It's October — when baseball's 162-game marathon gives way to a series of herky-jerky sprints. And with 10 of Major League Baseball's 30 teams making it to the postseason, you're likely to have at least some rooting interest (either for or against) a team still in contention.
Two postseason teams — the Minnesota Twins and Colorado Rockies — have already fallen in two thoroughly entertaining single elimination Wild Card games. That leaves eight clubs standing as two of the four Division Series kick off tonight.
In the junior circuit, the Boston Red Sox enter the playoffs having won the AL East division crown in back-to-back years for the first time in franchise history. They've got a lineup of exceptional hitters who get on base all the time, but with Mookie Betts' relatively paltry 24 home runs leading the team, the Sox have little pop. Though still on the young side, last year's disappointing sweep by the Cleveland Indians in the ALDS endowed them playoff experience. And in Andrew Benintendi, they've got a rookie phenom who in just about any other year would be a shoo-in for Rookie of the Year. Though the starting pitching has been up and down, they have a Cy Young Award contender in Chris Sale, plus a stellar bullpen, which now includes David Price.
Price, who signed the most expensive contract for a pitcher in history prior to the 2016 season, has not provided even close to a return on investment. Combined with his feud with retired Hall of Fame pitcher (and current Red Sox broadcaster) Dennis Eckersley, Price's performance has not exactly endeared him to the infamously demanding Fenway Faithful. But Price's recent emergence as a fiery, lights out reliever who can go multiple innings has given him a chance for redemption.
Though it still feels odd to call them an American League team, Boston's ALDS opponent is the Houston Astros, whose innovative rebuilding and player development strategies had Sports Illustrated picking them as the 2017 World Series champions … in 2014. Like the Red Sox, the 'stros have a stacked lineup, including slugging outfielder George Springer and the MVP candidate second baseman who can do everything, Jose Altuve. Oh, and they bolstered an already ferocious rotation with the trade deadline acquisition of former Cy Young Award winner Justin Verlander — and all he's done since is go 5-0 with a 1.06 ERA. Yikes.
As good as that matchup is, the New York Yankees and Cleveland Indians ALDS is just as intriguing.
In Cleveland, you have a team that might have won the World Series last season if not for an unprecedented momentum-stealing rain delay in a completely bananas and unprecedented extra-innings Game 7. The Tribe is even better this year, having won 22 games in a row in August and September — a streak that included a demoralizing sweep of the Yankees. They've got the Cy Young favorite Corey Kluber, and last year's ALCS MVP Andrew Miller is back from injury and raring for another run as the most dominant reliever in the game who's not even a closer. They are the hands-down favorites to win their first World Series since 1948. That's how the most hated Goliath in North American sports ends up as the scrappy underdogs in the ALDS.
These Yankees aren't your father's lumbering free agent acquisition-stacked Bronx Bombers. The team's three most important players — starting pitcher Luis Severino, right fielder Aaron Judge, and catcher Gary Sanchez — each have fewer than two full seasons of big league service.
In Judge's case, his 52 home runs set the new high water mark for a rookie and have likely earned him at least a spot in the top two of MVP voting. Shortstop Didi Gregorius has turned into a key player at both the plate and in the field, and the already formidable bullpen was bolstered by a trade deadline deal which brought strikeout machine Tommy Kahnle and former Yankees closer David Robertson onto the squad. Oh, and this typically buttoned-down pinstriped team is having fun, recently evidence by how they turned a sour New York Mets fan's "thumbs down" expression into a team-unifying celebration.
In the National League, the defending champion Chicago Cubs might not be as dominant as they were last season; they only won 92 games to win a weak NL Central, and starters Jake Arrieta and Jon Lester continue to deal with lingering injuries. However, they were the best team in the NL after the All-Star Break, and they're a still young team with a dynamic offense with the confidence that they can go all the way, even if they sometimes have to endure Joe Maddon's often inexplicable bullpen decisions.
The Cubbies will take on the Washington Nationals, one of baseball's most enduringly disappointing franchises who have never won a postseason series. Sure, they ran away with the NL East — again — and still have perennial All-Star talent in Bryce Harper and Max Scherzer. But is this the year they break through? Or are the once hapless Cubs making moves toward being the first back-to-back World Series champion since the 1998-2000 Yankees?
It seems like I write this every year, but the other perennially underachieving NL squad — the Los Angeles Dodgers — is once again in the postseason, this time arguably better than ever. However, the invincibility they displayed for much of the season was laid low by an 11-game losing streak that coincided with much of the Indians' winning streak. As infuriating as the Dodgers' postseason exits have been this decade, it's ace Clayton Kershaw who is the biggest enigma. Despite only pitching for 10 seasons, if he retired tomorrow Kershaw would have a pretty good case for the Hall of Fame. Yet, in 18 postseason appearances he posts a barely replacement-level 4-7 record with a 4.55 ERA.
The Dodgers' NLDS opponent, the Arizona Diamondbacks, have made a stunning turnaround to reach the postseason a year after losing 93 games. They've got top pitching talent in Zach Greinke and Robbie Ray, an MVP candidate in first baseman Paul Goldschmidt, and legit power threats in third baseman Jake Lamb and right fielder J.D. Martinez. But then things get a little thin on their roster, making an upset of the Dodgers a surprising though not unfathomable outcome.
As the self-parodic Yankees radio broadcaster John Sterling often says, "You can't predict baseball," but I'm going to try anyway. The Astros will beat the Red Sox in five games, and the Indians will beat the Yankees in four. The Cubs will sweep in three — because Nationals gonna National — and the Dodgers will beat the Diamondbacks in four.
In the ALCS, I'm calling Indians over Astros in an epic 7-game showdown, with the Cubs once again taking down the Dodgers in a six-game NLCS. In a rematch of the historic 2016 World Series, the Cubs will once again beat the Indians, this time in six — because baseball needs a truly tragic franchise. Now that the Red Sox, White Sox, and (gasp!) Cubs have all broken their "curses," the most superstitious of all team sports needs the Indians to carry the mantle of "Wait Til Next Year."