Home Featured Three things to know about each AL Wild Card Series matchup

Three things to know about each AL Wild Card Series matchup

by Chris Brown

When the final day of the MLB regular season began, not a single matchup for the best-of-three Wild Card Series was settled with two NL playoff spots and seeding up in the air. By the end of Sunday afternoon, though, a wild 60-game schedule had come to a close, and with it the postseason field is now set for games beginning on Tuesday, Sept. 29.

In the field: a team on pace for 116 wins, two clubs below .500, four teams from one division and two that two that battled extensive COVID-19 outbreaks.

With little time off for any teams before the beginning of the playoffs, let’s dive into the postseason field with a look at three things to know about each first-round matchup, starting with the American League side of the bracket:

(8) Toronto Blue Jays @ (1) Tampa Bay Rays

Game 1: Tuesday, 5 p.m. ET, TBS

1. This young Blue Jays team has some real offensive talent, but lacks rotation depth behind Hyun Jin Ryu.

Toronto ranked seventh in runs scored and eighth in home runs this season, with players like outfielders Teoscar Hernandez (16 HR), Lourdes Gurriel Jr. (11 HR) and Randal Grichuk (12 HR) providing strong offensive numbers and talent in the infield with Bo Bichette, Cavan Biggio and others. But the club’s 4.55 ERA from its starters ranked 17th in the majors. Ryu (2.69 ERA) has had a great first season with the Jays, but of the other four pitchers who’ve made at least five starts for the team this season, only Taijuan Walker has an ERA under 4.70. It’s difficult to imagine Toronto pulling off the upset here without winning the game Ryu starts.

2. The Rays’ formula for success this season has been as expected: pitching, pitching and more pitching.

Only the Dodgers and Indians have posted a better team ERA than Tampa Bay this year. Blake Snell (3.24 ERA), Tyler Glasnow (4.08 ERA) and Charlie Morton (4.74 ERA) haven’t been one of the best trios of starters in the majors like many envisioned, but there’s no doubting the talent there, and the group has shown positive signs in recent weeks. The Rays’ bullpen has been one of the best in baseball this season, with Nick Anderson (0.55 ERA), Diego Castillo (1.66 ERA) and Pete Fairbanks (2.70 ERA) among the club’s options for late innings. In the shortened season, the Rays tied the major league record with 12 pitchers earning a save in 2020. It’s just one indication of the bullpen depth Tampa Bay possesses.

3. Tampa Bay lacks name-brand hitters but has plenty of talent spread throughout the lineup.

Look up and down the Rays’ lineup and you won’t see many obvious stars. Second baseman Brandon Lowe has undoubtedly been the team’s offensive MVP, hitting .269 with 14 homers, but he’s the only player on the club with double-digit longballs this year. Instead of star power, the Rays rely on a collective offensive effort. Infielder Joey Wendle is riding an eight-game hitting streak heading into the postseason and hitting .286 on the season. First baseman Mike Brosseau (.936 OPS) and shortstop Willy Adames (8 HR) have also been key hitters. The Rays led the AL in wins (40) despite ranking outside the top 10 in runs scored in MLB because they were able to score just enough runs behind a strong group of pitchers.

(5) New York Yankees @ (4) Cleveland Indians

Game 1: Tuesday, 7 p.m. ET, ESPN

1. Gerrit Cole vs. Shane Bieber: An incredible pitching matchup is on tap for Game 1.

It doesn’t get much better than watching two of the top three (or at least top five) starters in baseball square off in the first game of a playoff series. Bieber, the Indians’ ace, became the first pitcher to complete the triple crown since Johan Santana in 2006, logging eight wins, a 1.63 ERA and 122 strikeouts in 77 ⅓ innings. That ERA is tied for third-best in a single season among qualifiers in the divisional era. Cole got off to a bit of a slow start in his first season in New York but posted a 1.00 ERA in four September starts, lowering his season mark to 2.84. A low-scoring affair seems likely for Game 1.

2. This series is a matchup of an incredibly powerful offense and elite starting pitching staff.

It’s been a winding path, but the Yankees enter the postseason largely healthy and as one of the most feared teams in the majors thanks to Cole and their star-studded lineup. First baseman Luke Voit (22 HR) and second baseman DJ LeMahieu (.364) became the first pair of teammates to win the MLB home run and batting tile in the same year since 1959, with LeMahieu also becoming the first player in the modern era to win a batting title in both leagues. Add in Aaron Judge, Giancarlo Stanton, Gio Urshela and Gleyber Torres to the mix and it’s easy to see why the Yankees rank fourth in the majors in runs scored and fifth in homers. The Indians’ pitching staff will be as big of a test as any for those hitters, though, with Bieber only one part of the equation. Carlos Carrasco (2.91 ERA) and Zach Plesac (2.28 ERA) will follow Bieber in the team’s rotation, which ranks first in baseball in starters ERA (3.17).

3. The Indians’ offense has struggled all season.

Cleveland’s .689 OPS is the fourth-worst in MLB and the worst of any team in the postseason. The team has two true star hitters in Jose Ramirez, who is in the AL MVP conversation after hitting .292 with 17 homers and 10 steals, and Francisco Lindor, though the star shortstop has had a down season, hitting .258 with a .750 OPS. Veteran first baseman Carlos Santana has a .349 OBP but finished the regular season under the Mendoza line. If the Indians’ bats can’t get going against Cole in Game 1, they’ll have to get to the likes of Masahiro Tanaka, J.A. Happ and a Yankees bullpen that’s underperformed high expectations. One other note on the Indians: The club will be without two-time World Series champion manager Terry Francona, who continues to recover following two medical ailments.

(6) Houston Astros @ (3) Minnesota Twins

Game 1: Tuesday, 2 p.m. ET, ABC

1. This is not at all the Astros team everyone expected coming into the season.

Last year’s Astros team featured Cole and Justin Verlander, the top two finishers in AL Cy Young balloting, at the top of the rotation. With Cole in New York and Verlander set to undergo Tommy John surgery, the club will instead be turning to the likes of Zack Greinke (4.03 ERA) and Lance McCullers (3.93 ERA) as well as a host of young, promising, but inexperienced hurlers. On the offensive end, Carlos Correa (.709 OPS), Alex Bregman (.242 AVG), and Jose Altuve (.219 AVG) have all underperformed as the team finished below .500 but still ended up second in a weak AL West field. Given injuries to Verlander, 2019 AL Rookie of the Year Yordan Alvarez and a host of veteran bullpen arms as well as those disappointing seasons from key hitters, Dusty Baker certainly deserves credit for getting a fifth team to the postseason (an MLB record for a manager). Something important to note with the team traveling to Minnesota: The Astros are 9-23 away from Minute Maid Park and 4-13 against teams above .500 this season.

2. With several key hitters returning, the Twins had a strong September to clinch their second straight AL Central title.

Minnesota ended August with six straight losses to fall to a still-respectable 20-16, but the club really kicked things into gear down the stretch, going 16-8 in September with Byron Buxton, Josh Donaldson, Max Kepler and others rejoining the lineup following injury. The Twins’ offensive ranks for the season are largely middle-of-the-pack, but the club hit the most homers in the AL in the final month of the regular season to prove they’re essentially back to who everyone thought they’d be offensively heading into 2020. Oh yeah, and there’s Nelson Cruz, who struggled down the stretch but at 40 years old hit .303 with 16 homers this season.

3. The Twins have the edge when it comes to pitching depth.

Minnesota’s offense hasn’t performed like its historic 2019 season, but a big reason the club was able to secure a second straight division title was its significantly improved pitching staff. Kenta Maeda, Jose Berrios, Rich Hill and Michael Pineda are all solid-to-great big league starters, and the team posted the fourth-best ERA in baseball in 2020 after ranking ninth last year. The Twins’ 3.28 ERA and 1.13 WHIP in September were tops in the league, and the team’s bullpen has also been really solid. The Astros, as mentioned, will be relying on a host of younger pitchers behind Greinke and McCullers. Several veteran relievers are out due to injury, closer Ryan Pressly regressed from 2019, and Houston blew 13 saves, the second-most in the majors. There’s upside in pitchers like Cristian Javier and Framber Valdez, but neither has proven themselves long-term.

(7) Chicago White Sox @ (2) Oakland Athletics

Game 1: Tuesday, 3 p.m. ET, ESPN

1. The White Sox have had a remarkable season, but limped to the finish line, ending up third in the AL Central standings.

The rebuild is over for the South Siders, who showed this season that they’re ready to compete and are in the postseason for the first time in 12 years. Veteran first baseman Jose Abreu finished second in baseball with 19 homers and first with 60 RBI in 60 games. Eloy Jimenez (14 HR), Tim Anderson (.322 AVG) and Luis Robert (11 HR, 9 SB) also had strong seasons as the team finished third in the majors in home runs. On the pitching side, the White Sox ranked sixth in MLB in ERA thanks in large part to the likes of Lucas Giolito (3.48 ERA), free agent signing Dallas Keuchel (1.99 ERA) and rookie Dane Dunning (3.97 ERA). After becoming the first AL team to clinch a playoff spot back on Sept. 17, though, the White Sox slumped to the finish line, going 2-8 in their last 10 games to fall behind the Twins and Indians in the division standings.

2. The A’s are looking to win a postseason series for the first time since 2006.

Oakland is in the playoffs for the third straight season and the sixth time since 2012. Only the Dodgers have more postseason appearances in that span. Despite that success, the A’s haven’t won a postseason series since sweeping the Twins in the 2003 ALDS. Heading into the weekend, it looked like the Indians or Astros would be their first round opponent, but instead it’s the White Sox. The A’s offense has been roughly league average this season, but the club has a strong middle of the order that includes Marcus Semien, Mark Canha and Matt Olson as well as a pitching staff that ranked fifth in team ERA in MLB. Oakland’s bullpen, led by closer Liam Hendricks (1.78 ERA, 14 SV), has been a particular strength, ranking tops in the majors in ERA at 2.72. The Athletics’ 22 wins at home this season are tied for the most of any AL club.

3. The White Sox have had great success against lefty starters this season.

This may seem like a minor detail to bring up, but this stat is so impressive that it’s worthy of some real consideration: The White Sox finished the 2020 regular season with a 14-0 record against left-handed starters, becoming the first team in MLB history to go undefeated through a whole season against lefties. The team’s OPS against right-handers is .749 compared to .887 versus southpaws. This is particularly noteworthy because two of Oakland’s top starters, Sean Manaea and Jesús Luzardo, are both lefties. The A’s will have to at the very least consider adjusting their pitching approach from their ideal, which in and of itself gives the White Sox an edge.

Photos by Robert Rescot / Flickr (Abreu), Erik Drost / Flickr (Bieber), ensign_beedrill / Flickr (Altuve)

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