Major League Baseball has a wild card weekend.
Friday marks the dawn of a new era with the best-of-three series kicking off the league's expanded 12-team postseason, featuring a total of eight teams.
The top two division winners in each league received byes to the division series (starting Tuesday), while each team's lowest-ranked division champ and three wild-card teams must battle through the weekend series, hosted by the higher seed.
The New York Mets (101-61) being relegated to the wild card series is the big story here, losing control of the NL East in the season's final days after leading for nearly the entire season. Facing the San Diego Padres (89-73) at Citi Field, the Mets are just the third team in the wild-card era to win 100 games and finish in second place.
In the American League, the AL Central champion Cleveland Guardians are at home against the Tampa Bay Rays, while the Blue Jays host the Seattle Mariners in Toronto. In the NL's other series, the Central-winning St. Louis Cardinals face the Philadelphia Phillies at Busch Stadium.
Here's one big question for every team this weekend:
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Is the offense enough?
It’s been the prevailing question all season and Cleveland has mostly silenced its critics. En route to winning the American League Central, the Guardians mastered an old-school, small-ball approach at the plate. They ranked 14th of 15 AL teams in home runs and 11th in slugging percentage, but they finished among the league’s best in contact rate (1st), stolen bases (2nd), batting average (4th) and hits (4th).
Jose Ramirez, who ended with 126 RBI, is the obvious heartbeat of the lineup, but a career revival from Amed Rosario and breakout seasons from Andres Gimenez and rookies Steven Kwan and Oscar Gonzalez ensured opposing pitchers couldn’t just work around Ramirez.
It will lean hard on its excellent starting pitching (Shane Bieber, Triston McKenzie and Cal Quantrill) and lights-out bullpen (led by Emmanuel Clase’s 42 saves and 1.36 ERA) to keep games close enough for its pesky, yet productive, offense to come through.
– Casey Moore
Tampa Bay Rays
How much can Tyler Glasnow give them?
In a crucial Game 2 start at Cleveland, the Rays will have a seasoned playoff arm making his ninth career postseason start, an intimidating presence who can run his fastball up to triple digits, the exact shutdown guy you want come October.
Just one potential snag: He's pitched just twice since June 14, 2021.
Yet Glasnow did not doggedly rehab from Tommy John elbow surgery for the Rays to wait and see if he's OK. They're taking the leap and putting their season in his hands – because the upside is just too high.
Glasnow made two late-season starts, going three innings and 50 pitches in the first outing and upping it to 75 pitches on Monday, striking out seven of the 15 Boston Red Sox he faced.
Now, the Rays hope to capture his progression in a playoff setting. His pitch count may edge toward 90, but he will need to be more efficient against a tricky Cleveland lineup. And should the Guardians beat ace Shane McClanahan – who has battled shoulder and neck issues down the stretch – in Game 1, Glasnow will be pitching to salvage the season.
No matter. The ever-positive Rays will bank on Glasnow returning to dominance – even if no one knows exactly what he has to give.
– Gabe Lacques
What can they do for an encore?
After falling a season-high 10 games below the .500 mark at 29-39 on June 19 – and on their way to another season without a playoff appearance – the Mariners rebounded to go 61-33 and capped a 90-win season with a wild-card spot. In doing so, it snapped a 20-season postseason drought, ending the longest active streak in the majors.
How far Seattle can go this October will rely on rookie sensation Julio Rodríguez, who returned from the 10-day IL on Monday from a lower back strain, and their deep rotation. J-Rod, the clear runaway for the AL rookie of the year, ranks among rookie leaders in nearly every category, including home runs (28). When he is in the lineup, Seattle was 75-56 (.572) and 15-16 (.484) when he was not.
An interesting matchup to follow will be when Robbie Ray, who won the AL Cy Young award last season with the Blue Jays, faces off against his former team.
– Scott Boeck
Toronto Blue Jays
Is Alek Manoah that dude?
The playoffs bring the potential for endless potential outcomes, but it seems there are just two regarding the Blue Jays and their 6-6, 285-pound ace.
No. 1: Manoah swaggers into a hysterical Rogers Centre and shuts down the Mariners, beginning a string of dominant Game 1 performances that power the charismatic Blue Jays into the World Series.
No. 2: Manoah is nicked up by the Mariners, maybe surrenders a solo homer to transcendent rookie Julio Rodriguez, churns through six innings, turns a tie game over to a so-so Toronto bullpen, Seattle surges ahead late, Blue Jays go home early.
Sure, it's not all riding on Manoah, and 205-strikeout man Kevin Gausman is primed for Game 2. Yet any hope that the Blue Jays have of sticking around – let alone throwing a scare into the Houston Astros, who await their ALDS foe – rest heavily on Manoah producing a series of clean and probably dominant starts to take the pressure off the rest of the staff.
The good news for the Blue Jays is he's been up to that task of late. Manoah finished the season on a tear, posting a 1.00 ERA over his last eight starts, giving up just two home runs in 54 innings. Yet the Blue Jays won just five of those eight starts, losing both games where he completed just six innings.
In an ideal scenario, Manoah bulls through eight innings and hands the ball directly to closer Jordan Romano. Anything less, and Seattle may have the opening it needs.
– Gabe Lacques
New York Mets
Will Jacob deGrom and Max Scherzer deliver?
With five Cy Youngs between their top two starters, the Mets are built for this, theoretically. Of course, the Mets are here rather than in the NLDS after their aces each lost in last weekend's sweep at Atlanta.
“Coming into the postseason sometimes it’s good to get that clunker out of the way,” Scherzer told the New York Post.
Scherzer gets the nod for Game 1 against the Padres coming off that rough start against the Braves (9 hits, 4 ER in 5 ⅔ innings) with the Mets holding deGrom back until at least Game 2. It was a rough September for deGrom, who had a 6.00 ERA in his last four starts. That said, he had 39 strikeouts and four walks in those 21 innings and limited the Braves to three solo home runs with 11 strikeouts in the loss.
The Padres have struggled against right-handers, ranking in the bottom of half of baseball with a .380 slugging percentage but the margin for error is non-existent in the short series.
– Jesse Yomtov
San Diego Padres
Can they score enough runs?
The Padres offense, which includes MVP candidate Manny Machado, was supposed to be more daunting following the Aug. 2 trade deadline when San Diego acquired OF Juan Soto, 1B Brandon Drury and DH/1B Josh Bell.
"I wish good luck to the other pitchers," Soto said at his introductory press conference when asked about the new and improved lineup.
That, however, hasn't quite materialized. Since acquiring the trio, the Friars scored fewer runs per game than they did before the deadline (4.2 vs. 4.4) while all three sluggers saw their batting average drop considerably, most notably Bell, who hit .301 with the Washington Nationals and .192 with the Padres. The Padres have had their breakout games and will need that when they face NL Cy Young winners Max Scherzer and Jacob deGrom in the three-game series.
– Scott Boeck
St. Louis Cardinals
Do they have enough pitching to survive the October grind?
The Cardinals won the NL Central title going away, posting a 40-21 (.656) record since the beginning of August. They have a potent offense and a superb defense, but that might not be enough to support a pitching staff that doesn’t quite measure up to other contenders’.
The Cards have no true ace they can rely on in a must-win situation. Trade deadline pickups Jose Quintana and Jordan Montgomery have been their best starters over the second half, but will they slot ahead of veterans Miles Mikolas and Adam Wainwright in the playoffs? And with every at-bat in October a meaningful one, St. Louis pitchers have the lowest strikeout rate in the majors (7.4 K/9).
Closer Ryan Helsley has been outstanding (9-1, 1.25 ERA, 19 saves), but an untested bullpen that also lacks power arms could have trouble providing a bridge to Helsley in the ninth.
– Steve Gardner
Will the big bats get the big hits?
Philadelphia's 11-year postseason drought is over thanks to a powerful lineup (205 HR, sixth in MLB), but they've had a tough time getting everyone hot at the same time and went just 34-47 against teams over .500.
Reigning MVP Bryce Harper is batting just .227 since returning from injury on Aug. 26 and is a .211 hitter in the postseason. NL home run champion Kyle Schwarber (46) also led the majors in strikeouts and his .324 OBP was the second-worst of his career. Free agent signing Nick Castellanos saw his OPS dropped from .938 in 2021 to .694 in his first year with the Phillies, hitting only 13 home runs while calling Citizens Bank Park home.
The Phillies found the timely hits in the regular season, ranking third in baseball in batting with runners in scoring position, and that's going to need to continue against a St. Louis club that went 26-17 in one-run games.
– Jesse Yomtov
This article originally appeared on USA TODAY: MLB playoffs: Mets, Cardinals face big questions in wild card series