By Scott MacLean
It’s time to break out the bunting, with Major League Baseball putting the long, arduous 162-game regular season schedule in the rear view mirror and switching into playoff mode. That starts with the wildcard play-in games, then onto the 5-game Divisional Series and the best-of-seven League Championship Series and finally the World Series itself.
With MLB finally reverting to the idea that the team with the best record in the Majors should have home-field rather than which league won the midseason All-Star game the playoffs start with road to the Word Series going through Los Angeles. The Dodgers are armed with the game’s biggest payroll but have been led all year by two of their lower earners; shortstop and current Rookie of the Year Corey Seager and this year’s front runner for the same award in first baseman/outfielder Cody Bellinger who hit an NL-record 39 home runs in his debut campaign. With their search for a title stretching back to 1988 they haven’t been afraid to add to their already stacked roster either, trading for pitcher Yu Darvish (from Texas) and veteran outfielder Curtis Granderson from the NY Mets; but that didn’t stop them suffering something of a Sports Illustrated curse, going 1-16 in the immediate aftermath of going on the cover. They still won 104 games though.
The Dodgers first-round opponents will be decided Thursday NZ time with the wildcard game between two of their West division foes in Phoenix; the Arizona Diamondbacks (93-69) and Colorado Rockies (87-75). Both clubs will fancy their chances against the Dodgers should they progress; Arizona paced by their star in first baseman Paul Goldschmidt, outfielder J.D. Martinez (acquired in an early trade from Detroit) and unheralded southpaw Robbie Ray while Colorado will lean on perhaps the game’s best all-round player in Nolan Arenado and his sidekick Charlie Blackmon.
My pick: Arizona wins the wildcard game, but Los Angeles takes the series in 4.
The other Divisional matchup is already set, with the Washington Nationals (97-65) hosting the defending champion Chicago Cubs (92-70). Both clubs have familiar rosters and things to prove; Washington that they can win a playoff series after falling at this first hurdle every time so far, and Chicago that last year’s fairy-tale breaking of the 108-year ‘curse’ was no fluke. The ‘Nats’ will be hoping that their superstar Bryce Harper is healthy enough to play after missing much of the last six weeks, but have depth with both bat and ball and a veteran manager in former Giants and Reds skipper Dusty Baker. The Cubs seem to have struggled to shake off a malaise all season, but are still armed with many of the players that went all the way last year including young sluggers Anthony Rizzo and Kris Bryant, the reigning league MVP.
My pick: Nationals get it done in 5 games
League Championship pick: Dodgers beat the Nationals in 5 games.
Over on the junior circuit the club with all the momentum are the defending pennant winners the Cleveland Indians. Looking to go one step further than last year’s heart-breaking Game 7 loss to the Cubs (and notwithstanding that they lost a 3-1 lead in the series too) the Tribe were always in control of the Central division but put that beyond doubt by ripping off an AL record 22-game winning streak across August and September en route to going 102-60. Manager Terry Francona already has two rings from his time in Boston and knows how to get the best out of his players; a group that includes star shortstop Francisco Lindor, everyday utilityman Jose Ramirez, offseason signing slugger Edwin Encarnacion and their ace pitcher Corey Kluber who has to be the favourite to pick up his second Cy Young award as the league’s best hurler.
Who’ll they’ll face will be found in the postseason opener on Wednesday NZ time with the New York Yankees (91-71) hosting the Minnesota Twins (85-77) in the Bronx in the play-in game. It’s not a vintage superstar-laden Yankees roster, but no one won more games in their home park this year than they did (51) and no one else has Aaron Judge, the imposing super-rookie who set a new MLB rookie record with 52 home runs surpassing the 30-year old number of 49 by Mark McGwire. Shortstop Didi Gregorius – who visited New Zealand back in January – broke Derek Jeter’s record for most homers by a Yankees shortstop as well. The Twins have set records themselves, becoming the first club to go from losing more than 100 games one year, to making the playoffs the next. They’re a team that’s simply gotten the job done despite being devoid of star names, but one they do have is power-hitting second baseman Brian Dozier while outfielder Byron Buxton is one on the rise after a tough start to his career.
My pick: Yankees win the wildcard game, but Indians sweep the series following.
In the other bracket the Houston Astros (101-61) have home field for their series against the Boston Red Sox (93-69); by quirk of the schedule the two teams have just finished the regular season against each other and go straight into the playoffs. Houston were the frontrunners for most of the season until the Indians winning-run caught them, but are still good odds to lift the franchise’s first ever title. Loaded up on homegrown talent such as infielders Carlos Correa, Alex Bregman, and diminutive hit machine and MVP contender Jose Altuve, they’ve also made a bunch of astute veteran acquistions including the biggest splash at the trade deadline when they acquired pitcher Justin Verlander (aka the guy engaged to Kate Upton) from Detroit. Like the Cubs, Boston – your scribes club – took a while to get going and are still adjusting to life without their talisman David Ortiz, evidenced by the fact that only three teams hit fewer home runs this season. Now more oriented towards pitching and defense – Ortiz’s retirement and the blockbuster trade for Chris Sale the catalysts for that – they’re a savvy, veteran club with a knack for not knowing when they’re beaten.
My pick: Astros in 5 games.
League Championship pick: Indians over the Astros in a seven-game classic.
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