The grind is over. All 162 have been played, and now the stage has been set. The MLB playoffs are quite possibly the best postseason in all of sports.
Last season we saw the Kansas City Royals go from being just-about-eliminated in the Wild Card game, to Game 7 of the World Series and one swing of the bat away from winning it with a man on third. It was also their first time in the postseason in 30-years, the last time they did, they won the World Series.
They return to October with one of the best seasons in franchise history.
Since the changing of the format in 2012, the MLB postseason received a boost in overall playoff intensity. The induction of the one-game Wild Card game completely changed the overall landscape of the postseason. Last season we saw both the Giants and Royals advance to the World Series after winning their Wild Card games, proving that any team can win it.
Each of the four teams this season has been among the best of baseball, making it all the more possible that it could happen again this season.
AL Wild Card
Even though the Yankees practically surrendered to the surging Blue Jays for the AL East title in late July and early August, for the first time all season their elderly roster may play a vital role in the AL Wild Card Game against the Astros come Tuesday.
Speaking of the Astros, they were one of the biggest surprises of the MLB this season, led by their array of young talent in SS Carlos Correa and SP Dallas Keuchel. You won’t find a more polar opposite in the postseason than Yankees-Astros.
The Astros rely on their transcendent youth while the Yankees rely on an arsenal of MLB veterans that know all too well about the joy and heartbreak of the postseason. Alex Rodriguez is going to watch Carlos Correa trot out to shortstop and realize that he is looking at himself 20-years ago, a wide-eyed teenager on the MLB’s biggest stage.
The Yankees do in fact have a few new fresh faces that will be featured in the lineup tonight. One of the faces, 1st baseman Greg Bird has been quite impressive thus far.
It’ll be Tanaka vs. Keuchel, with the biggest storyline being how will Keuchel pitch on the road, where he was 5-8 with a 3.77 ERA, as opposed to his ridiculous 15-0, 1.46 ERA in Houston. Meanwhile, Tanaka will get his first postseason start in the Bronx, where Yankee Stadium hasn’t seen postseason baseball since 2012.
If Tanaka can get it to the 6th or 7th inning with a lead, the Yanks will bring out the Betances and Miller, which has quickly turned into one of the best setup man and closer tandems in baseball. They pretty much don’t lose when the ball is handed over to their bullpen.
Alex Rodriguez might be the Yankees best offensive hope heading tonight (.250, 33 HRs, 86 RBIs) as the majority of the lineup (and the offense as a whole) has struggled down the stretch.
2B Jose Altuve and SS Carlos Correa in my mind are already the best offensive and defensive duo in the majors, considering Correa just made his debut in June. They could easily do this to the Yankees again:
The last time the Astros were in the postseason they were in the National League (and made it to the World Series), when they were swept by the White Sox in the 2005. The organization has done a complete 180 over the past two seasons, where they lost a total of 203 games.
Note: For any Yankee/MLB fan of my age or younger (19 or 20) this will be the first postseason in your lifetime that the Yankees will not field any one of these players: Derek Jeter, Bernie Williams, Andy Pettitte or Jorge Posada, also known as the Core Four.
NL Wild Card
Winners of 98 and 97 games respectively, the NL Central was undoubtedly the best division in baseball, with one 100-game winner (Cards) and two teams in the high-90’s in win totals. It may not be fair that these two teams will have to play in a winner-take-all matchup, but that’s the beauty of this format.
For the third straight season, the Pirates will host the NL Wild Card, and have been on both ends of outcome. Gerrit Cole went 3-1 against the Cubs this season (including a career record of 8-1) and it’s mostly due in part to him being able to shut down Anthony Rizzo and Kris Bryant, who are a 9-26 against him in 2015.
Heading into the All-Star break, the Pirates looked like the best team in baseball, at 53-35. In fact, the Pirates owned the best record from May 9th on (85-48). Yet, September was a different story, where they only went 17-13, but it’s a toss up when it comes to whether momentum plays a vital role in a team’s postseason success.
The offense will live and die with the perennial MVP candidate in Andrew McCutchen, who had another stellar season, hitting .292/.401/.488 with 23 HRs, 93 RBIs and while he hasn’t been a huge factor on the base-paths as in years past (stole 11 bases this season) his speed may change the game that will surely be a pitchers duel.
And then there are the darlings from the Northside of Chicago. A team and organization that would have been content with being .500 this season, well, ended up winning 97-games.
You could give new manager Joe Maddon plenty of the credit, as he deserves it. You could give it to Jake Arrieta, who has been in “MLB slugfest on-fire mode” since the All-Star break, the likely Cy Young winner. Or how about those young kids the entire city has been waiting for? Bryant, Baez, Schwarber, Russell and Soler have all had their fair share of moments and now will be the center of the attention come tomorrow.
The point being, it has been a collective effort, from Epstein to Rizzo, Maddon to Lester. Even when the Cubs last made it to the playoffs in ’08 as the top team in the NL, the fan base has never felt this good about a team as long as anyone could remember.
Regardless, questions loom. Will the youth finally show in the limelight Wednesday night? Will it still be same-old, same-old, for a franchise that has been through nearly every heartbreaking situation there is? Will Bartman be in attendance?
I don’t want be the one to tell Cubs fan how to feel come tomorrow night, whether to be the typical pessimist to simmer expectations or be in complete, “This is the year mode,” here are the quick facts:
- The Cubs went 48-33 on the road this season, their best road record since 1945, the last time they made it to the World Series.
- Whether you believe in momentum heading into the postseason or not, the Cubs have won 8 straight, as they came within one loss of the Pirates to have this came at Wrigley instead.
- As mentioned before, Jake Arrieta has been immortal since the All-Star break, with a 0.75 ERA. That’s the best in the history of baseball. (they’ve been playing the All-Star Game since 1933)
- Magic Number: 12
The Chicago Cubs are 12 victories away from a World Series. To the Northside faithful, they probably don’t even want to think about it. The last time they reached in the World Series in ’45, WWII had just ended.
In 1908, the last time they won, the world then seems like a galaxy in a land far, far, away. It might get overstated, but seriously if you think about the generations that have come and gone since the last time the Cubs won it, it’s hard to fathom.
Best of all, Joe Maddon and his young guns could care less about the history they’re up against.
They just care about winning ball-games.
All the more reason to believe, that maybe this year is finally the year.
There’s nothing like October baseball.