By Scott MacLean
Major League Baseball’s postseason gets underway today (NZ Time) with the American League wildcard game, followed tomorrow by its National League equivalent and the Division Series getting underway after that.
The winners of the best-of-five Divisional series then meet in the best-of-seven League Championship round, before the last two standing meet in the best-of-seven World Series.
Wildcard game: Toronto Blue Jays vs Baltimore Orioles
After facing each other 19 times during the season, the two AL East rivals will go at it one more time. This could turn into a slugfest; Baltimore hit more home runs than anyone this season with Manny Machado (37), Chris Davis (38), and Mark Trumbo (the major’s leader with 47) all prodigious, plus Adam Jones hit 29. Toronto are no slouches themselves with Josh Donaldson (37) and Edwin Encarnacion (42) also among the league leaders, as are Jose Bautista and Troy Tulowitzki. The Jays will start the diminutive Marcus Stroman on the mound, while the O’s will go with Chris Tillman, and if they lead late expect the excellent Zach Britton to close it out for them.
The Red Sox (your scribes team) are back in the postseason, fuelled by an offense that lead the majors in runs scored and taking the AL East title. The heart and soul of that lineup is “Big Papi” David Ortiz who has put up mammoth numbers (.315 average, 38 homers and 48 doubles) for a 40-year old playing his final season, but is ably backed by youngsters Mookie Betts, Xander Bogaerts, and Jackie Bradley Jr, and the team got nice bounceback seasons from veterans Hanley Ramirez and Dustin Pedroia. Rick Porcello’s fine season (22-4, 3.15 earned run average) gets him the Game 1 start ahead of big free-agent signing David Price, who himself has to be better than his 0-7 postseason record suggests. The Sox bullpen has been an issue, but the return of Koji Uehara seems to have stabilised that.
The Indians (aka ‘the Tribe’) have overcome all sorts of adversity to win the Central division, losing several key players for long periods, with probably their best player, Michael Brantley, playing in just a handful of games. Their way has been led by their young infield pair of shortstop Francisco Lindor and third baseman Jose Ramirez, while first baseman Mike Napoli (who played for Boston the previous three seasons) had a terrific year (34 HR, 101 RBI). Arguably their rotation would be at least the equal of Boston’s, but late season injuries to both Danny Salazar and Carlos Carrasco are significant blows. Much could depend on the moves made by their manager Terry Francona, who is no stranger to Boston having managed them from 2004 to 2011 and led them to the 2004 and 2007 World Series titles.
Texas Rangers vs wildcard winner
For all of Boston’s prowess, it’s actually Texas who wound up with the best record in the AL en route to retaining the West division. Like Boston they have a respected veteran of their own in the seemingly ageless Adrian Beltre (.300 average, 32 HR, 102 RBI, outstanding defense at third base) who is searching for his first World Series ring. The Rangers were particularly aggressive on the trade front, bringing in veterans Carlos Beltran, Carlos Gomez, and Jonathan Lucroy during the year, on top of the cagey signing of Ian Desmond before it. Pitching could be their issue with Cole Hamels their only consistently effective starter all season though Japanese star Yu Darvish recently returned from Tommy John surgery, and it will be interesting how quickly manager Jeff Banister goes to his bullpen during games.
Wildcard game: New York Mets vs San Francisco Giants
Of the 10 teams still standing, these two are easily in the worst shape of all. The defending NL champion Mets are all banged up with several key parts of their team already out for the year and their best still standing – Noah Syndergaard and Yoenis Cespedes – are playing through injuries. The Giants have likewise somewhat backed into the playoff picture; after having the best record in the game at the All-Star break they slumped badly and in the end only barely recovered to hold off the St Louis Cardinals for the last place. In contrast to the fireworks the American League game could provide, this could be a very low-scoring affair. Syndergaard will start for the Mets, while Madison Bumgarner gets the ball for the Giants.
Washington Nationals vs Los Angeles Dodgers
Two teams that expect to be here meet in what could be the pick of the matchups. The Nationals big star, reigning MVP Bryce Harper, has had a down year but remains a big threat, with the slack in his production taken up by Daniel Murphy (.347 average, 25 HR, 104 RBI) who will look to replicate last year’s postseason exploits (when he was with the Mets). The loss of catcher Wilson Ramos to an ACL tear in the last week of the season is a big loss though. On the pitching side Max Scherzer (20-7, 2.96 ERA) and Tanner Roark give a nice 1-2 punch, while midseason acquisition Mark Melancon has stabilised what was a shaky bullpen. Manager Dusty Baker has been here many times before as well.
The Dodgers have rattled through so many players it’s hard to keep up. They are a veteran club though, with a roster full of guys such as Chase Utley, Howie Kendricks, and Adrian Gonzalez who have been on this stage before, even if a rookie (albeit one likely to be voted Rookie of the Year in a landslide) in shortstop Corey Seager (.308 average, 26 HR) has been their best player all year. The Dodgers have used no fewer than 15 different starting pitchers but it’s their big gun, Clayton Kershaw, that first-year manager Dave Roberts will turn to start Game 1 with Rich Hill, acquired at the trade deadline from Oakland, likely to follow in Game 2.
Chicago Cubs vs wildcard winner
Is this the year the Curse gets broken? The Cubs last won the World Series all the way back in 1908 and arguably this year’s team is as good as they’ve had since. Their offense is paced by young stars Anthony Rizzo (32 HR, 109 RBI), Kris Bryant (39 HR, 102 RBI) and Addison Russell (21 HR, 93 RBI), with experience provided by veterans like Dexter Fowler, David Ross, and Ben Zobrist who won a title last year with Kansas City. Veteran Jon Lester (who won titles in 2007 and 2013 with Boston and went 19-5 with a 2.44 ERA this year) heads a rotation with breakout star Kyle Hendricks, Jake Arrieta and John Lackey to follow. Manager Joe Madden is perhaps the best unconventional thinker in the game and renowned for coaxing the best of his considerable arsenal of role players where Javier Baez and Jorge Soler are key contributors, but it might be how he manages their at times shaky bullpen that determines if ‘Next Year’ finally becomes ‘This Year’ in the Windy City.
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