The Major League Baseball playoffs get underway on Tuesday afternoon with the American League Wildcard best-of-three opening round. The National League will begin their Wildcard series’ on Wednesday.
With an altered and expanded postseason format here in 2020 due to the coronavirus pandemic these first round matchups will find all three games held in the city of the higher seeded ball club.
While some of the series are extremely evenly matched on paper, a few others appear to be tilted heavily in favor of those higher seeds. Here are the matchups in each league. The number in parentheses are where each club finished in the final MLB Power Ranking published here at The Bell on Monday:
- Cincinnati Reds (17) at Atlanta Braves (10)
- Miami Marlins (21) at Chicago Cubs (8)
- Saint Louis Cardinals (13) at San Diego Padres (1)
- Milwaukee Brewers (18) at Los Angeles Dodgers (3)
- Houston Astros (19) at Minnesota Twins (6)
- Chicago White Sox (5) at Oakland Athletics (4)
- Toronto Blue Jays (11) at Tampa Bay Rays (2)
- New York Yankees (9) at Cleveland Indians (7)
There are legitimate reasons why every single one of the lower ranked teams could win and advance. The biggest is that those lower-seeded teams will all send starting pitchers to the mound who can win. And remember, each is only a best-of-three series. Even the LA Dodgers, who lost just 17 games total over the 60-game regular season, dropped two straight games on four different occasions.
MILWAUKEE AT LOS ANGELES – NL
Those Dodgers are easily the single most heavily-favored club in this opening round. There is a spread of 15 places between them and Milwaukee in the Power Ranking, the highest of all the matchups. The first game will be a huge key for the Brew Crew, with manager Craig Counsell likely sending 33-year-old righty Josh Lindblom to the mound.
After pitching in Korea the previous two seasons, Lindblom returned to the states this year and made 10 starts.
“My full intention was to finish my career in Asia,” Lindblom said per John Perrotto of Forbes back in August. “If you would have told me five years ago that I’d be sitting here in big leagues, I’d say you’re nuts. I was going over there to play as long as I could. I never thought I’d get back to the major leagues. It was a great experience playing over there. The competition was good. It gave me a chance to better myself and get a second chance in the big leagues. It’s really amazing.”
Only twice did Lindblom get to the 6th inning this season. The Brewers can only expect 4-5 innings from him and then it will be up to their bullpen to hold down a powerful and versatile Dodgers attack.
However, there is a slight question mark on the Los Angeles mound where 26-year-old righty Walker Buehler has tons of talent but has pitched just four innings over the last three weeks due to blister trouble. He returned last Thursday and was brilliant in that four-inning stint against Oakland. But any recurrence of the blister troubles could really alter things quickly.
If the Brewers can somehow fight through and steal this first game it will get really dicey for the Dodgers. Milwaukee is likely to send out its ace, 27-year-old right-hander Brandon Woodruff, for the second game. He is capable of beating anyone. That anyone in this case will probably be Clayton Kershaw.
REST OF NATIONAL LEAGUE
While the Cardinals are facing the top-rated Padres, Saint Louis has plenty of reasons to be optimistic. First, they finished the regular season by winning eight of their last 12 to grab the second place automatic berth out of the NL Central Division. Second is experience. The Cards played in the NLCS a year ago and the organization has reached the postseason 13 times in the last 20 years. Meanwhile, the Padres organization hasn’t experience playoff baseball in 16 years.
Saint Louis skipper Mike Shildt is sending a pair of veterans to the mound in the first two games. Southpaw Kwang Hyun Kim may be an MLB rookie, but the 32-year-old has a dozen pro seasons pitching in his native Korea under his belt. In the second game, 39-year-old Adam Wainwright will take the bump for Saint Louis. Those two are entirely capable of bringing the kind of effort it will take to overcome the talented young Padres.
The Cincinnati Reds will send Trevor Bauer, the presumptive NL Cy Young Award favorite, to the mound in the opener against Atlanta. He will be followed by flame-throwing Luis Castillo in the second game. Cincy manager David Bell then would have Sonny Gray ready for a decisive third game. The Reds will likely have the best starting pitcher on the mound in each game.
Don Mattingly of the Marlins is the likely NL Manager of the Year and has a stable of talented young pitchers from which to choose to send out to the bump against the Cubs. Atlanta got to fireballer Sixto Sanchez last week, so Mattingly might be tempted to hold him for the bullpen and go with Pablo Lopez and Sandy Alcantara in the first two games at Wrigley Field. He could then choose either Sanchez or fellow rookie Trevor Rogers for a third game start.
Zack Greinke, Jose Urquidy, Lance McCullers Jr. Those are the likely starting pitchers who Dusty Baker will run out for the Astros. They are reason enough to see how the Astros could upend the Twins. Add in Houston’s experience of having gone to the ALCS for the last three straight years and the World Series in two of the last three, and there is plenty of reason to believe that even with a losing regular season mark they could beat Minnesota.
The Chisox are on the road in Oakland. However, the Power Ranking here at The Bell have them rated just one place lower in what is the most even matchup of the entire opening round. At least on paper. The White Sox might be the better team anyway, and sending Lucas Giolito and Dallas Kuechel to the mound in the first two games highlight how they could easily beat the Athletics.
Perhaps the best thing that Toronto has going for it in their matchup with tough Tampa Bay is familiarity. The division rivals met 10 times this season, with Tampa taking six of those. The Jays have Matt Shoemaker, Hyun Jin Ryu, and Taijuan Walker lined up for the pitching starts. Each is plenty good enough to win. More than Toronto’s pitching, however, it will be the Jays’ hitters ability to dent Rays’ starters Blake Snell and Tyler Glasnow in the first two games that should tell the story here.
Another fascinating matchup will be the Yankees-Indians battle. The first game pitching matchup of Gerrit Cole for New York and Shane Bieber for Cleveland is the stuff that October dreams are made of, taking place here in September, of course. Then it’s Masahiro Tanaka vs Carlos Carrasco in a battle of two more veterans, followed by a likely matchup of J.A. Happ and Zach Plesac in a deciding third game. The Yankees power is certainly capable of beating the Tribe in what promises to be an evenly matched series.
For me, the only true longshot here are the Milwaukee Brewers against the team with the best record in baseball, the Los Angeles Dodgers. But again, remember, it will only take one heroic big game from some hitter. One unexpected gem on the mound from someone like Josh Lindblom of the Brewers.
In this best-of-three Wildcard Series format, literally anything could happen. Some team with October dreams, some legitimate World Series favorite, is likely to see their season end just as the calendar flips and that final month begins.