Okay, so the MLB playoff teams are all but set. Of course, you had all of these teams in your preseason picks, didn’t you? No, wait, you had the Toronto Blue Jays, Los Angeles Angels, and Washington Nationals. You had no idea the Oakland Athletics would repeat last year’s performance, or that the Pittsburgh Pirates would finally break the string of 21 straight losing seasons. Perhaps parity in baseball is here to stay.
Now a look at how the postseason breaks down, including the polarizing wild card games:
AL Wild Card Game – Tampa Bay at Cleveland
The Indians are hot right now. So hot right now. 10 in a row and counting. Terry Francona has been here before, but so has Tampa Bay. You have to wonder about both bullpens, especially the closers. Fernando Rodney has blown eight saves in 45 chances this year for the Rays and Chris Perez has five in 30 chances. Cleveland is such a hard-luck sports city, but maybe this is
the year they find some charm. The homefield advantage will be a factor, and as tough as Alex Cobb can be, Indians rookie Danny Salazar’s stuff is downright filthy. Since he is a rookie, the pressure is always a concern, but the Indians seem to have a little magic in late-game situations while Tampa Bay has struggled somewhat uncharacteristically this season. The pick: Indians.
NL Wild Card Game – Cincinnati at Pittsburgh
This could be a classic. The Pirates just got through sweeping the Reds in Cincinnati to assure that this game will be played in front of a rabid crowd at
PNC Park, which has never hosted playoff baseball. But the Reds have been NL Central division champions twice in the last three years and despite their playoff shortcomings, their experience could be a major benefactor for them. Johnny Cueto has hardly pitched this year, so Dusty Baker is gambling a bit, but Cueto can be Cincinnati’s most dominant pitcher and it was his injury that changed the entire complexion of the NLDS against San Francisco last October. Francisco Liriano has been a tremendous turnaround story for the Pirates, but he tends to be erratic with his control and the playoff pressure
could make those problems arise again. The Reds, who lost three straight at home to choke away a 2-0 lead after winning the first two on the road, will make Pittsburgh the friendly confines and come away with a victory. The pick: Reds.
American League Division Series
Cleveland vs. Boston
This is a pretty lopsided series, at least on paper. In the regular season, six of the seven meetings went Boston’s way, including the finale between these
teams, a heartbreaking loss in which Cleveland surrendered four runs in the ninth inning at Fenway Park. If Cleveland is lucky enough to keep any of these games close, the theme could be similar in October. The pick: Red Sox in 3.
Detroit vs. Oakland
Last season, the A’s bemoaned the fact that even as a higher seed, they had to open up on the road against Detroit. That proved costly as the Tigers took
the first two games and eventually won the ALDS series in five games. This time around, the series will begin (and possibly end) in Oakland, as the A’s are again seeded above the defending AL champs. But Detroit is always dangerous at this time of year because of it’s deep rotation, which features probable Cy Young winner Max Scherzer, former Cy Young winner Justin Verlander, Anibal Sanchez and Doug Fister. The Tigers’ big problem spot could be their bullpen. Joaquin Benoit has blown only two saves since becoming the closer at
midseason, but they have both come in his last three chances. Bridging the gap to Benoit could be a problem. But where the A’s don’t stack up with Detroit is offensively, and that’s the major difference. Oakland has a strong pitching staff all the way through, but their lack of offensive firepower will ultimately prove to be the difference in this series. The pick: Tigers in 4.
National League Division Series
St. Louis vs. Cincinnati
The Cardinals could very well be the most dangerous team in the NL, if not all of baseball. The problem is, they may have to go all the way without their best hitter, Allen Craig, out with a foot injury suffered earlier this month in Cincinnati. Even sans Craig, the Cardinals’ lineup and pitching staff has both the depth and experience to carry them to their second title in three years. The youth may be a concern, as youngsters like Shelby Miller and Trevor Rosenthal showed occasional signs of wear late in the year, but the pressure would actually appear to be on Cincinnati, which has failed to reach the NLCS in two previous playoff trips under Dusty Baker. The Cardinals seem to have their number, and the Reds have some issues bridging the gap to Aroldis Chapman. The pick: Cardinals in 5.
Los Angeles vs. Atlanta
The Dodgers have arguably been baseball’s best team over the last four months, and the consensus is that the Braves are way in over their heads. That’s hard to argue given the star power of the Dodgers, specifically in their
starting rotation. Clayton Kershaw and Zack Greinke could send LA home with a 2-0 lead, and then it’s lights out for a Braves team that has done a marvelous job withstanding injuries and fighting adversity all year. But that perseverance will only get you so far, and that’s not the NLCS. The pick: Dodgers in 3.
Early World Series forecast
Red Sox over Dodgers in 6. (MVP: Clay Buchholz.)