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MLB Division Series Preview: Four sets of division rivals set to square off at neutral site bubbles

by Chris Brown

Of the 16 MLB teams that qualified for this year’s expanded postseason field, seven were from the central divisions. Now, after the best-of-three Wild Card Series, all of those clubs have been eliminated after being outscored by a combined score of 80-44. Left in the field: four pairs of division rivals set to square off in the Division Series at MLB’s neutral site locations. 

With the ALDS slated to begin on Monday, Oct. 5, and the NLDS the next day, let’s examine the matchups with a look at how each team got here, how they fared against each other this season and a few key storylines to watch.

American League Division Series

Houston Astros vs. Oakland Athletics

Dodger Stadium, Los Angeles, CA

Game 1: Monday, Oct. 5, 4:07 p.m. ET (TBS)

How they got here: 

The Astros were one of two teams (the Brewers being the other) who qualified for the postseason despite a losing record (29-31) and the club finished short of an AL West title for the first time since 2016. Using a tandem starter approach, Houston held Minnesota’s offense to just two total runs in an unexpected Wild Card Series sweep with a few key hits being the difference offensively.

The A’s, who won the AL West for the first time since 2013, barely edged out the White Sox to win the only AL Wild Card series that went to a winner-take-all Game 3. Lucas Giolito shut down Oakland in Game 1, but the A’s bounced back against Dallas Keuchel in the second contest and got a dominant outing from Chris Bassitt. In a game that featured the most pitchers (17) used in a nine-inning postseason game, a tie-breaking two-run single from infielder Chad Pinder and a dominant A’s bullpen powered the team to its first playoff series victory since 2006.

Season series breakdown:

The A’s won the season series against the Astros 7-3 with seven of the games decided by two or fewer runs. Houston hitters batted just .205 against Oakland pitchers, though Oakland’s .237 mark against Astros pitchers isn’t much better. As illustrated by the early-season benches-clearing incident between the two teams which led to the suspension of A’s outfielder Ramón Laureano and Astros hitting coach Alex Cintrón, both clubs hold a good amount of recent hostility toward one another. The Astros also have a chip on their shoulder given the response to fallout of the team’s sign-stealing scandal.

Key storylines:

Astros’ pitching depth will be tested: As mentioned, Houston manager Dusty Baker relied on four starters for great performances in their two games against Minnesota. With a longer series now on tap, a very inexperienced bullpen will be called on for big outs. 

A’s bullpen will be crucial: “If we beat their bullpen, we beat those guys.” Those are the words of Houston outfielder Josh Reddick on Oct. 3. Oakland’s bullpen was the best in baseball this season, posting a collective 2.72 ERA. Four relievers, including closer Liam Hendricks, made at least 20 appearances and posted an ERA below 2.00 during the regular season. Manager Bob Melvin likely won’t hesitate in going to his bullpen if one of the team’s starters struggles early.

Houston’s lineup still needs to step up: The Astros rated in the middle of the pack offensively this season due in large part to underwhelming seasons from Jose Altuve (.219 AVG), Yuli Gurriel (.232 AVG) and Alex Bregman (.242 AVG). The team scored enough to get past the offensively flat Twins, but still hit just .194/.280/.254 as a team in the series. An offensive performance like that against the A’s almost certainly won’t get the job done. 

Tampa Bay Rays vs. New York Yankees

Petco Park, San Diego, CA

Game 1: Monday, Oct. 5, 8:07 p.m. ET (TBS)

How they got here:

The Rays are in the postseason for the sixth time since 2008 but won the AL East for the first time in a decade by posting the league’s best record (40-20). Tampa Bay handily swept the Blue Jays in the Wild Card Series with, as you’d expect from the Rays, strong pitching performances. Behind great outings from Blake Snell and Tyler Glasnow, Tampa Bay pitchers held Toronto’s offense to just three total runs in two games and received timely hits from players like outfielders Manuel Margot and Hunter Renfroe. 

After a rocky middle of the regular season in which several key players were injured, the Yankees returned to nearly full strength down the stretch, finishing second in the AL East standings. The star-studded lineup rocked the Indians’ Shane Bieber and Carlos Carasco, among others, in a two-game sweep of Cleveland, becoming the first club in MLB postseason history to score double-digit runs in each of their first two playoff games. Gerrit Cole became the first AL pitcher with 13 strikeouts and zero walks in a postseason start — ever.

Season series breakdown:

Tampa Bay won eight of the 10 games between these two clubs this season, a big factor in their AL East title. Rays pitchers held the Yankees to a .218 batting average in 2020 while Yankees pitchers posted a poor 4.84 collective ERA against Tampa Bay. It’s worth noting, though, that the majority of the games between these teams came during the Yankees’ midseason slide and they haven’t faced each other in a little over a month.

Key storylines:

Another great lineup vs. great pitching matchup: The Yankees’ complete dominance of the one of the best pitching staffs in the majors in the Wild Card Series was a surprise despite their powerful lineup. They’ll face another tough test in that department in the Rays, who posted the third-best ERA in MLB this season and have an extremely deep pool of high-level hurlers, from Snell, Glasnow and Charlie Morton, who are starting games 1-3, respectively, to a bullpen that ranked third in ERA. Rays pitchers have given up just three runs in their last 29 innings dating back to the regular season. 

Yet another extremely tense rivalry: Rays outfielder Kevin Kiermaier said of the Yankees on Friday, “we don’t like them.” Career Yankee Brett Gardner’s response: “the feeling is probably mutual.” These two teams have a long-standing rivalry which is clearly going strong in 2020 and figures to reach a whole new level with the Rays and Yankees facing each other in the postseason for the first time ever. In their final regular season series of 2020, Aroldis Chapman threw a 101 mph fastball over the head of the Rays’ Mike Brosseau and both Aaron Boone and Kevin Cash were ejected from the series finale the next day. This has the potential to be the most intense series of the postseason.

Rotation depth differences: Tampa Bay has a whole cast of high-level options to start in this series, from Snell, Glasnow and Morton to Ryan Yarbrough (3.56 ERA), Josh Fleming (2.78 ERA) and several others. The Yankees, meanwhile, run out of reliable options quickly behind Cole and Masahiro Tanaka, with J.A. Happ likely to get the ball in game 3 and uncertainty after that. In a series with no off-days, rotation depth could prove to be a significant factor.

National League Division Series

Miami Marlins vs. Atlanta Braves

Minute Maid Park, Houston, TX

Game 1: Tuesday, Oct. 6, 2:08 p.m. ET (FS1)

How they got here:

At this point, the Marlins’ incredible journey to the playoffs is well-documented, with the team outperforming low preseason expectations and overcoming a massive COVID-19 outbreak in the first week of the season which forced the club to scramble to fill out roster spots. Despite a -41 run differential, the Marlins posted an above .500 record for the first time since 2009 and finished second in the NL East standings. Miami held a completely lost Cubs lineup to a single run on nine total hits in a surprise two-game sweep, with homers from veterans Corey Dickerson, Jesus Aguilar and Garrett Cooper making the difference offensively. Starters Sandy Alcantara and Sixto Sanchez both impressed in their playoff debuts. The Marlins moved to a remarkable 7-0 in postseason series in franchise history.

The Braves finished on top the NL East for the third straight season, notching the franchise’s 20th division title, the most in MLB history. The big storyline going into the team’s Wild Card matchup with the Reds was Atlanta’s sensational offense versus Cincinnati’s elite trio of starters, but the Braves’ pitching ended up being the hero in the team’s two-game sweep. Max Fried threw seven shutout innings in Game 1 and rookie Ian Anderson struck out nine in six scoreless frames in Game 2. The Reds became the first team in MLB postseason history to be eliminated without scoring a run (excluding Wild Card Games). 

Season series breakdown:

The Braves took the season series 6-4 despite a 24-run difference in runs scored between the teams in head-to-head play. That’s largely due to Atlanta’s 29-9 victory over Miami back on Sept. 9. As The Athletic’s Jayson Stark noted, this will be the first time any team has beaten another team by 20 runs during the regular season and then played that team again in the postseason. Subtract that game and Marlins pitchers posted a 4.22 ERA against the Braves this year rather than 6.62. Braves pitchers posted a collective 3.50 ERA against Miami this year.

Key storylines:

Marlins young pitching looks to keep rolling: The odds of Miami out-hitting the Braves in this series are extremely slim, so their most probable path to victory will be the arms of their several young, exciting pitchers. Alcantara (3.00 regular season ERA), Sanchez (3.46) and Pablo Lopez (3.61) will need to limit the offense which posted the highest OPS in the majors this year for the club to have a fighting chance of keeping its flawless postseason series record intact.

Braves’ rotation depth behind top two options: We saw in the Wild Card Series just how dominant Fried and Anderson can be. With Mike Soroka (missed most of season following Achilles tear) and Cole Hamels (shoulder fatigue) unavailable, the Braves’ rotation behind that star duo is the question. Kyle Wright, the 25-year-old right-hander who posted a 5.21 ERA this year, will get the ball for Game 3 with no clear plan beyond that. The team has a strong bullpen (fourth-best ERA in MLB in 2020) to lean on but could be in trouble if Fried and/or Anderson can’t go deep in the first two games.

Starling Marte’s status: Acquired from the Diamondbacks prior to the trade deadline, the veteran outfielder is unquestionably the Marlins’ best all-around hitter. The 31-year-old suffered a non-displaced fracture in his left pinkie after being hit by a pitch in Game 1 of the team’s series against the Cubs, but has been fitted with a protective brace and there is some hope he could still play in some capacity. His availability for the series will undoubtedly be key for the Marlins.

San Diego Padres vs. Los Angeles Dodgers

Globe Life Field, Arlington, TX

Game 1: Tuesday, Oct. 6, 9:38 p.m. ET (FS1)

How they got here:

The Padres’ rise from nine straight years with a sub-.500 record to the second-best mark in the NL and first postseason berth in 16 years has been one of the most exciting storylines in the sport this season. It looked liked the team’s incredible run may come to an abrupt end after the Cardinals took Game 1 and an early lead in Game 2, but in the absence of Dinelson Lamet and Mike Clevinger — both sidelined with arm injuries — San Diego’s deep offense powered them to victories in Game 2 and Game 3, when the club shut out St. Louis with nine pitchers, the most in a nine-inning shutout since at least 1901. Fernando Tatis Jr. and Wil Myers became the second pair of teammates in postseason history to each hit two home runs in the same game. 

The Dodgers were indisputably the best team in baseball this year, never losing more than two games in a row and becoming just the second team since World War II to lead MLB in both runs scored and ERA. With the No. 1 seed in the NL, the Dodgers matched up against the Brewers, who just barely snuck into the playoff field despite not spending a single day this season above .500. In predictable fashion, Walker Buehler and Clayton Kershaw helped keep a poor Milwaukee offense in check as the Dodgers swept the series with relative ease. Kershaw became just the second-lefty ever with 13+ strikeouts and zero runs allowed in a postseason start and Mookie Betts tallied three doubles in the two games.

Season series breakdown:

The Dodgers took the season series by a narrow 6-4 margin, with the Padres playing them as tough as anyone. San Diego had a chance to overtake the Dodgers for the division lead in their mid-September series, in fact, but Dave Roberts’ team won two of three games. Still, it was made clear that the Dodgers’ dominance over all other NL West teams is not nearly as significant as it’s been in recent years. 

Key storylines: 

The availability of Dinelson Lamet and Mike Clevinger: The Padres got by the Cardinals thanks to some extreme patchwork pitching, but it will be extremely difficult for them to take down the Dodgers, a much, much better offensive team than St. Louis, without them. Both remain question marks heading into the NLDS, though ESPN’s Pedro Gomez reported Saturday that Clevinger could return to the Padres’ active roster for the series. The 29-year-old posted a 2.84 ERA in four starts after being acquired from the Indians at the trade deadline but hasn’t pitched in a game since Sept. 13.

Two teams in different spots: The Dodgers have dominated their division, and by many measures the National League, for the last decade. They’ve won eight consecutive NL West titles, the third-longest such stretch in MLB history, yet they’re still looking for their first World Series championship since 1988. The upstart Padres, meanwhile, lack that postseason experience, having just broken the second-longest playoff drought in the NL, but don’t have all the pressure on them that the Dodgers do. In simple terms, it’s World Series or bust for the Dodgers while the Padres’ season will be viewed as a roaring success even if they never win another game from here on out. That’s not to say their motivation for a title is any lower, though.

The star power here is astonishing: Don’t blink during this series or you might miss one of the best players in baseball do something incredible. Fernando Tatis Jr. is the most exciting young player in the game and his infield teammate Manny Machado is also an NL MVP candidate while second baseman Jake Cronenworth is a strong NL Rookie of the Year candidate. The Dodgers have two of the last two year’s worth of MVPs in Mookie Betts and Cody Bellinger as well as their own star shortstop, Corey Seager, and ace Clayton Kershaw pitching at a Cy Young level again. This could easily be the most fun series of the postseason.

Photo courtesy of MLB.com

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