HOUSTON — Lance McCullers Jr. was terrific, Yordan Alvarez delivered and Jose Altuve scored on a nifty slide.
The Houston Astros sure love October.
McCullers pitched scoreless ball into the seventh inning, and the Astros beat the Chicago White Sox 6-1 to open their American League Division Series on Thursday afternoon.
Michael Brantley added two hits and two RBIs as the AL West Division champions showed off their playoff experience in an impressive performance. McCullers allowed four hits in 6 2/3 innings in his eighth career postseason start.
"You get the ball in Game 1 and your team is expecting this from you," McCullers said.
While Houston is in the playoffs for the fifth straight season, having won the World Series in 2017 and having reached the AL Championship Series last year, Chicago is making a second straight playoff appearance for the first time in franchise history. The White Sox lost to the Oakland Athletics in the first round in 2020, when the playoffs were expanded after the regular season was limited to 60 games because of the COVID-19 pandemic.
Game 2 of the best-of-five series is Friday in Houston. The teams also met in the 2005 World Series, with the White Sox sweeping the Astros for the title.
Thursday marked Houston's eighth straight win in a division series dating to Game 1 of the 2004 NLDS against Atlanta.
"Everyone did their part, did their thing and we came out with a great win," McCullers said.
McCullers, playing the role of staff ace after the Astros lost Gerrit Cole in free agency and Justin Verlander to injury in recent years, struck out four batters and walked none. He set career highs with 13 wins, a 3.16 ERA and 185 strikeouts during the regular season, but he also led the AL with 76 walks.
The 28-year-old didn't allow a hit against Chicago until Yoán Moncada singled with one out in the fourth. The right-hander left to a standing ovation after giving up consecutive singles with two outs in the seventh. He waved to the cheering fans just before entering the dugout.
"The numbers speak for themselves," White Sox manager Tony La Russa said. "We didn't do much with him."
Alvarez hit an RBI double in the third and a solo homer in the fifth. Manager Dusty Baker is thrilled to have the 2019 AL rookie of the year back this season after he missed all but two games last year after surgery on both knees.
"You don't know when he's going to leave the yard, and he's going to drive in some big runs," Baker said. "So, yeah life wasn't too pleasant last year without Yordan."
The 24-year-old Alvarez watched Houston's 2020 playoff run on television.
"To be able to be back with the team and be able to help it out is really special for me," he said through a translator.
Altuve wowed the crowd of 40,497 when he slid home and slapped the back of the plate just ahead of Yasmani Grandal's tag in the third.
"I think the turn of the game was that slide by Altuve that gave us the momentum," McCullers said.
Chicago starter Lance Lynn was making his first playoff appearance since 2018 after posting a career-low 2.69 ERA this season. But the burly right-hander relies on his fastball, and the Astros are one of the majors' best teams when it comes to hitting that pitch.
Lynn was tagged for five runs and six hits in 3 2/3 innings. Five of the six hits he allowed came off his four-seam or cut fastball.
"I gave up some two-out runs on pitches that could have been better," Lynn said. " I just wasn't making quality pitches when I needed to. That's pretty much it."
Rookie Jake Meyers had two hits and drove in a run for Houston. Brantley chased Lynn with a two-run single.
Chicago got on the board on José Abreu's two-out single in the eighth, but Kendall Graveman retired Grandal on a liner to center for the final out.
Rays' postseason begins with shutout win
ST. PETERSBURG, Fla. — Randy Arozarena became the first player to both hit a home run and steal home in a postseason game, and rookie Shane McClanahan pitched the Tampa Bay Rays to a 5-0 victory over the Boston Red Sox in their ALDS opener Thursday night.
The breakout star of October last year, Arozarena made a breathtaking dash to the plate in the seventh inning for the first straight steal of home in the postseason since Jackie Robinson did it for the Brooklyn Dodgers against Yogi Berra and the New York Yankees in the 1955 World Series, according to the FS1 broadcast.
Nelson Cruz also homered and McClanahan tossed five stellar innings for the Rays.
Wander Franco also sparkled in his playoff debut, delivering an early RBI double that speedy 2020 postseason star Arozarena scored on from first base to get the reigning AL champions off to a quick start.
Arozarena, a 26-year-old Cuban who's still a rookie despite setting a postseason record with 10 homers and 29 hits in 20 games a year ago, capped an exhilarating performance by stealing home on Boston reliever Josh Taylor to make it 5-0 in the seventh inning.
It was the first steal of home in a playoff game since Javier Baez of the Chicago Cubs did it against the Los Angeles Dodgers in Game 1 of the 2016 National League Championship Series.
If not Arozarena's flashy, crowd-pleasing play and the hitting of the 20-year-old Franco, who was promoted to the majors in June, then McClanahan 's pitching may well have been the story of the night.
The 24-year-old left-hander, who made his MLB debut during Tampa Bay's run to last year's World Series, scattered five hits and struck out three in his first career playoff start.
Cruz, acquired at the trade deadline to add a potent bat to the middle of the lineup, hit his 18th career postseason homer for a 3-0 lead in the third inning. Arozarena also went deep against right-hander Nick Pivetta with the bases empty in the fifth for his 11th homer in 21 career postseason games.
With one of the lowest payrolls in baseball and a roster lacking household names, the Rays are in the playoffs for a third straight year after winning a franchise-record 100 games and their second straight AL East Division title.
Rookie right-hander Shane Baz, a silver medalist at this past summer's Tokyo Olympics who began the season in Class AA and made his MLB debut in late September, will start Game 2 for the Rays on Friday.
The Red Sox, who beat the New York Yankees at home in a wild-card matchup to advance to the ALDS, will counter with lefty Chris Sale, who returned from Tommy John surgery in mid-August and went 5-1 with a 3.16 ERA over nine starts down the stretch.
Boston lefty Eduardo Rodriguez took the loss in Game 1, allowing two runs, two hits and two walks in 1 2/3 innings. Pivetta spared manager Alex Cora from having to expend the bullpen by working 4 2/3 innings in relief.
Franco chased Pivetta with his second double of the night, an opposite-field hit to left that sent Arozarena scampering from first to third base in the seventh. Four pitches later, Arozarena took advantage of Taylor not paying attention to him and took off for home.
The victory continues Tampa Bay's recent mastery of the Red Sox.
The Rays lost four straight to Boston before winning 11 of the final 15 meetings between the teams during the regular season. And they wasted no time hopping on Rodriguez this time, using their speed to turn a leadoff walk to Arozarena, Franco's double to left-center and Yandy Diaz's two-out, infield single into a quick 2-0 lead.
Cruz homered off one of the catwalks that support the roof at Tropicana Field, setting off another thunderous ovation from a sellout crowd of 27,419 that waved yellow towels and included college basketball analyst Dick Vitale, a Rays season ticket holder who threw out the ceremonial first pitch.
Franco and Cruz are the two biggest additions to this year's Tampa Bay lineup, which ranked second in the majors with 857 runs. With the 20-year-old shortstop and 41-year-old slugger, the Rays scored 263 runs in 43 games.
The duo became the second set of teammates to each have a hit in a postseason game when one player was 20 or younger and the other was at least 40. They joined Manny Machado and Jim Thome, who did it in 2012 for the Baltimore Orioles, according to ESPN.
Cruz, meanwhile, became the second-oldest player to homer in the postseason after 43-year-old Julio Franco for the Atlanta Braves in 2001.