By Scott MacLean
After 162 regular season games, the MLB Postseason kicks off Wednesday our time with the wildcard play-in games. Introduced a few seasons ago, these one-off games have a two-fold intention; firstly to give another team in each league a postseason chance and therefore keep interest up, but also to put greater onus on winning the division by asking teams to play an extra game; though that didn’t stop either the San Francisco Giants or Kansas City Royals reaching the World Series last year with both coming through the wildcard game.
From there it moves into the best-of-five Divisional and best-of-seven League Championship rounds, before the last two standing meet in the World Series.
Wildcard game: Houston Astros at New York Yankees
After flying high most of the season, the Astros staggered into the playoffs after a poor September that saw them past by Texas for the division title and almost caught by the LA Angels and Minnesota Twins for the wildcard. They’ll start their ace Dallas Keuchel, but can their lineup of sluggers make enough contact, and their poor road record (33-48) is a concern. The Yankees have plenty of players with postseason experience, but also stumbled down the stretch and will be without C.C. Sabathia who has checked into rehab for alcohol abuse. Masahiro Tanaka will take the mound for them.
Toronto Blue Jays vs Texas Rangers
The Jays return to the postseason for the first time since their second title in 1993, ending the longest playoff drought in North American sports, while the Rangers, under first-year manager Jeff Banister, made an unexpected surge to run down the Astros for the divisional title. The Jays offense is loaded, with Jason Donaldson, Joey Bautista, and Edwin Encarnacion, all smacking 39+ home runs, while defensively Kevin Pillar will seemingly let nothing past him in centrefield. Texas aren’t slouches with the bat either, getting bounceback seasons from both Prince Fielder and Shin-Soo Choo, while 21-year-old infielder Rougned Odor has had a terrific second half. However, it’s on the pitching side both sides made the biggest in-season moves; Toronto pulling off a blockbuster trade for lefty David Price from Detroit (one of two big moves, the other being for shortstop Troy Tulowitzki), and recently got Marcus Stroman back after he tore knee ligaments in spring training; while the Rangers got Cole Hamels from Philadelphia. Price and Hamels will face off in Game 1.
Kansas City Royals vs wildcard winner
The Royals rolled through the season, claiming their first divisional crown since 1985 and first time with the AL’s best record since 1977. The defending AL champs have stuck to the same formula that nearly took them all the way last year – contact hitting, terrific defense, and a lockdown bullpen. Outfielder Lorenzo Cain has emerged as a bona fide star with his bat catching up to his defense and versatile veteran Ben Zobrist has delivered since being acquired from Oakland. The issues may be on the pitching side, with Yordano Ventura being inconsistent all season, trade acquisition Johnny Cueto struggling after switching leagues, and the loss of closer Greg Holland to a torn elbow ligament he may have pitched with for the past year.
Wildcard game: Chicago Cubs at Pittsburgh Pirates
Whatever happens, a team that won 97 regular season games will be going home after this one after both clubs trailed the St Louis Cardinals home in the NL Central. Pittsburgh are no strangers to this game, having played (and lost) the previous two, and will start their best pitcher in Gerrit Cole against the Cubs young lineup anchored by Anthony Rizzo and rookie Kris Bryant. The issue for their lineup – featuring Andrew McCutchen – will be dealing with Cubs starter Jake Arrieta who has been simply out of his mind for the last two-thirds of the season, with a 0.86 earned run average over his last 20 starts (including tossing a no-hitter) and a 0.75 ERA in five starts against Pittsburgh this season.
Los Angeles Dodgers vs New York Mets
With all their financial resources the Dodgers are expected to be here, but the same can’t be said for the Mets, who hung with the spluttering preseason World Series pick Washington Nationals before blowing past them with a torrid August. LA are a much changed club from even the start of the season, but can still count on their twin aces in Zach Greinke and reigning league MVP Clayton Kershaw, with the latter having plenty to prove after a poor October last year. The Mets are also loaded with pitching, with Matt Harvey, Jacob deGrom, and rookie Noah Syndergaard heading their rotation, while outfielder Yoenis Cespedes has been hitting homers for fun since being acquired from Detroit at the deadline.
St Louis Cardinals vs wildcard winner
The Cards were the only team to reach 100 wins, and could have had more had they not lifted the pedal somewhat at the end of September. They’ll face a team they’re familiar with, with the Pirates and Cubs both being divisional foes. Manager Mike Matheny has done a masterful job with his club, having lost ace Adam Wainwright to an Achilles rupture (though Wainwright could yet be used out of the bullpen in the playoffs) and sluggers Matt Holliday and Matt Adams for lengthy periods, coaxing performance out of the likes of Randall Grichuk and Stephen Piscotty instead, and getting terrific years from Matt Carpenter and pending free agent Jason Heyward. Their bullpen, anchored by hulking closer Trevor Rosenthal, has been amongst the best in baseball while the rotation didn’t seem to miss a beat despite Wainwright’s absence. John Lackey, a World Series winner with the Angels in 2002 and the Red Sox in 2013, will take the mound for Game 1.
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