After a long, er, two-month slog, the MLB postseason is finally here. Yesterday was the final day of the 2020 regular season, and the newly-minted Wild Card Series begins on Tuesday. It may not be the October baseball that we’re used to, but it’s what we’ve got, so we might as well enjoy it. And what do you know?
The Reds are in!
Yes, the long-embattled Redlegs are in the postseason fold for the first time since 2013, when they lost the Wild Card game to the Pirates. This year, they made the cut by virtue of the expanded format despite finishing 3rd in the N.L. Central behind the Cubs and Cardinals. So if you want to put an asterisk next to this one, go ahead—but remember that in a regular season, we’d scarcely have sniffed June at this point, and the Cubs weren’t exactly running away with the thing. It makes sense if you think about it hard enough!
On the final regular-season MLB Roundup, we’re going over the happenings of the last week and getting you ready for the first round of the playoffs with matchup-by-matchup analysis in both leagues. Come for the fool-hardy predictions, stay for the Joey Votto jokes!
A.L. Matchups: Late Seeding Shuffle
The eight playoff-bound teams in the American League have essentially been locked in for a few weeks now. But the order of those teams, not so much. How chaotic has the seeding shuffle been in the last week? Five of the eight teams swapped spots since we talked last week. All games begin on Tuesday.
#1 Tampa Bay Rays vs. #8 Toronto Blue Jays
While most of the A.L. East teams saw their expectations go up in smoke this year (see: Boston), the Rays (40-20) were as steady as can be. One of only two teams in baseball to reach the 40-win plateau in the shortened season, they won the division by seven games over the Yankees, the largest differential of any first-place team. GM Erik Neander put together a humming machine built to go the distance this year, fueled by a lights-out pitching staff and a lineup full of flexible pieces for Manager Kevin Cash to move around as he sees fit (and he’s done it damn well). They clinched the division on Sept. 23 for the first time since 2010.
For their opponent, the Toronto Blue Jays of Buffalo (32-28), this year’s playoff appearance is well ahead of schedule. They last made it to October in 2016, and have been rebuilding ever since. How they got here is a surprise, too: young studs like Cavan Biggio and Bo Bichette helped, but the driving force behind the club’s success has been veteran starters and a terrific bullpen. They clinched on Thursday.
Prediction: All respect to the Baby ‘Jays, but there won’t be any Buffalo magic in St. Petersburg. Rays in two.
#2 Oakland A’s vs. #7 Chicago White Sox
The biggest loser in this week’s standings shuffle was the White Sox (35-25), who managed to fall from first place a week ago all the way down to seventh on Sunday, thanks in part to a four-game sweep in Cleveland last week. Still, they have the horses to make a run. If they can make it past Oakland, a likely matchup with division rival Minnesota awaits, with whom they split the season series 5-5. That lineup is still stupid fun to watch.
Meanwhile, the A’s (36-24) have spent the year exactly how they like it, which is to say, under the radar. While everyone predicted the Astros to run away with the A.L. West once again, it was the A’s who did the running. Like the Sox, they struggled a bit down the stretch but still won the division by seven games—their first such achievement since 2013. They clinched on Tuesday.
Prediction: Despite the seeding difference, these teams are remarkable well-matched. The difference? A’s superstar Matt Chapman is out for the year, while Sox slugger Jose Abreu is healthy (and the presumptive league MVP). White Sox in three.
#3 Minnesota Twins vs. #6 Houston Astros
While the White Sox were tumbling this week, it was the Twins (36-24) who took advantage. They leaped from fifth to third, snatched a second consecutive division title, and got out of playing the Yankees in the process. Now they get to host the Astros (29-31) for three games at Target Field, needing just two wins to send the reigning A.L. champions home packing. The Twins are hot, having won four in a row before dropping the series to the Reds this weekend, and they have one of the best offenses in baseball when they’re engaged.
Houston, however, is trending in the opposite direction. One year removed from dominance, they have the worst record of any playoff team, only earning this spot by default thanks to the dumpster fire that is the A.L. West. Shoutout to Dusty Baker for becoming the first manager to lead five different teams to the postseason, but this is not the ‘Stros year.
Prediction: Justin Verlander is not walking through that door. Twins in two.
#4 Cleveland Indians vs. #5 New York Yankees
In July, they were odds-on World Series favorites. By early September, they were in serious jeopardy of missing the entire 16-team playoffs. For the Yankees (33-27), it would seem the truth was somewhere in the middle. Things may not have gone quite as planned, but as October looms, the Yanks have as good a chance as anyone east of Chavez Ravine. Opponents must find a way to shut down the MLB home run leader (Luke Voit) and batting champion (DJ LeMahieu). They clinched the playoffs a week ago.
While we’re talking stats, for the Indians (35-25), you have to start with pitcher Shane Bieber. He started hot back in July and all he’s done since is become the first pitcher since Johan Santana in 2006 to win the A.L. pitching “triple crown”—leading the league in wins, ERA and strikeouts. He’s a virtual lock for the Cy Young award, and he leads a Cleveland rotation that’s disgustingly deep (despite trading Mike Clevinger mid-season). Their offense has improved, too, after one of the worst starts in team history.
This one should be fun.
Prediction: The toughest call yet, but in a short series, pitching rules. Indians in three.
MY FOOL-HARDY ALCS PICK: White Sox over Rays.
N.L. Matchups: Final Day Chaos
When the sun rose on Sunday, ten teams had a shot at making the National League playoffs. Ten. Six had clinched, including the Reds on Saturday night. The Cardinals were in the fifth spot but could have fallen out entirely with a loss (or three, rather). The Brewers, Giants and Phillies were still fighting. But the Cardinals did not lose, and things pretty much fell into place after that. Here’s a breakdown of the National League Wild Card matchups, which begin on Wednesday.
#1 Los Angeles Dodgers vs. #8 Milwaukee Brewers
No team fared better in the last-minute playoff shakeup than the Dodgers (43-17), MLB’s best team. Two weeks ago, I wrote about how L.A. has no one to fear, but if I were them I wouldn’t want to face the Marlins or Reds in the first round. Well, they don’t. Instead, they’ll face the Brewers (29-31), who have one of the worst offenses in baseball, and only snuck in because the Giants and Phillies both lost their last game, too. Don’t expect this rematch of the 2018 NLCS to last quite as long.
One compelling aspect could be the Dodgers gargantuan offense against the Brewers bullpen, which still features lights-out Josh Hader and the possible N.L. Rookie of the Year in Devin Williams. But for that to matter, the games have to be competitive. We’ll see.
Prediction: I’d be genuinely shocked if this thing goes three. Dodgers in two.
#2 Atlanta Braves vs. #7 Cincinnati Reds
Hey! Look at us. Who would’ve thought? (*insert Paul Rudd gif.*) It’s been a long seven years since the last time the Reds made the playoffs in 2013. That’s three managers and five Opening Day starters ago, for those of you keeping track at home. Back in 2013, Barack Obama was president, Andy Dalton had a promising future, and, legend has it, Joey Votto still had hair! (but that’s neither hair nor there). The Reds (31-29) are back now, and with Trevor Bauer, Luis Castillo and Sonny Gray scheduled to take the mound, they certainly have a chance to make some noise.
On the other side are the Braves (35-25), fresh off their third straight N.L. East championship. This is a matchup of starkly contrasting strengths. The Braves had the best offense in baseball in the month of September, led by a trio of sluggers in MVP hopeful Freddie Freeman (1.102 OPS, 3.4 fWAR), Marcell Ozuna (1.067, 2.4) and Ronald Acuña Jr. (.987, 2.4). Meanwhile, the Reds offense remains dead last in the league in team batting average, and is bottom-eight in WAR as well.
However, pitching is a different story. The Reds starting pitchers’ fWAR currently sits at 8.0, the best in baseball. The Braves, whose starting pitching woes are well-documented, are 25th. It may come down to the bullpens, where the Braves would certainly seem to have the edge. But if Bauer comes out and does this, anything is possible.
First pitch in game one is scheduled for noon ET on Wednesday.
Prediction: If the Reds bats can get to Max Fried, it could get interesting. If not? Braves in three.
#3 Chicago Cubs vs. #6 Miami Marlins
Well, well, well. If it isn’t the team that almost got the season canceled after one week. The Marlins (31-29) officially completed their “miracle season” by clinching a playoff spot on Friday night, their first postseason appearance in 17 years. I would do the “back in 2003” thing again, but I feel like you guys get the idea. It was a long time ago. Here’s a more fun fact that you can say to impress your friends: as I mentioned last week, the Marlins have never made the playoffs and lost. They’re 2-for-2 on World Series titles. Is this the year the Fish return to glory?
Probably not. The first team in their way is the Cubs (34-26), who are objectively pretty good. They’re led by resurgent starter Yu Darvish, who put up Cy Young-caliber numbers in 12 starts this year, including leading the league with eight victories. The Cubs offense is also top-5 in N.L. fWAR, and it would seem that the demise of Craig Kimbrel was greatly exaggerated.
Prediction: Top to bottom, the Marlins are worse—and losing Jose Ureña doesn’t help. Cubs in three.
#4 San Diego Padres vs. #5 St. Louis Cardinals
The Padres (37-23) have been waiting for this. They waited fourteen years to make the playoffs again. Then, after clinching on Sept. 20, they waited one more week for the chaotic mess of teams below them in the standings to sort itself out. They have a top-notch rotation (led by Dinelson Lamet and the aforementioned Clevinger), an elite bullpen, and two legitimate MVP candidates roaming the infield in Fernando Tatis, Jr. and Manny Machado. They have the third-best record in MLB this year, but were relegated to the fourth seed because they have the misfortune of playing in the Dodgers’ division. Suffice it to say, they’re ready.
But they have to beat the Cardinals (30-28), and that means devil magic. Jack Flaherty has been inconsistent, but Adam Wainwright has been throwing right out of the fountain of youth with his 3.15 ERA this year, and Paul Goldschmidt has been typically excellent. Yadier Molina is still kicking, too, despite grounding into a spectacularly efficient triple play on Sunday.
Prediction: St. Louis won’t go down quietly, but they should ultimately be out-gunned on the road. Padres in two.
MY FOOL-HARDY NLCS PICK: Padres over Braves
And, last but not least:
MY FOOL-HARDY WORLD SERIES PICK: Padres over White Sox.
Baseball Oddities: Clinch Week Edition
- The N.L. Central is obviously the first division to ever have four teams clinch the playoffs; and the only club left out, the Pittsburgh Pirates, clinched the no. 1 draft pick.
- Another N.L. Central oddity: after the Cardinals 5-2 win over the Brewers, both teams celebrated on the field. Because 2020.
- Twins slugger Miguel Sano joined an exclusive four-man club on Sunday when he finished play with more than twice as many strikeouts (90) as hits (38).
- The Yankees DJ LeMahieu and the White Sox’ Tim Anderson are the first pair of hitters to finish 1-2 in some order in the A.L. batting title race in consecutive seasons since Mickey Mantle and Ted Williams in 1956-57 (H/t @JamesSmyth621 of YES for this gem).
- COMING: Dodgers ace Walker Buehler – activated from the 10-day IL with a blister on Thursday. He’s been tabbed to start game one against the Brewers on Wednesday over Clayton Kershaw.
- GOING: this baseball, off the bat of Ronald Acuña Jr. on Friday in Atlanta – the thing traveled 495 feet, the longest in MLB this season. Sources say the ball was last seen crossing the state line in Florida.