The marathon regular season has ended. While 20 teams are already planning for next season, 10 others are gearing up for the playoffs which got underway Tuesday evening with the National League wild card.
Thursday, the NL Division Series gets under way and the American League DS begins Friday. That will be one of the best days of the baseball postseason as all four division series are in action.
So who’s coming into the postseason hot and who’s struggling?
The five National League teams had similar results over the final quarter of the season, each winning between 25 and 27 of their final 40 games.
There was greater disparity in the American League. Houston was 29-11 over its final 40 games while the Yankees were a modest 22-18. In between, Tampa Bay won 25 and both Minnesota and Oakland 27.
Here are thoughts on the four best-of-five League Divisional Series.
Brewers/Nationals vs. Dodgers: The Dodgers have been the team to beat in the NL since the start of the season as they seek a third straight trip to the World Series. They would have a significant edge over Milwaukee in starting pitching, an edge that would be neutralized if they face Washington.
The Brewers are likely to have used the formula of several pitchers going short stretches in their Wild Card game against the Nats, and, if they won, going forward. It’s a strategy that got them to Game 7 of last season’s NLCS.
Both the Dodgers and Nats outscored the Brewers by more than 100 runs. The Dodgers have been the best of the trio in runs prevention.
Acknowledging Milwaukee’s bullpen edge and Washington’s deficiency, my preferred plays will be First Five Inning plays backing the Dodgers against the Brewers or the Nationals in the First Five Innings against the Dodgers.
My call for the two possible series are the Dodgers in four games over the Brewers and in five games over Washington.
Cardinals vs. Braves: This is the most intriguing and compelling of the four Divisional series as these teams are evenly matched. Atlanta’s strength is its offense which produced 91 more runs than St. Louis. The Cardinals have the edge in runs prevention, allowing 81 fewer runs than the Braves.
St. Louis’ Jack Flaherty is the best starter on either staff while Atlanta’s ace is Mike Soroka. If they oppose each other, Under a total of 7 or higher is the preferred play. Against other starters, Flaherty and Soroka can be backed as underdogs or if favored by -130 or less.
In games not involving Flaherty or Soroka I will be looking to back the underdog and would not be surprised if this series features splits of both the first two games in Atlanta and the next two in St. Louis.
Ignoring the last-place finishers in their divisions, the top four teams in the NL East won 18 more games than the top four teams in the Central. My call is for Atlanta to get past St. Louis in five games.
Rays/Athletics vs. Astros: Houston led MLB with a runs differential of plus 280 and only the Dodgers allowed fewer than the 640 runs allowed by the Astros.
This is the most talented team in baseball and their starting pitching trio of Justin Verlander, Gerrit Cole and Zack Greinke are ably supported by a solid bullpen.
I rate Oakland as having the better chance of pulling the upset than I do the Rays although I give both teams slim chances. My preferred play for the first two games will be to lay the run and a half with the Astros in starts by Verlander and Cole against either foe. If Houston wins the first two games I’d look to back either the A’s or Rays at home in Game 3 against Greinke.
A series with Oakland is likely to be a higher scoring series and I would consider Over totals of 8.5 or lower. Against Tampa Bay my plays will be on Under totals of 8 or higher in all matchups.
Houston will be tough to beat and should get by Tampa Bay in no more than four games with Oakland capable of extending the series to a deciding fifth game.
Twins vs. Yankees: The Yankees have a long history of success against the Twins. Minnesota’s best chance of pulling the upset likely rests on an ability to score early as New York’s starting pitching is a concern.
The Yankees’ bullpen is a major strength which suggests Minnesota is less likely to rally from behind for a win than to jump out early and maintain that lead. Playing on Minnesota for the First Five Innings at underdog prices would be the best way to support the AL Central champions.
I expect the Yankees to win in four games. If the Yankees sweep the first two games at home my play in Game 3 will be on Minnesota. If those games are split my plays will be on the Yankees in both Games 3 and 4, laying the run and a half if favored by more than -150.