(Photo Credit: Sporting News)
The Major League Baseball playoffs are, in my opinion, one of the top two most entertaining playoff competitions in professional sports. Year in and year out, the MLB seemingly has at least one “Cinderella” team, at least one powerhouse who goes down far earlier than expected, and at least one team that seemingly doesn’t belong. As the playoffs chug along, no-name players step into big time roles, big name players fall silent, managers make questionable decisions and umpires blow big calls (well, before the challenge rule came into effect).
This season’s playoff field offered no shortage of topics to write about, and even with the loss of the even-year Giants, David Ortiz’s not-so-grand finale, and the absence of a Dusty Baker vs. his former Chicago Cubs in the NLCS, there are plenty of storylines to go around. It’s all part of why the MLB playoffs are so great.
American League Championship Series: Cleveland Indians (94-67) vs. Toronto Blue Jays (89-73)
I heard a statistic on the radio a few days back that caught me by surprise. The last team in this playoff field with a World Series appearance is the Indians, who made it to the Fall Classic in 1997. The Blue Jays last made it in 1993, the Dodgers in 1988, and the Cubs in 1945. But despite being the most recent team to make it to the Series, they are amidst the 3rd longest championship drought in all of sports (66 years). But given the resurgence of the Cleveland Cavaliers, there is new-found hope for the Commissioner’s Trophy to find its way to the Rock and Roll Capital of the World.
I think it’s safe to say no one saw this matchup coming. It’s no secret that the Red Sox were arguably the best team in the American League, and were aiming straight for a Peyton Manning-esque sendoff for long time DH David Ortiz. But they strolled into a buzzsaw in the Cleveland Indians, and were swept in a playoff series for the first time since 2009. The Indians, managed by Terry Francona (who I was hoping would be Tony LaRussa’s successor to the Cardinals), are a team whose scrappy style of play works, but isn’t always fun to watch. They lack star power, outside of DH Carlos Santana and SP Corey Kluber, but find ways to win with solid defense, pitching, and situational hitting.
The Blue Jays, on the other hand, are giving yet another example of why I believe the winner of the Wild Card play-in game is actually at an advantage throughout the rest of the playoffs. This team is the anti-Indians, with star power up and down the lineup. Six of the starting nine players had 20+ home runs. The Jays were 4th in the majors with 221, while ranking 23rd in batting average. The Indians, meanwhile, ranked 6th in batting average and 18th in home runs. These teams are polar opposites.
The Indians were already dealt a bit of a blow in this series before it even started, when starting pitcher Trevor Bauer cut his finger fixing a drone, and will be unable to pitch in Saturday’s Game 2. This likely caused a major headache for manager Terry Francona, who will now have to pitch Bauer in Game 3 on Monday in Toronto. It seems there’s always one of these “doh!” moments.
Will the Indians be able to “small ball” their way to a World Series, and win their first in club history? Or will the Blue Jays’ long ball capability overwhelm the Tribe’s staff? Even with the Indians’ Game 1 victory (2-0 on a Lindor home run…again, not always entertaining, but it works), I like the Blue Jays bats to come alive and carry them to the American League Pennant, but it won’t be easy or drama-free. Prediction: Blue Jays over Indians in 7
National League Championship Series: Chicago Cubs (103-58) vs. Los Angeles Dodgers (91-71)
This series, in my opinion, is much more captivating. The obvious storyline here is the Cubs, who are 105 years removed from their last World Championship and cruised to the best record in all of baseball despite being in arguably the toughest division in the National League. The Dodgers, who are notorious playoff-chokers, were able to overcome the even more choke-prone Nationals in five games of the NLDS. There’s no debate about it, even from a Cardinals fan: the Cubs are the team to beat.
However, just as the Blue Jays and Indians are opposites, as are these two clubs. The Cubs and GM Theo Epstein were able to assemble a super-team, comprised of free agent acquisitions and quality farm-raised talent. The Dodgers, despite losing Zack Greinke to the Diamondbacks in the offseason, have somehow made a jumbled assortment of players and personalities work once again. They signed Japanese pitching phenom Kenta Maeda to a big contract. Aging second baseman Chase Utley returned. Young power hitter Joc Pederson put up a respectable sophomore campaign, and polarizing outfielder Yasiel Puig (after being demoted to AAA late in the season) found his groove. Perhaps the biggest loss to this team is Vin Scully, who retired from the broadcast booth after a historic 60+ year career.
In the NLDS, Clayton Kershaw overcame his playoff demons and even earned a save in Game 5. Adrian Gonzalez, Justin Turner, Corey Seager, and Josh Reddick put together a respectable series, but all three of their NLDS wins came by one run, and they were outscored in the series 24-19.
But the Cubs left no doubt in their series. Even when the tide looked like it had turned, and it appeared as though the Giants were on their way to yet another NLCS appearance, the Cubs prevailed. If it had not been for a blown three run lead late in Game 4, and questionable bullpen decisions by the Giants’ manager Bruce Bochy, we might be having a different discussion. But you have to give credit to the Cubs for fighting back, because no matter how bad a bullpen is, they’re still Major League pitchers. That game really made me understand that this may indeed be the Cubs’ year.
The Cubs are young, talented, and hungry for more. But the Dodgers have the playoff experience (even if it’s bad) up and down the roster. I really think this series could come down to managing, and Dave Roberts could be in over his head in his first year at the helm of the Dodgers. Game 2 will be the one to watch, as the Cubs send Kyle Hendricks to the mound against Clayton Kershaw. The Dodgers desperately need to win at least one of the first two games, as their pitching quality drastically drops off after Maeda and Kershaw. The bad part for the Dodgers is, the Cubs staff doesn’t get any easier. Following Lester and Hendricks up will be Jake Arrieta and John Lackey, which is why I think the Cubs will hoist the National League Pennant. And I didn’t even mention the names Rizzo, Bryant, or Baez. Prediction: Cubs over Dodgers in 5
While everyone is rooting for an Indians/Cubs World Series, I think the Blue Jays pose a much greater threat to the National League. Watching the Cubs’ pitching face one of the deepest hitting lineups in baseball would be ideal for baseball fans. No matter who heads to the Fall Classic, we will likely witness history in some form or another. Fasten your seat belts, baseball fans.