ARI SHAPIRO, HOST:
Major League Baseball is getting close to the World Series. And right now it looks like it could be a surprising matchup. The Atlanta Braves are leading the LA Dodgers in their National League Championship series. And in the American League, the small-market Tampa Bay Rays look ready to sweep the once-mighty Houston Astros, thanks in part to some bizarre errors by one of Houston's most reliable players. NPR sports correspondent Tom Goldman is with us now to explain.
TOM GOLDMAN, BYLINE: Hi, Ari.
SHAPIRO: So let's start with the Braves and the Dodgers. Atlanta leads two games to none. How surprising is that?
GOLDMAN: Surprising not shocking - Atlanta is a very good team, and the Braves won their division the last three seasons. But LA was one of the Goliaths going into these playoffs, a team that's been close in recent years to winning its first World Series title since 1988. Now, LA had the advantage in starting pitching going into the series, but ace pitcher Clayton Kershaw was hit with back spasms that kept him out of yesterday's Game 2. Certainly, LA can come back, but Kershaw needs to get healthy. LA has to assert that supposed edge in starting pitching.
SHAPIRO: Now, in the American League series, the Houston Astros have been a dominant and controversial team for the last few years. But Tampa Bay has been the dominant team in this matchup. How are the Rays doing this?
GOLDMAN: Yeah, with good hitting, good pitching and some tremendous defense - I mean, Houston keeps hitting the ball hard, but Tampa Bay players keep getting to the right spots to make the outs. You know, Ari, baseball fans love this Rays story, a small-market team doing big things in the postseason. For the last decade, Tampa Bay's team payroll has hovered near the bottom of baseball's 30 teams. They don't have lots of money, but they do a really good job of scouting and knowing exactly who their players are and how they fit together. And now they're one win away from their first World Series appearance in 12 years.
SHAPIRO: So that's what Tampa is doing right. But Houston's also doing some things wrong. One of the team's best players is having big problems on the field. Let's listen to this clip from FOX Sports.
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UNIDENTIFIED ANNOUNCER: Lowe pulls one into that shift, throw to second - and a bad throw. Altuve throws it into left field - and another throwing error.
SHAPIRO: Tom, explain what's happening in that clip.
GOLDMAN: (Laughter) Poor second baseman Jose Altuve - he may have what they call in baseball and other sports the yips, and they've failed many a lesser player. Three times in the series, Altuve has basically lost the ability to throw the ball accurately, even short distances. He's been bouncing it in the dirt. And two of those three bad throws have contributed to Houston losing. There are many who say this and the Astros losing the last three games is karmic payback for their sign-stealing scandal in 2017, the year they won the World Series. But I don't know, Ari. You have to feel sorry for Altuve. He's a popular player, smallest guy on the field, who does great things most of the time.
SHAPIRO: Totally - so what makes something like that happen to a great player besides karmic payback?
GOLDMAN: Right - often fear, fear of failure, of not being able to perform. I mean, it can happen in anything, but we see it most dramatically in sports. It happened to me, Ari, when I was a competitive tennis player many years ago. When the ball would go to my - really, when the ball would go to my forehand side, my mind would go, uh-oh, and my arm would shake. And I couldn't execute a forehand, what had been a pretty simple skill. The key to fixing it, if you can, is banishing the fear, stopping those nasty voices and locking back into the present, which is where elite athletes spend most of their time. I'm sure Altuve is being counselled or at least telling himself to do just that to get back into that flow state athletes talk about when they're simply doing and not thinking.
SHAPIRO: That is NPR sports correspondent and former competitive tennis player Tom Goldman.
GOLDMAN: (Laughter) And psychologist - you're welcome. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.