While NL Wild Card Series action continues into Friday (and potentially Saturday), the two ALDS matchups are now set following three series sweeps and a wild game 3 featuring the most pitchers ever used in a nine-inning postseason contest.
After an unprecedented 60-game regular season and best-of-three first round, the Rays, Yankees, Astros and Athletics are heading to the division series. The Blue Jays, Indians, Twins and White Sox are heading home following just two playoff losses. Let’s break down the AL Wild Card Series matchups with one takeaway from each club:
Eliminated from postseason play:
The future is bright for the Blue Jays despite their early postseason exit.
Getting swept by the Rays was clearly not what Toronto envisioned heading into the Wild Card Series, but it should serve as a learning experience for the very young team full of players reaching the playoffs for the first time. The Blue Jays, given under a 30% chance of making the postseason by FanGraphs prior to Opening Day, finished third in the AL in runs scored, posting an above .500 record and reaching the playoffs for the first time in four years. That offense was quieted by the Rays in two games, while ace Hyun Jin Ryu suffered his worst start of the season in game 2. With a lack of quality starters behind Ryu, this is far from a perfect team, but this was an encouraging season for Toronto despite the abrupt end.
The Indians lost the battle of elite pitching versus elite hitting.
If you told me before the start of the Wild Card Series that the Indians, who ranked 24th in runs scored and 27th in team OPS in the regular season, would score 12 total runs in their first two playoff games, I’d have been convinced they’d win the series. After all, Cleveland posted the best starters ERA and second-best overall team ERA in MLB this season and were sending AL Cy Young Award winner-to-be Shane Bieber and Carlos Carrasco, who finished seventh among AL qualifiers in ERA this year, to the mound for games 1 and 2, respectively. But Bieber surrendered seven earned runs (half of his regular season total), Carrasco lasted just three frames while giving up four runs and the Indians bullpen posted a 9.58 ERA as they got swept by the Yankees. There’s really no great explanation other than bad outings and a great offensive opponent. It’s the first time the team with the best ERA in the AL in a season went winless in the playoffs since 1954. The Indians have now dropped an MLB record 10 consecutive elimination games.
The Twins met an all-too-familiar postseason fate against the Astros.
Things seemed to be lining up for Minnesota to make a deep postseason run for the first time in nearly two decades. The club’s offense was getting into gear down the stretch and their deeper pitching staff was firing on all cylinders. Twins pitchers did fare well against Houston, posting a collective 2.00 ERA, but their offense was nowhere to be found. The Twins tallied just two runs on seven hits in two games against an Astros club whose pitchers held them to a .119 average. Costly mistakes, like a throwing error in game 1 and baserunning blooper in game 2, either left the door open for the Astros to score or closed the door for the Twins, who were swept by Houston to bring their postseason losing streak up to 18 games, the longest in major North American sports history. It’s impossible to even put into words how remarkable that is.
The White Sox fell in an incredibly competitive series, marking a disappointing end to an impressive season.
The A’s and White Sox were very evenly matched with this Wild Card series being the only one that went to a winner-takes-all game on the AL side. The White Sox got to lefty Jesus Luzardo and Lucas Giolito was brilliant in game 1, while Chris Bassitt largely shut them down and Dallas Keuchel faltered in game 2. In a wild game 3 that featured a total of 17 pitchers, Chicago’s pitchers couldn’t hold the A’s, with a two-run single from Chad Pinder and a pair of bases-loaded walks proving costly. It was a disappointing outcome for the White Sox, but it wasn’t a horrible series performance and shouldn’t take away from the rebuilding club’s emergence as one to post their first winning record since 2012 and reach the postseason for the first time since 2008. The White Sox figure to be a force in the AL for years to come.
Advancing to ALDS:
The Rays are an incredibly deep and dangerous team.
Tampa Bay posted the best record in the AL for a reason, and showed just how formidable an opponent they’ll be in future postseason series by pretty easily dispensing of the Blue Jays in two games in the Wild Card round. As you’d expect, pitching was the key for the Rays as Blake Snell became the first left-handed pitcher in MLB postseason history with 9+ strikeouts and one or fewer hits in a game and Tyler Glasnow delivered a strong outing in game 2. Tampa Bay pitchers held Toronto’s offense to just three total runs in the two games, and the club also received timely hits from players like Manuel Margot (2-run HR in game 1) and Hunter Renfroe (first grand slam in TB postseason history in game 2). With their high volume of quality arms and batters that can hurt opponents, this Rays team could be poised for a deep playoff run. Up next is an ALDS matchup against the division-rival Yankees, who they defeated eight times in 10 games during the regular season.
There may be no stopping this Yankees offense.
You’ve already heard some about what the Yankees hitters did against the best pitching staff in baseball in the Wild Card Series. The team became the first in MLB history to score double digit runs in each of their first two postseason games, tallying 22 total in the series. Gleyber Torres, Brett Gardner, Luke Voit, Gio Urshela and DJ LeMahieu all had 3+ hits in the series and Giancarlo Stanton hit two home runs. Tampa Bay boasts a very good and deep pitching staff, but the Yankees have already shown that they’re up for the task of getting to some of the best hurlers in the majors.
The Astros’ pitching impressed in the first round, but they’ll likely have to use a different formula moving forward.
In a best-of-three series with a significant break before the next round, Dusty Baker really didn’t need to worry about saving his starters, so he went ahead and used a tandem approach with two in each of the team’s two games in their sweep of the Twins. In game 1, Zack Greinke threw four strong innings before Framber Valdez became the first pitcher with five shutout innings in relief in a playoff game since Madison Bumgarner during the 2014 World Series. In game 2 it was Jose Urquidy with a strong starting and Cristian Javier throwing three scoreless frames in relief. In all, Houston pitchers, as mentioned, held the Twins to just two total runs in the two games, but it’s important to note that Baker’s pitching strategy will have to change in future, longer series as those starters likely won’t be available in relief as much. The Astros also posted a .169 batting average in the series, so questions about several underperforming star hitters will remain heading into their series against Oakland.
The Athletics scratched and clawed their way to a series win against the White Sox.
You’ve already heard about the basics of this series. In the decisive game 3, Oakland sent eight pitchers to the mound, with only one (Frankie Montas) recording at least six outs. It wasn’t pretty, but the A’s got just enough offense with a three-run fourth inning and Chad Pinder’s tie-breaking two-run single in the fifth frame. With the game 3 victory, the A’s captured their first postseason series win since 2006 and first winner-take-all playoff victory since 1973. Oakland’s bullpen, which posted the best ERA in baseball this year, logged a solid 3.60 mark in the series, and the team will undoubtedly rely on it heavily against the Astros as they play in the ALDS for the first time in seven years.
Photo courtesy of MLB.com