After two thrilling wild-card games the 2016 postseason kicks into high gear, starting Thursday with the two American League Division Series and continuing Friday with the NLDS. Here's what to expect in all four matchups.
Rangers vs. Blue Jays
The Narrative: Baseball in the octagon. This is the rematch of not only the hotly contested 2015 ALDS, but also the Rougned Odor vs. Jose Bautista one-sided fight at second base in May, when Odor pounded Bautista with a fist to the jaw. Bautista told me shortly after the incident that Odor, while turning a double play, “tried 100% to hit me in the face” with his throw. He also called the punch “premeditated … It was literally an attack.” The enmity is real.
The Favorite: The Rangers posted the best one-run record in history (36–11) and the second-best record in history against teams .500 and above (60–31, .659). Only the 2001 Mariners—the team that tied the MLB single-season record with 116 wins—were better against good teams (48–23, .676).
The X Factor: Texas has home field advantage, an important edge for a team that played well at home this year (53–28) and has a miserable history of trying to clinch a series on the road. The Rangers were up 3–2 with Cole Hamels on the mound in Toronto in Game 5 last year and lost by botching three routine infield plays. They were one out away from winning the 2011 World Series in St. Louis when rightfielder Nelson Cruz, because of poor positioning, misplayed what would have been the clinching out. They led Game 7 of that series, 2–0, before surrendering six unanswered runs. Texas is 4–10 in franchise history in potential clinchers, including 0–6 in the last six such games, four of them on the road.
Key Player: Roberto Osuna. No closer is going to leave a tie game with the season on the line without some serious health concern, as Osuna did in the wild-card game against Baltimore. He said afterward that he was dealing with nothing more than a fatigued shoulder, but that’s alarming for a guy who has worked hard down the stretch and has a serious mechanical flaw in his delivery (he pulls his elbow higher than his shoulder before rotating the ball up, causing a timing problem and stress on his shoulder; it’s why despite having three solid pitches, he is not a starter). Already down Joaquin Benoit, the Toronto bullpen is shot without a hale Osuna. Blue Jays manager John Gibbons is highly underrated when it comes to bullpen management, but he will be severely tested.
Key Matchup: Edwin Encarnacion, who hit the walk-off home run to beat the Orioles, is a lifetime .324 hitter against Hamels and Yu Darvish, with four homers in 34 combined at-bats.
Remember This: Since Aug. 7, Hamels and Yu Darvish have started back-to-back games 10 times, covering 20 games. The Rangers are 16–4 in those games.
The Pick: The sequel looks familiar: another tightly contested series with the home team winning Game 5. Rangers in five.
Indians vs. Red Sox
The Narrative: Indians manager Terry Francona vs. the team that fired him after the Great Fried Chicken and Beer Collapse of 2011.
The Favorite: Boston posted the highest OPS (.810) of any team since the 2008 Rangers. The Red Sox have a relentless offense that constantly stresses an opposing staff, especially one without a healthy Danny Salazar or Carlos Carrasco, the former of whom is out with a strained forearm and the latter of whom has a broken finger.
For Boston, David Ortiz, one of the best clutch players ever, is going to get pitches to hit because Mookie Betts gets on base in front of him and Hanley Ramirez is swinging the bat well behind him. How smart is Ortiz? At the age of 40, he set career highs in two-strike hits (64) and two-strike batting average (.258).
The X Factor: Last year, Gibbons chose to burn Price in a low-leverage bullpen role rather than save him to start him in Game 5 against Texas, an assignment he entrusted to Marcus Stroman. This year, Price, in his first season with the Red Sox after signing a $217 million contract (the largest investment ever made in a pitcher), didn’t pitch well enough down the stretch (4.08 ERA in September) to get the Game 1 start that goes to an ace. Price’s teams are 0–8 in his postseason starts, the worst such record ever.
Key Player: Andrew Miller. He won’t get Showalter-ed: Francona has used the über reliever nine times before the eighth inning, and as early as the sixth. The stale model of “saving” your closer was based on a time in the game when few relievers had swing-and-miss stuff. The game is so littered with such power arms now that a manager has many closing options at his disposal if he doesn’t allow himself to be limited by the myth of the one-inning, ninth-inning closer. Miller could represent a turning point in bullpen enlightenment.
Key Matchup: Ortiz is likely to see Miller every game in this series. He is 1-for-7 with three strikeouts and no RBIs against the lefthander.
Remember This: Home field is big here: The Indians posted a .827 OPS at home and a .691 OPS on the road. Don’t be surprised if Red Sox catchers use multiple signs even with bases empty. And look for Cleveland to play up-tempo baseball: This is the best base-running team in the AL, maybe in all of baseball. No team in the league had more steals (including the most steals of third), took the extra base more often or scored from second on a single more often.
The Pick: The team with the better bullpen and the home field advantage wins. Indians in five.
Nationals vs. Dodgers
The Narrative: Somebody actually has to win a series between two teams that are 25–42 (.373) in postseason games over the past quarter century, losing 11 of their combined 15 series.
The Favorite: None. This is a coin flip series. Washington has home field advantage, scored more runs and allowed fewer runs, but it won’t have pitcher Stephen Strasburg (out with elbow inflammation) and catcher Wilson Ramos (torn ACL).
The X Factor: Will rookie Dodgers manager Dave Roberts bring back Clayton Kershaw on short rest in Game 4? Since the double wild card format began in 2012, Kershaw has as many quality starts on short rest in the postseason (three) as all the other pitchers in baseball combined. He is 1–1 with a 1.89 ERA in three short-rest starts with 23 strikeouts and four walks in 19 innings; the rest of baseball is 3–2 with a 4.27 ERA. The guy is just a different cat.
Kershaw’s mound opponent in Game 1, Max Scherzer, has never started on short rest after a start, and told me he would be worried about the recovery factor if he tried it in the first or second round.
Key player: Daniel Murphy. Washington's second baseman enters Game 1 with just three at-bats in the previous 16 days. The Nationals can’t win without his superior bat. Do you know how many times this year Washington won a game without Murphy at least getting on base when he was in the starting lineup? Six. They lost 11 such games.
Key Matchup: Kershaw vs. Bryce Harper. Kershaw has serious ownership here. Harper is 1-for-15 with 10 strikeouts against Kershaw. He has struck out more times against Kershaw than any other pitcher, and his .067 batting average is the lowest against any pitcher he has faced 10 times except for the Mets' Matt Harvey (.038). Kershaw mostly has stayed up and away against Harper, the game plan the Dodgers will use against him throughout the series.
Harper has had trouble all year with fastballs above the belt, especially away, because of neck and thumb injuries and a lack of balance in the box that causes him to pull away from the plate. Harper hit .211 with eight homers off heaters belt high and above. Last year he crushed the same pitches for a .391 average and 19 home runs.
Remember This: The best player on the field in this series just might be Washington centerfielder Trea Turner. How special is the combination of speed and power for the 23-year-old? He stole 32 bases and slugged .567. Only two men ever reached those numbers at such a young age: Jose Canseco in 1988 and Shoeless Joe Jackson in 1911.
The Pick: Washington wins the franchise’s first series since the 1981 Expos beat the Phillies in the Division Series, but if Roberts does pitch Kershaw and Rich Hill four times, Los Angeles becomes the pick. Either way, we’re looking at five games.
Cubs vs. Giants
The Narrative: The Blessed vs. the Cursed. San Francisco under manager Bruce Bochy is 9–0 in postseason games when facing elimination. Chicago is 6–14 in such games over the past 108 years.
The Favorite: The Cubs enter the postseason as the heaviest favorite since the 1998 Yankees. They are first in the league in on-base percentage, first in the league in ERA and first in the league in defensive efficiency.
The X Factor: Jason Heyward was the third-worst hitter in the league against fastballs, behind only Miami's Adeiny Hechavarria and Philadelphia's Freddy Galvis. The Giants will use his spot in the order like a pitcher’s spot—a bailout option that allows pitchers to pitch around hitters in front of him. It’s the same approach teams used against Nick Swisher and Reggie Sanders in postseasons past. Heyward will get multiple chances for the big hit, and just one of them could color his season very differently.
Key Player: Sergio Romo. The Giants' closer, 33, allowed a career-worst .427 slugging percentage this year, though he did throw better in the final week of the season and has walked only two batters in 25 career postseason games. When Bochy has an orderly bullpen with defined roles, he’s as good of an in-game manager as anybody. But when those roles became fuzzy—as they were in July, August and September—Bochy was hair-trigger quick with moves. Stability starts with Romo.
Key Matchup: Aroldis Chapman vs. Buster Posey. Nobody has more hits off Chapman than Posey: five, in just 10 at-bats. Posey’s .500 average off Chapman is the best by any hitter against the Cubs' closer with a minimum of 10 at-bats.
Remember This: Giants reliever George Kontos is from the Chicago area and attended Northwestern. On Oct. 14, 2003, Kontos was standing with thousands of people on Waveland Avenue ready to celebrate the last five outs that would put the Cubs in the World Series for the first time since 1945. Just as leftfielder Moises Alou thought he was about to catch the first of that handful of outs—he reached into the first row of seats for a foul flyball—a fan deflected the baseball. The fan was wearing a sweatshirt with the logo of the Renegades, a youth travel baseball team in the area. Kontos’s younger brother, Chris, played on the Renegades at the time. The fan, who quickly was escorted from the ballpark and has not been heard from since, was the coach of his brother’s team. “Great guy,” George Kontos said. The fan was Steve Bartman.
The Pick: Chicago just has too many ways to win a baseball game, and it has the superior bullpen and home field advantage. Cubs in four.