Everything matters a little more during the postseason. That’s why we pay a little more attention to Clayton Kershaw’s ERA or Bryce Harper’s stat line or how Terry Francona manages his bullpen.
We’re all looking a little closer, analyzing a little more — and with good reason, there’s more on the line by the time we reach the final week of October and two teams are playing for baseball’s ultimate prize.
As we enter October baseball, we’re just a little more aware of the storylines ahead of us. There are dozens and dozens, of course. But for now, we picked 10 topics that should be the talk of the postseason as games go on.
WILL AARON JUDGE’S BIG BAT PROPEL THE YANKEES?
Here’s the thing about the wild-card format: Sometimes all it takes is one big swing for a team to move on. Look at the lineups for the New York Yankees and Minnesota Twins, who meet Tuesday night in the AL wild-card game. Who has the biggest bat and can change everything?
You’re right, it’s Aaron Judge, Rookie of the Year lock, MVP hopeful and now the record holder for most homers in a rookie season. After an en-fuego September, Judge makes his first postseason appearance as the Yankees host the Twins. The right swing in the right moment and he could guarantee the Yankees at least three more postseason games. If that happens, how far can he take them? (Mike Oz)
WILL CLAYTON KERSHAW FINALLY SILENCE HIS DETRACTORS?
Clayton Kershaw is, without doubt, the best pitcher of his generation. He has the numbers, accolades, and awards to prove it. He’s only missing one thing — and it’s the thing that nags at his legacy, the thing that his detractors latch onto and relentlessly harp on.
Can Clayton Kershaw get it done in the postseason? It’s gotten to the point where people have started to compare him to Peyton Manning for his regular-season dominance followed by playoff disappointment? You’d think he gives up 47 homers every postseason outing the way people talk about him. Kershaw has had great moments and bad ones. His overall postseason ERA of 4.55 pales to his career ERA in the regular season 2.36, but the sample is also a lot smaller.
Either way, Kershaw can make a big point this postseason. And he can do it while guiding the Dodgers back to the World Series, which they haven’t won since 1988. (Oz)
HOW WILL TERRY FRANCONA USE ANDREW MILLER?
Super reliever Andrew Miller was the MVP of the Cleveland Indians’ postseason run. The reliever appeared in virtually every game, and put up eye-popping numbers. Did fatigue get him in the end? Miller did give up an uncharacteristic two runs in Game 7 of the World Series against the Cubs.
Injuries forced Terry Francona to ride Miller hard last postseason. That won’t necessarily be the case this time around. Carlos Carrasco and Danny Salazar are around, which should take the load off Miller. That should make Cleveland more dangerous. While you want Miller out there as much as possible, you also want to be able to give him a day or two occasionally. Francona being able to utilize more weapons is a dangerous proposition for opposing clubs. (Chris Cwik)
CAN ERVIN SANTANA CHANGE THE TWINS’ POSTSEASON FORTUNES?
Ervin Santana wouldn’t be many people’s first choice to start a must-win game. Twins manager Paul Molitor has no qualms with it though. The 34-year-old right-hander is coming off arguably his two best seasons in his 13-year MLB career, and now he’s poised to change Minnesota’s postseason futures with just one more gem. The Twins enter having not won a postseason game since 2004. That’s a notable drought in today’s game.
It’s a lot of pressure for a pitcher to bear, but Santana should be up to the task. The veteran led the league in complete games (five) and shutouts (three), while posting a 3.28 ERA this season. That’s just a shade higher than his career best 3.24 ERA in 2013. His 1.126 WHIP was the best mark of his career, and it‘s helped him overcome the one area where he‘s struggled — the home run ball. After allowing 31 total between 2015-16, he allowed 31 this season alone.
That’s what will make his matchup with the Yankees so fascinating. If Santana continues limiting traffic, chances are he’d be able to survive a home run or two from New York‘s powerful lineup. If he doesn’t limit traffic, then the Yankees could send Santana and the Twins home disappointed again. (Mark Townsend)
DAVID PRICE: BULLPEN WEAPON?
The Boston Red Sox might take a page out of the book of the Cleveland Indians and do something a bit non-traditional in their bullpen. Make the guy with a $217 million contract pitch out of the bullpen. It sounds funny in theory, but considering Price’s rocky 2017 and Cleveland’s example last year, the bullpen might actually be a great spot for Price. He missed nearly two months with elbow inflammation and the Red Sox sent him to the bullpen when he was activated a couple weeks ago.
Since then, he’s made five appearances out of the bullpen, striking out 13 hitters in eight and two-thirds innings. Price might not be ready to throw even 75 pitches in a game, so if circumstances allow the Red Sox to use Price as a reliever in high-leverage situations, it might actually work out for the best. (Oz)
WHICH VERSION OF FERNANDO RODNEY WILL SHOW UP?
It’s obvious to say a team’s closer will have a major impact on its success, but no reliever in baseball is more volatile than Fernando Rodney. When he’s on, he’s one of the best relievers in the game. When he’s off, you start to wonder whether he’s even one of the top 25 players on your team.
Rodney’s extreme tendencies were on full display in 2017. He posted a 12.60 ERA during the first month of the season, didn’t give up a run in May and June, allowed five runs in five innings in July and eventually settled in to post solid numbers down the stretch. The Diamondbacks may only get one game to prove themselves in the postseason. Fans will be on the edge of their seats if the final inning falls on Rodney. (Cwik)
WHICH UNHERALDED ROCKIES CONTRIBUTOR WILL MAKE A NAME FOR HIMSELF?
If you asked casual baseball fans to name five Rockies, you’d hear the names Carlos Gonzalez and Nolan Arenado almost immediately. For several years, they have been the faces of the franchise. By now, everyone should know who Charlie Blackmon is too. If that‘s not you, then check out the leaderboard in every major offensive category for the past three seasons.
Those three men give the Rockies a dangerous trio, but rest assured they aren’t the only reasons Colorado is headed to the wild-card game. This is a deep team filled with unheralded stars and contributors, any one of which could become a household name in short order. There are several candidates to be that guy. Second baseman D.J. Lemahieu is a former batting champion and Gold Glove winner. Shortstop Trevor Story can change a game with his glove or bat. Gerardo Parra, Mark Reynolds and Jonathan Lucroy, all solid veterans. Then there are guys like Pat Valaika, a pinch-hitter extraordinaire who contributed 13 home runs.
On the pitching side, Jon Gray will have the best chance to shine in the wild-card game. If they advance, then the incredible story of Chad Bettis will have a chance to continue on a grand stage. There are so many good players here that not enough people know about. If the Rockies get their way though, then the world will soon know all of them. (Mark Townsend)
THE CUBS ARE BACK, BUT SOMETHING IS MISSING
The Chicago Cubs are back and looking to defend their crown. On the surface, they appear just as dangerous, if not more dangerous, than last season. But that hasn’t been the case, and it’s tough to explain why.
The offense remains young and exciting, the pitching staff goes four deep with Jose Quintana and the bullpen is full of big-time strikeout artists. Despite all that, the Cubs weren’t nearly as dominant in the regular season. Something just seems to be missing. We’re not foolish enough to believe this is real, but it feels like the Cubs lack last year’s magic. On paper, they should still be the class of the NL. Somehow, they are only the third-best team in the league. (Cwik)
CAN THE NATS WIN A POSTSEASON SERIES?
The Washington Nationals enter the season with a ton of baggage. And it’s just going to get worse because you’ll continue to hear about how they’ve never won a postseason series and how they’ve continually been knocked out of the playoffs early despite having World Series expectations. Is this the year it ends? And will Bryce Harper be a big part of it? He has a two-birds-one-stone thing going, where he can prove himself on the biggest stage and help his team toss that monkey off its back.
The window for the Nats is closing as Harper gets closer to free agency. Jayson Werth is a free agent after this season too. It all adds up to one thing: It’s a good time for the Nats to win. (Oz)
THE ASTROS CAN FULFILL THE PROPHECY
Everyone remembers the Sports Illustrated cover that proclaimed the Houston Astros the 2017 World Series champs. We all laughed at the time, but that’s looking awfully prescient now.
As Cleveland has emerged, Houston seems to have fallen by the wayside. But a closer look reveals they have everything you could want from a championship club. They’re still young, sure, but most of their key players have postseason experience. That same core is intact but surrounded by better talent and more experienced. If that sounds like the 2016 Cubs, it probably should. Houston may finally prove the SI cover jinx doesn’t exist. (Cwik)
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