We made it. Once again it is Sunday, and that means that the wonky, breakneck, March Madness-esque first week of the 2020 MLB playoffs is in the books. If you’re like me, you probably spent much of that week planted in front of the TV, too stressed to get up and grab a snack for fear you might miss a game-changing play. Or maybe you didn’t. Full disclosure, I don’t really know what normal people do during the playoffs. Do you guys actually get a healthy amount of sleep?
Anyway, the point is, postseason baseball is back. And while that may not seem like a very big deal, there were more than a few moments this year where it looked like it wouldn’t happen. Now October is here, and it’s brought with it all the usual thrills, tense moments and agonizing pain (I feel you, Reds fans) that we all know and… well, expect? It’s a weird thing. But you get it.
This week’s roundup is recapping all the highlights from the 16-team wild card elimination round, looking ahead to the division series matchups and covering everything else you missed while Aristides Aquino was running nowhere in particular.
A.L. Recap: It’s a Twin Thing
It’s not easy to lose 18 straight games in any professional sport. It’s even harder to do in the postseason, when the baseline criteria for appearing is literally you must be a good team. Good teams are expected to figure it out eventually, even if luck isn’t on their side. The 1970s Chicago Blackhawks, for example, piled up a four-year, 16-game schneid in the Stanley Cup playoffs, but they broke through in 1979. That’s as bad as it can get, right?
Not any more. You can thank the Twins for proving that wrong. After being swept out of the playoffs in two games by the Astros this week, the Twins postseason losing streak reached a record 18 games, dating back to 2004. That includes six appearances, four of which were against the Yankees, somehow—including last year’s three-game dipsy-doo where they were outscored 23 to 7.
At this point, only a fool would pick them to advance! In my defense, I did say it was foolish. Here’s everything else you missed in the American League this week:
- Rays 2, Blue Jays 0 — As expected, the Rays had little trouble with the overmatched Blue Jays. Strong starts from Blake Snell and Tyler Glasnow was combined with near-shutout work from the best bullpen in the game, and Hunter Renfroe sealed the deal by hitting the first playoff grand slam in franchise history in game two. As for the Jays, the future is still bright.
- Yankees 2, Indians 0 — The Shane Bieber vs. Gerrit Cole matchup did not live up to the hype. In fact, the presumptive Cy Young winner (Bieber) was shelled in his first postseason start to the tune of seven runs and nine hits in 4.2 innings of a 12-3 defeat on Tuesday. Game two was much more interesting: a poorly handled weather delay, a Gio Urshela grand slam off “Wild Thing” James Karinchak and a late comeback by the Indians offense culminated in the longest nine-inning game in MLB history (yes, you read that right). The Yankees won, extending Cleveland’s brutal World Series drought to 72 years (sorry, Tribe fans).
- Astros 2, Twins 0 — I mentioned the Twins’ plight above, so I won’t dwell on it here. But can we talk about the Astros’ inferiority complex? Shortly after hitting the decisive home run in the 3-1 win that sent Minnesota packing on Wednesday, Houston SS Carlos Correa took it upon himself to “set the record straight” on the Astros, who made the playoffs this year despite finishing under .500 for the first time since 2014 in the wake of the recent sign-stealing scandal:
“I know a lot of people are mad. I know a lot of people don’t want to see us here,” Correa said. “But what are they going to say now?”
The same things, Carlos. They’ll say the same things. But congrats on winning those two games, I guess?
- Athletics 2, White Sox 1 — Flash back to 2006, and recall the first of those six playoff sweeps that the Twins have endured this century: it was against Oakland, and it also happened to be the last time that Billy Beane’s A’s won a postseason series, until now (they had lost six straight, piling up more than a few demons to exorcise in the process). But that’s all over, thanks to some timely White Sox injuries and a dramatic game three comeback against the Chicago bullpen. The A’s defense was terrific, and Chad Pinder was the offensive hero. The heroics of Tim Anderson and Lucas Giolito weren’t quite enough for the Sox this time, but don’t worry—they’ll be back.
N.L. Recap: Friars vs. the World
Yes, I included two pictures of Fernando Tatis Jr., this week. Can you blame me? As of Wednesday afternoon, it was looking like the story of the National League games this week was simple: great pitching meets anemic offense, and you can guess who comes out on top (or just ask the Reds, Cubs and Brewers). But then along came the Padres, who decided that simply losing their two best starters to last-minute injuries was no excuse to lose. Along came Tatis, and the rest is history.
(Seriously. Can we talk about this incredible bat flip?)
But enough about the #dadwagon, there are games to discuss. Let’s get into it:
- Dodgers 2, Brewers 0 — Like the Rays before them, the top-seeded Dodgers took care of business in the wild card round. Mookie Betts was great, Corey Seager provided timely power, and Clayton Kershaw dispersed his own postseason demons with eight nearly unhittable innings to slam the door in game two. The Brewers were lucky to even make the playoffs, but now they have to wonder: is this it for Ryan Braun?
- Padres 2, Cardinals 1 — As of 3:00 p.m. in San Diego last Thursday, things were not looking good for the Padres. They trailed the feisty Cardinals 1-0 in the series and 6-2 in what was looking more and more like, you know, an elimination game. But thanks to a combined five home runs from Tatis, Manny Machado and Wil Myers, SD stormed back to force a game three, then cashed in against Jack Flaherty on Friday to win their first playoff series in 14 years. The Cardinals’ devil magic finally ran out, it would seem.
- Marlins 2, Cubs 0 — Have I mentioned the Marlins have never lost a playoff series?? Yes, many times, you say? Well, it’s still true. This series was a war of attrition, as all four starting pitchers—Sandy Alcantara and Sixto Sanchez for Miami, Kyle Hendricks and Yu Darvish for Chicago—were excellent. A Corey Dickerson home run made the difference in game one, and Garrett Cooper sealed the deal in game two. The biggest story was the phantom rain delay which caused Thursday’s game to be postponed, much to the chagrin of Anthony Rizzo.
- Braves 2, Reds 0 — We all saw it, so there’s no need to go too deep into this disaster for Cincinnati. The series went more or less as we expected: Trevor Bauer and Luis Castillo were everything you could hope for as a Reds fan, but the offense… struggled. Much of the credit here should be given here to young Braves starters Max Fried and Ian Anderson, who matched the Reds aces pitch for pitch, and got help from an elite bullpen and just enough offense at the end of the day. At least we got this amazing Twitter beef between Bauer and Ronald Acuña Jr. out of it.
Division Series Preview: Back to Where We Started
As we’re reminded every March, upsets are fun, but the best games in later rounds require the best teams surviving long enough to meet each other head to head. With the new format this year, there was more than a little speculation as to what could happen if, for example, the eighth-seeded Brewers were to shock the world and eliminate the Dodgers in that three-game series. That would have been fun, but did anyone really want to watch five more games of that awful Milwaukee offense?
Well thankfully, we don’t have to worry about that. The first-round series went mostly chalk, and the four best teams by seed—the Rays, Dodgers, A’s and Braves—all advanced with little trouble. Now we’re down to a “normal” eight-team field, and it looks essentially how it would have if the expansion had never happened. Here’s a breakdown of this week’s matchups, which will be played every day starting Monday:
* = unconfirmed
#1 Rays vs. #5 Yankees
- Expected Starters: Snell, Glasnow, Morton (TB); Cole, *Tanaka, *Garcia (NYY)
- First Pitch: 8:07 E.T. Monday, TBS
- Season Series: 8-2, adv. Rays
- Prediction: This is a fascinating matchup between the A.L. East’s best teams, one a small-market overachiever and the other an embattled media favorite. The Yanks have the edge in lineup talent, but if you take away Gerrit Cole, the Rays pitching advantage is drastic. Rays in four.
#2 A’s vs. #6 Astros
- Expected Starters: *Bassitt, *Luzardo, *Manaea (OAK); *Greinke, *McCullers, *Urquidy (HOU)
- First Pitch: 4:07 E.T. Monday, TBS
- Season Series: 7-3, adv. A’s
- Prediction: A lot hinges on rotation decisions. For Oakland, Sean Manaea hasn’t pitched since Sept. 23, and for Houston, Lance McCullers hasn’t pitched since Sept. 26. The real drama will come if the A’s choose to start Mike Fiers, the infamous Astros whistleblower. Assuming there are no fights this time, I’d give the slight edge to the Moneyball boys. A’s in five.
#1 Dodgers vs. #4 Padres
- Expected Starters: *Buehler, *Kershaw, *May (LAD); *Paddack, *Davies, *Clevinger (SD)
- First Pitch: 9:38 E.T. Tuesday, FS1
- Season Series: 6-4, adv. Dodgers
- Prediction: If Mike Clevinger or Dinelson Lamet are available for San Diego, things could get interesting in a hurry. But with all the uncertainty right now, I regretfully have to renege on my previous pick. Dodgers in four.
#2 Braves vs. #6 Marlins
- Expected Starters: Fried, Anderson, Wright (ATL); *Alcantara, *Sanchez, *Lopez (MIA)
- First Pitch: 2:08 E.T. Tuesday, FS1
- Season Series: 6-4, adv. Braves
- Prediction: If the Braves pitching is as dominant as it was against Cincinnati, this could be over quickly. However, if the Marlins can extend the series to Friday (with no off days), they’ll have a shot against the back end of a beleaguered Braves rotation consisting of… Bryse Wilson and Josh Tomlin? Oof. Still, Atlanta should be a heavy favorite. Braves in three.
Baseball Oddities: Wild Card Edition
- By virtue of losing on Sept. 29 and 30th last week, the Twins and Blue Jays earned the distinct honor of being eliminated from October baseball before October even started. (The Indians were also swept, but that game ended at 1 a.m., so they get a pass.)
- Per MLB Network’s Jon Morosi, Braves game two hero Ian Anderson was three years old the last time Atlanta won a postseason series, back in 2001. In the lineup on that fateful day was Julio Franco, who is now 62.
- During the White Sox-A’s game Thursday, ESPN had the brilliant idea to mic up Oakland CF Ramon Laureano as he was on the field. He promptly let out a choice expletive on national TV.
- On Tuesday, the Twins manager Rocco Baldelli managed to use all four of his rostered catchers in one nine-inning game. Ryan Jeffers, Mitch Garver, Alex Avila and Willians Astudillo went a combined 0-4 batting, but they showed some outstanding teamwork behind the plate.
- COMING: Padres SP Mike Clevinger – likely to be activated to pitch against the Dodgers this week, according to one report. The biggest piece moved back at the trade deadline, Clevinger was acquired to help San Diego match up with the pitching-rich Dodgers. The success of that gamble will soon be tested.
- GOING: Literally, the entire A.L. and N.L. Central Divisions – seven of the eight wild card series featured a team from MLB’s central pod, and all seven had the same result. The Twins, Indians, White Sox, Brewers, Cardinals, Cubs and Reds went a combined 2-14 in the 2020 playoffs.