L.C.S. in 1980 after losing that series in 1976, 1977 and 1978. The victory, a five-game thriller with the Astros, unburdened a roster that had come to be defined by October futility. The Phillies went on to beat Kansas City for their first World Series title.

The Nationals also seek their first championship, and the opportunity was hard-earned. They lost the best-of-five division series four times before their triumph over the Dodgers.

“It’s kind of the same thing, blowing a bunch of them,” Boone said. “We had lost three playoffs, and that Houston series was ridiculous. When we got past that, we knew we were going to beat them. We just relaxed, and we knew we’d beat these guys. We were a clutch team, just like these guys.”

The Nationals? Clutch? Until this month, they had the opposite reputation. But then came their comebacks in the wild-card game against Milwaukee and the N.L.D.S. clincher in Los Angeles. Both times, the Nationals trailed by two runs in the eighth inning while facing an All-Star left-hander. Both times, they rallied to win.

“Keep fighting,” said Anthony Rendon, the Nationals’ star third baseman. “I think that’s the story of, maybe, this organization. We have always either done really, really well and then came up short, or we had been plagued with injuries and had to continue to fight out of a hole that we dug ourselves in the beginning of the year. So we just wanted to keep believing in ourselves and not worry about what people outside of our locker room were saying.”

Rendon scored the go-ahead run off the Brewers’ Josh Hader in the wild card game, after right fielder Trent Grisham misplayed Juan Soto’s two-run single. On Wednesday, Rendon homered off Clayton Kershaw to pull the Nationals within a run, and Soto homered on the next pitch to tie it.

With one on in the 10th inning, Rendon doubled off Joe Kelly, who walked Soto intentionally before serving up the most seismic hit in Nationals’ history: Howie Kendrick’s go-ahead grand slam. Kendrick stayed hot in Game 1, doubling and scoring the Nationals’ first run, and driving in their second run with a single.

But it was fitting that Rendon and Soto helped set up Wednesday’s big blast. They were the only set of qualified teammates in the majors who both had a .400 on-base percentage and a .500 slugging percentage in the regular season. They combined to hit .343 in the division series, and the rest of the Nationals hit .198.

“They’re tough — and they’re tough because they’re plate-disciplined more than anything,” said Matt Wieters, the Cardinals’ backup catcher and a former National, referring to Rendon and Soto. “They’re not going to help you out.”

The Cardinals’ two sluggers, Paul Goldschmidt and Marcell Ozuna, were also at their best in their five-game division series with the Atlanta Braves, both hitting .429 with two homers. Catcher Yadier Molina, the Cardinals’ emotional leader and pitching whisperer, forced the finale with tour de force in Game 4, tying it with a single in the eighth and winning it with a sacrifice fly in the 10th.

The Cardinals are playing in their 10th N.L.C.S. in the last 20 seasons, and Molina has been there for the last eight. He is seeking his fifth trip to the World Series.

“You know you have someone back there who has probably seen just about any situation you can imagine in a baseball game unfold,” said the Cardinals starter for Game 1, Miles Mikolas. “He’s been there, he’s seen it and he’s seen it from the catcher’s viewpoint, which is probably the best one to have. The whole team feeds off that.”

The Nationals did not attempt a stolen base against the Dodgers, but they tied with the Cardinals for the N.L. lead in steals in the regular season, so Molina’s arm could be an important weapon. He will work with starters Adam Wainwright in Game 2, Jack Flaherty in Game 3 and Dakota Hudson in Game 4.

The Nationals have not announced their rotation beyond Sanchez and Max Scherzer in Game 2, but they will surely lean heavily on Stephen Strasburg and Patrick Corbin, who with Scherzer have worked 36 of the team’s 54 innings this postseason. All three have also appeared in relief.

“They have three of the best starting pitchers in baseball,” said Walker Buehler, who started for the Dodgers on Wednesday. “Any time you can throw those three guys out there, you’ve got a chance.”

The Nationals have had many other chances to get to this round. They squandered all of them, but now they have broken through. With four more victories, they might be able to put a certain scout’s reconnaissance to use.

Astros Oust the Rays and Earn Another A.L.C.S. With the Yankees

HOUSTON — The warning signs came the night before when two heavily favored teams, the Los Angeles Dodgers and the Atlanta Braves, were each stunned in a deciding fifth game of a division series, losing in their home ballparks.

The Houston Astros had to be careful the same fate did not befall them on Thursday — only in their case, it would have been worse. The Astros had 107 regular-season wins, the most in baseball, and they also won the most home games, 60. A loss in the first round of the playoffs would have been devastating for a team with World Series aspirations.

“As a manager, both of those games represented the worst-case scenario for a manager,” said A.J. Hinch, the Astros manager. “When I went to bed last night I was quite aware that nothing was guaranteed coming into today, even though we had what I felt was the best team.”

They also had perhaps the best pitcher in Gerrit Cole. In another glittering pitching performance by the almost unbeatable right-hander — this one a two-hit gem — the Astros bucked the recent trend and pounded the Tampa Bay Rays, 6-1, in Game 5 of their American League division series.

The win moved the Astros into their third consecutive American League Championship Series, where they will meet the Yankees, who completed a sweep of the Minnesota Twins on Monday.

“I think throughout the year both of us thought we’d have to play each other in the postseason,” Alex Bregman, the Astros third baseman said. “It’s going to be a lot of fun.”

The Yankees and the Astros played a memorable championship series in 2017, in which the Astros won Game 7 at home and followed that up by beating the Dodgers in the World Series for the only championship in franchise history.

Game 1 of the A.L.C.S. is Saturday night in Houston, but the Yankees probably will not have to contend with Cole until Game 3.

Cole, who has not lost a decision in over four months, threw eight innings and struck out 10, giving him 25 strikeouts in two starts against the Rays in the series. The 25 strikeouts are the most by a pitcher in a division series, and the most by an Astro in any postseason series.

His only mistake was a bases-empty home run by Eric Sogard, a contact hitter who was inserted into the Tampa Bay lineup to cut down on strikeouts. Sogard swatted a 95 mile-per-hour fastball into the seats in right field, but there was little else the Rays could do against Cole, whose velocity ramped up as the game went on.

Cole struck out Willy Adames looking with a 98 mile-per-hour fastball on the outside corner to end the fifth inning and then got Ji-Man Choi to swing through a fastball that registered 99 m.p.h. to end the sixth.

He ended the seventh by getting Avisaíl Garcia to hit into a double play, and notched two more strikeouts in the eighth.

“I have a great team behind me that plays unbelievable defense,” Cole said. “They don’t take a pitch off, the catching corps is prepared all year, and we smothered them on defense tonight.”

They also played well offensively, scoring four runs in the first inning to set the tone. Then Michael Brantley and Jose Altuve homered in the eighth to cap the night for the delirious Houston fans. Altuve’s homer was his 11th in postseason play, a career record for second basemen.

The Astros are now 35-8 at home in last 43 games at Minute Maid Park, including the postseason. They won four of the seven games they played against the Yankees this year.

On Wednesday, Hinch said he hoped the Astros would take an early lead to get the crowd into the game and energize his players. He got that and more as Houston scored three times before Rays starter Tyler Glasnow even recorded an out. It was almost the perfect opening salvo for Houston.

George Springer, Brantley and Altuve all singled to produce one run. Then Alex Bregman, who came to the plate with chants of “M.V.P.” ringing throughout the stadium, responded with a double into the gap in right center field to score two more.

One out later, Yuli Gurriel singled to left, scoring Bregman from third for the fourth run of the inning. With Cole on the mound, the lead was virtually insurmountable.

“He dominated twice against us, and he’s been dominant all year,” said Austin Meadows, the Rays left fielder. “He’s incredible.”

Cole has not lost a decision since May 22, going 18-0 with a 1.66 earned run average, including his two postseason starts. In Cole’s starts, the Astros have gone 22-2.

“We knew he was going to come out hot,” Hinch said. “We know he’s going to get his strikeouts. We know he’s going to set a tone. He’s intense.”

In Game 2, Cole threw seven and two-thirds shutout innings, but when his pitch count rose over 110 in the eighth inning, he began to show signs of fatigue. He was pulled after giving up a double and a walk, a decision that almost backfired. The Astros bullpen faltered before ultimately securing the final four outs.

On Thursday Cole threw 95 pitches through seven innings, and when he jogged out to the mound for the eighth the fans roared. He threw a fastball that sizzled past Joey Wendle’s bat at 99 miles per hour for a third strike, got Kevin Kiermaier on a wicked curve ball for his 10th strikeout, and on Cole’s 107th pitch, Adames bounced out to Altuve.

Roberto Osuna closed the game out in the ninth, and when he struck out Choi to end the series, Cole led the charge out of the Astros dugout to celebrate, wrapping Osuna in a bear hug.

“I was just fired up,” Cole said with a belly laugh as his teammate Carlos Correa crept from behind and poured champagne over Cole’s head.

“You are a bad man,” Correa yelled. “You’re the baddest of the bad.”

October Ghosts Come Early for Dodgers

LOS ANGELES — You could see the red taillights in the parking lots, out beyond the zigzag pavilion roof at Dodger Stadium, in the bottom of the 10th inning Wednesday night. It was the same scene in 1988, in the first game of the World Series, when the Dodgers trailed going into their final at-bat.

Those fans missed the famous Kirk Gibson home run that propelled the Dodgers to their last championship. These fans missed a quiet 1-2-3 inning, a pointless replay review, and a throng of delirious Washington Nationals celebrating their first trip to the National League Championship Series.

The Nationals were due for a night like this. Since their breakthrough season in 2012, they had won more games than every other major league team except the Dodgers, yet had never survived the division series. In the same time frame, the Dodgers had won four division series, and twice captured the N.L.C.S.

Now they are out, dazed and discouraged by a 7-3 loss in 10 excruciating innings in Game 5. The Nationals will face the St. Louis Cardinals for the right to crown a new N.L. champion — and the Dodgers will have more free time than usual in October.

“You’re thinking about how you’re supposed to be still playing,” reliever Kenley Jansen said. “You just don’t know what to do right now. It’s a shocking moment, and it’s not the way we planned it.”

Jansen saved 33 of the Dodgers’ franchise-record 106 victories this season. But he also blew eight save chances, and he is not the same force he was for most of the Dodgers’ seven-year run as division champions. Neither is Clayton Kershaw.

Kershaw served up homers to Anthony Rendon and Juan Soto to start the eighth inning, tying the game, 3-3. The Nationals won it off Joe Kelly, loading the bases on a walk by Adam Eaton, a double by Rendon, an intentional walk by Soto and a grand slam by Howie Kendrick.

“Some things are just destined to happen,” Kendrick said. “I truly believe that, and I think a lot of things lead up to moments like this. For some reason, you just can’t explain them. It’s almost like it was meant to be.”

Kendrick, a former Dodger, made the final out the last time the Dodgers lost in the division series, to the Mets in 2015. This time he took a star turn, and although Kelly gave up his homer, Kershaw took the blame for creating the tie in the first place.

Summoned to relieve Walker Buehler with two outs, two on and a two-run lead in the seventh, Kershaw fanned Eaton with a slider, the pitch that made him a star. But when he returned for the eighth, the slider deserted him: Rendon pulled a low one for his homer, and Soto drilled a hanger deep into the right field bleachers.

Kershaw crouched on the mound, felled again by postseason misery. For Kershaw in October, the ballpark might as well be a haunted mansion, the mound a bubbling caldron of witch’s brew. He cannot escape his ghosts.

“Everything people say is true right now about the postseason, I understand that,” Kershaw said in the clubhouse later. “Nothing I can do about it right now. It’s a terrible feeling. It really is. But I’m not going to hang my head.”

In 32 career postseason appearances, Kershaw is 9-11 with a 4.43 earned run average. He has had clutch moments, including a save in Washington to seal Game 5 of this round in 2016, and a win in his first World Series start in 2017.

But for a certain Hall of Famer — three Cy Young Awards, a Most Valuable Player Award, a 2.44 regular-season E.R.A. — autumn failure is a maddening tradition.

“Letting down the guys in the clubhouse, that’s the hardest part every year,” Kershaw said. “When you don’t win the last game of the season and you’re to blame for it, it’s not fun.”

Teammates consoled Kershaw by his locker, with hugs and whispered words of encouragement. Will Smith, the rookie catcher, said he told Kershaw how much he looked up to him, how he admired his competitive drive. Rich Hill, the veteran starter, insisted Kershaw should not blame himself.

“No — we wouldn’t be here without him,” said Hill, who paused to collect himself. “Ultimate respect for him. This means so much to everybody in this locker room. That’s the tough part. People say it’s just a game. It’s a lot more than that.”

Manager Dave Roberts was harshly criticized last October — even in a tweet from President Trump — for his pitching decisions in the World Series. He will face scrutiny again for the way he managed Game 5. His lefty specialist, Adam Kolarek, never pitched, and he stayed too long with Kelly, who rarely works more than one inning.

Roberts said he let Kelly face Kendrick because he thought he could induce a ground ball. Kelly said he tried, but his 97-mile-an-hour fastball caught too much of the plate. As for Kershaw, Roberts said he trusted a pitcher he called the best of his generation.

“I feel that my job is to put guys in the best position to have success, and if it doesn’t work out there’s always going to be second-guessing,” Roberts said. “And I’ve got no problem wearing the brunt of that.”

Kershaw said he had no blueprint for absorbing another empty October. He does so every fall, but this loss, perhaps, felt different.

“It might linger for a while,” Kershaw said. “I might not get over it, I don’t know. But spring training’s going to come. I’m going to have to be ready to pitch and do my job as best I can.”

The Dodgers were trying to become the first team since the 1923 Yankees to reach a third consecutive World Series after losing two in a row. They believed they had the roster to do it, and their regular season validated that faith.

But history remembers the teams that own October, and that team — year after year, for decades now — is not the Dodgers.

“We all grew so close as a group, and we all knew what we had,” infielder Max Muncy said. “We know that we’re better than what we showed out there. That’s how it ends.”

Braves Pivot from ‘Tomahawk Chop’ Chant After a Cardinal’s Criticism

ATLANTA — The Atlanta Braves took a significant, if limited, step away from their “tomahawk chop” chant on Wednesday ahead of Game 5 in the team’s National League division series against the St. Louis Cardinals.

Cardinals pitcher Ryan Helsley, a member of the Cherokee Nation, had criticized the use of the chant earlier in the playoff series.

For the decisive Game 5, the Braves said in a statement that they had decided not to distribute red foam tomahawks — long a fixture at Braves games — on the seats at SunTrust Park. The team also said that the thumping backup music to the team’s chant would not be played over the park’s sound system if Helsley was in the game. The Cardinals, however, did not call on him during their 13-1 victory.

The Braves’ tomahawk logo still appeared on the park’s video screen during the presentation of Atlanta’s starting lineup, and a tomahawk was painted onto the grass behind home plate. But as first pitch approached on Wednesday evening, the team did not play the chant’s audio track, which stadium workers have used for years to prompt fans to gesture.

“We will continue to evaluate how we activate elements of our brand, as well as the overall in-game experience,” the Braves’ statement said. “We look forward to continued dialogue with those in the Native American community after this postseason concludes.”

The change in tradition came six days after Helsley, a 25-year-old rookie reliever, pitched in Atlanta for the first time. Soon after, Helsley told The St. Louis Post-Dispatch that he thought the cheer was “a misrepresentation of the Cherokee people or Native Americans in general.”

He also said that the chant depicted Native Americans “in this kind of caveman-type people way who aren’t intellectual. They are a lot more than that.”

At a news conference on Tuesday, Mike Shildt, the manager of the Cardinals, said he supported Helsley’s position on the chant.

“I don’t think he’s got anything malicious toward it,” Shildt said. “I think he was just honest about it. And I respect that completely.”

The Braves have faced years of criticism about their nickname as well as the team’s regular use of the chant, and their shift on Wednesday was striking in its swiftness.

The change came toward the end of a season in which the Cleveland Indians stopped using their Chief Wahoo logo. Rob Manfred, the commissioner of Major League Baseball, had urged the team to abandon the caricature that Cleveland first included on its uniforms in 1948.

A spokesman for Major League Baseball did not immediately respond to a request for comment.

The Braves’ decision on Wednesday appeared to have a limited effect, for now, on spectators. Within the first few pitches of Game 5, fans began the chant anyway.