Here it comes, the season after the season. The month that cannot be scripted. The crucible where 33 percent of baseball's franchises compete to determine the champion of the world. The crapshoot of a four-tiered playoff tournament where mediocre teams sometimes rise over juggernauts.
Yes, it's the Major League Baseball postseason. And it starts tonight with the first of two single elimination "wild card" play-in games. I'll admit I was dubious when this fourth round of the playoffs was added in 2012, but it has finally added some value to being a division winner. With MLB's 162-game season and many, many variables, baseball is singular among America's four major team sports in that the worst team in the league can beat the best on any given day, which makes a do-or-die playoff game especially nerve-wracking, and thus, great entertainment.
Each of the early round matchups are filled with fun storylines, be they redemption stories, rivalries renewed, or the possibility of purging generations worth of futility. As the 2016 vintage of October baseball kicks off, here's what you need to know about each of the 10 contenders.
In the junior circuit, the Baltimore Orioles and Toronto Blue Jays — two teams who have long toiled in the shadows of the other three teams in the AL East, but have emerged as reliably punchy upstarts over the past few seasons — square off in the American League wild card game.
The Orioles have one of the best young players in the game in third baseman Manny Machado, but rely heavily on a feast-or-famine offense that's heavy on both home runs and strikeouts, and a pitching rotation that doesn't exactly impose fear in the hearts of hitters. If you're the superstitious type, you might also worry about the O's Buck Showalter problem. Their skipper might be a three-time Manager of the Year winner with a reputation for turning losers into winners in short order, but he's never made it to a World Series, and two of his previous three teams went on to win the World Series the season after he left. But baseball's not superstitious, right?
The Blue Jays, on the other hand, found their mojo last season after more than 20 years in the wilderness. They can hit, they can field, and their pitching is formidable. They pick fights and flip bats and don't care if you don't like them. They've made baseball a thing again in Canada, drawing almost 3.5 million fans to the Rogers Centre this season. And after losing to last year's eventual champs, the Kansas City Royals, in the American League Championship Series (ALCS), they've got a chip on their shoulder. I like Toronto's bats to best Baltimore's starter Chris Tillman and win a berth to face the Texas Rangers in a rematch of last season's thrilling five-game ALDS.
The Rangers are owners of the best record in the AL for the first time in their history, though they still carry the demons of having lost two World Series earlier this decade (in 2011 they were one strike away TWICE before blowing a lead to the St. Louis Cardinals). This is a balanced, sneaky-excellent squad, led by perennially underrated future Hall of Famer Adrian Beltre and a rock-solid bullpen. A reason to worry? They've got an exceptional record in one-run games: 36-11. While that obviously speaks well of their nerves and ability to close the deal, one has to wonder if they can sustain that in October. My pick? The Jays once again take out Texas in a nail-biter.
The most intriguing matchup in the American League Divisional Series has to be the Boston Red Sox and Cleveland Indians. Once the poster children for tragic futility and disharmony, the Red Sox are nothing but good feelings and monstrously prolific offense (they have an MLB-leading plus-184 run differential, topping Cleveland, the AL's second best, by 83 runs). The franchise and its fans no longer fear collapse. You could say they've become everything they once hated, smug and confident in their dominance. Their starting pitching is underrated, led by Rick Porcello's Cy Young-caliber season, which has more than made up for David Price's free agent flop. And you may have heard of some guy who's retiring while putting up some unprecedented numbers for a 40-year-old designated hitter.
Then you've got the Tribe — led by Boston's former Curse-breaking field general Terry Francona — the winners of their first AL Central division title since 2007. Cleveland celebrated its first pro championship since 1964 earlier this year, courtesy of LeBron James and the Cavaliers, and while King James won't be with the Indians on the diamond, the team has freely admitted to being buoyed by the spirit of victory around the city, and other than a certain team on the north side of Chicago, no franchise has gone longer without a title. To tame the Sox's bats, the Indians will have to rely on 2014 AL Cy Young winner Corey Kluber, plus a lights out bullpen anchored by Andrew Miller and Cody Allen. Ultimately, I pick the Red Sox over the Indians in four.
In the National League, the New York Mets — last year's World Series runners-up — face the winners of three World Series this decade (all even numbered years), the San Francisco Giants. Like in 2015, there was plenty of good reason to give up on the Amazin's mid-season, but then they put together a September run that was good enough to host the wild card game. Conversely, the Giants endured a second half swoon that took them from the best record in the majors at the All-Star Break to just barely earning a bid to the play-in game, which they clinched on the last day of the regular season with a win over the Los Angeles Dodgers, who having clinched the third seed in the NL, had nothing to play for. I like the Mets to win at home, but they're facing arguably the best postseason pitcher of all time in Madison Bumgarner, who doesn't want you to look at him.
The winner of Mets-Giants will play the Chicago Cubs, who with 103 wins had MLB's best regular season record by eight games. You may have heard they're cursed by a billy goat or a hapless fan who reached for a foul ball. But that's silly. The fact is their 108-year-title drought has more to do with poor management and often unmotivated ownership that knows most of the appeal of Wrigley Field is cutting out of work early to drink in the daytime…with winning an afterthought. But with the hiring of Red Sox-Curse-slayer Theo Epstein to run the front office, the culture in Wrigleyville has changed. They drafted smartly, they did very well in free agency (Jason Heyward aside), they hired Joe Maddon — the guy who (with no budget) took the Tampa Bay Rays to the playoffs regularly — and they gave him a huge budget! Win or lose, the Cubs will be a force in the NL Central for years, but now that they're top dogs of the regular season, there can be no moral victories: It's World Series or bust on the North Side. And indeed, I predict the Cubs will have their revenge on the Mets, who swept them in the NLCS last season.
Finally, the Washington Nationals and Los Angeles Dodgers — two of the most expensive and disappointing franchises in recent years, always loaded with talent but frequently departing from the postseason early — face off in the other NLDS. Both teams fired their managers amid major discord after last season, and both bounced back to win their divisions this year. The Nats have wunderkind superstar Bryce Harper — a force even in an off year for him — and perennial Cy Young candidate Max Scherzer, plus career seasons from catcher Wilson Ramos and last year's Mets postseason monster Daniel Murphy.
The Dodgers, once again, are led by ace southpaw Clayton Kershaw, who despite putting up Sandy Koufax-like numbers in the regular season has yet to prove he can hack it in October. Japanese import and Rookie of the Year candidate Kenta Maeda is also no slouch on the mound, but no one on the Dodgers topped 90 runs batted in (RBI) this season. However, they might be one of those teams that "got hot at the right time," making their 91-win season look less impressive than it is because of how many injuries the veteran-heavy team has had to manage this year. In this battle of snake-bitten behemoths, I like the more youthful Nats to win their first postseason series since the franchise moved from Montreal.
Who's gonna win it all? It's a crapshoot given the freaky nature of one-off elimination games and short series where a streaky hitter or a pitcher in the zone can make all predictions moot. But since calling your shot is half the fun, I'd say the Red Sox have all the tools needed to storm through the playoffs. But I also like the sentimental as well as mathematical favorites — the Cubs — to unleash the young offense that was flummoxed by the Mets' power-pitching in last year's NLCS.
The champs? Sorry Cubs fans, you won't be able to fetishize your misery any more come November. For the rest of us, look forward to many, many nauseating months of Chicago celebs, pundits, and artists waxing poetic about always believing. A virtual cottage industry will spring up around the Cubbies' first championship since before World War I. But like the Red Sox, that special sheen that comes with being "cursed" will fade, making them just another winner with a big payroll.