Major League Baseball’s postseason starts today with the first of the two wildcard play-in games, all heading towards the World Series later this month. It’s an impressive field, featuring some of baseball’s most storied teams and some lesser lights looking to make a big splash.
The National League starts things off after the unusual need for not one, but two “Game 163’s” to decide division titles after teams finished tied. Fortunately neither team that lost – the Chicago Cubs and Colorado Rockies – were eliminated straight away, but face off in the postseason-opening wildcard play-in game at the Cubs’ Wrigley Field. The Cubs (95-68) might be a little deflated having coughed up their division lead to miss out, but still have most of the core that took them to the curse-busting 2016 World Series crown. Second baseman Javier Baez had a breakout season and is in the MVP conversation, Jon Lester remains an effective leader on the pitching staff, and former MVP Kris Bryant has recently returned from injury to pair up with his buddy Anthony Rizzo in the heart of their lineup. The Rockies (91-72) are in their 25th season and although they have a World Series appearance to their credit (in 2007) they’ve often been mired in futility as they’ve tried to find a formula that works playing half their games at altitude. With this being their second consecutive season making the playoffs they might have found that with pitcher Kyle Freeland, who’ll start the wildcard game, a big part of that. Stars Nolan Arenado, Charlie Blackmon, and Trevor Story will have to deliver in the lineup too.
The winner faces the Milwaukee Brewers, who beat the Cubs in the Central division tiebreaker game leading to the prospect of a rematch. The Brew Crew (96-67) are a team loaded with power hitters including former MVP Ryan Braun, which can be a risky strategy in the postseason one that can turn or blow open games quickly. They’re paced by offseason acquisition Christian Yelich who has been red-hot the last 6 weeks and is the prohibitive NL MVP favourite after nearly winning the Triple Crown. All-star reliever Josh Hader, a hard-throwing lefty, is a fun watch as well.
The matchup that is set already has defending NL Champs the Los Angeles Dodgers against the upstart Atlanta Braves. The Dodgers (92-71) started the season horribly – perhaps a hangover from last year’s World Series defeat – before going on a tear and ultimately win their division in the tiebreaker game over the Rockies. They’re a stacked team with almost limitless resources, something evidenced by the fact they went out and got superstar Manny Machado midseason with their own star shortstop, Corey Seager, already out for the season after elbow surgery before the campaign got underway. Their ace pitcher Clayton Kershaw needs to sort out his postseason woes, but they won’t lack for offence with current Rookie of the Year Cody Bellinger, Justin Turner, Machado, the enigmatic Yasiel Puig and the reclamation story of slugger Max Muncy all in their lineup as they search for a first title in 30 years. The Braves aren’t quite the juggernaut they were in the 1990’s, at least not yet, but have put together a solid campaign in their new ballpark in the Atlanta suburbs. First baseman Freddie Freeman and pitcher Julio Teheran are their lynchpins, but have a couple of budding stars in 20-year old outfielder (and Rookie of the Year favourite) Ronald Acuna Jr, and 21-year old infielder Ozzie Albies who surely won’t be overawed by the playoff atmosphere.
Over in the American League the wildcard game is between the New York Yankees and the Oakland Athletics. The Yankees (100-62) lived up to their “Bronx Bombers” moniker, setting a new season record for most home runs, and doing so despite slugger Aaron Judge missing two months. Judge, offseason trade acquisition Giancarlo Stanton, and breakout Rookie of the Year candidate Miguel Andujar will pace their attack, but questions loom of the consistency of their pitching corps. The Athletics (97-65) have done things their way (aka “Moneyball”), with a payroll that’s US$100million less than the Yankees , but are the real surprises of the season with Free bets. They don’t have “name” players, but do have the season’s home run leader in Khris Davis, a breakout star in Matt Chapman, and the vastly underrated Jed Lowrie.
The winner of that game then faces off against the Boston Red Sox, who went 108-54 to lead the Majors and set a new franchise record for wins in a season, leading to the salivating prospect of a best-of-five version of one of sports’ biggest rivalries (“The Yanks and the Sawks”). Signing the premier offseason free agent J.D. Martinez paid huge dividends and filled the void of the retired David Oritz, and his partnership with MVP frontrunner Mookie Betts is key. However they have flaws in their infield defence with Dustin Pedroia missing almost the whole year, and in the bullpen getting to closer Craig Kimbrel. There’s also question marks over the health of ace pitcher Chris Sale, while counterpart David Price has a woeful postseason record for his career.
On the other side of the bracket the defending champion Houston Astros face off against the Cleveland Indians. The Astros (103-59) are possibly even better than last year’s team, still based around the Jose Altuve/Carlos Correa/George Springer trio, but with third baseman Alex Bregman having had an MVP-caliber year and having added the hard throwing Gerrit Cole to their rotation alongside Justin Verlander and Dallas Keuchel; and maybe have benefitted from being pushed hard by the Athletics in their division. The Indians (91-71) have their own stars in infielders Jose Ramirez, Francisco Lindor, slugger Edwin Encarnacion, and ace pitcher Corey Kluber but also competed in baseball’s weakest division (Detroit, Chicago White Sox, and Kansas City all lost more than 97 games), and struggled at times against the other big guns. That said anything can happen in a short series.
The winners of the Divisional series move onto the best-of-seven League Championships, where those winners will move onto the World Series, scheduled to start on October 24 (NZ time).
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