It’s here. The scent of pumpkin spice lattes wafting from the corner of every other muffaka on the planet. The sound of leaves crunching as you walk down the sidewalk. The Bears losing in September. Autumn has arrived, and with it…the baseball postseason.
This is my favorite time of year to write about, primarily for two reasons. The first is the simple fact that narratives write themselves, and it is impossible for any baseball fan to not get swept up into October’s magic. Case in point: the number of sudden Royals fanatics who came out of the woodwork last fall. (Yours truly included. Ask my former roommate about the time I ripped a book in half when one player absolutely threw away an at-bat in Game Seven of the World Series.) Moments arise that live forever, and feel good stories linger on for postseasons to come.
The second one has become a growing interest of mine – the impact of the postseason upon the legacies of the game’s great players. There’s no denying that I’m somewhat obsessive about the Baseball Hall of Fame, so much so as to tally the votes as they are announced in late December/early January. I feel as though my column next year may evolve to take a stronger look at the personal campaigns for greatness that arise year in and year out (see my ode to Big Papi from a few weeks ago), and this postseason, there are several players and teams who will be campaigning for one level of greatness or another. I’ll try and highlight those as they come along, pointing out the players with the most to gain in each round.
But first, the Wild Card Round.
The Wild Card One-Game Playoff is inherently unpredictable. Baseball is not built to be decided upon a single game – it should be decided over at least a three game series (if not five or seven). And yet the Wild Card Game has injected baseball with a thrill of escalation and excitement that otherwise might be lacking early in the playoffs. Think of it as Baseball Lite, an introductory course for the novice fan, or a gateway drug that leads to the stronger thrills of the League Championship Series and the ultimate Fall Classic. Last year’s games served as foreshadowing for the main storylines of the postseason – the ascendancy of MadBum and the triumph of Kansas City. This year may follow suit…or it may crash and burn. Who knows?
AL Wild Card Game: New York Yankees vs Houston Astros, Tuesday at 8:00 PM (EST)
In this corner, you have the upstart Houston Astros, predicted to win it all…in 2016. They battled long, faded a little late, and ultimately prevailed to win a shot in the final game. In the other corner, you have the New York Yankees, an interesting team caught between the aging prime and tainted past (hello, Mr. A-Rod) and a new era. They were the second best team to arise from the quagmire of the AL East and ultimately built up enough steam to send home Mike Trout and the Anaheim Angels.
The Astros will start Dallas Keuchel, a strong candidate for the AL Cy Young, who sports a 15-0 record at home with a 1.46 ERA. Unfortunately, he’ll be making the start at Yankee Stadium – although in his last start, he twirled seven innings of scoreless baseball, so that may not matter. Meanwhile, the Yankees will pit Masahiro Tanaka against the bearded wonder. Tanaka is notable for possessing a fairly filthy assortment of pitches, but also for throwing with a partially torn ligament in his arm that would ordinarily necessitate surgery. Instead, Tanaka opted to pitch somewhat softer than the max, and the results have been a welcome stabilizer for a wayward Yankee rotation. Theirs is not a rotation built to last in October, so they’ve got to throw everything they have at the younger Astros.
As far as legacies, the Astros are ascending, so this is simply a “welcome to the playground” moment for young stars like Keuchel, George Springer, and the bonafide superstar Carlos Correa. They hit longballs as well as anybody in the league, and with Jose Altuve working the base paths, they’re a legitimate high scoring threat. The Yankees, however, have something more on the line. They’re a mixture of high priced expenditures like Brian McCann, Jacoby Ellsbury, and the fading Carlos Beltran. (Not to mention Alex Rodriguez, who quietly has put together what might be a worthy Comeback Player of the Year type of season. Steroids or not, there’s still immense talent in his aging, narcissistic body.) They’ve got youngsters like Didi Gregorious, erstwhile shortstop of the future who gives hope to light hitting shortstops everywhere, and Greg Bird, the young first baseman who’s probably the best hitter on the team. In spite of years of fantastic performances right out of legend, Carlos Beltran has never won a World Series, and this may well be his last chance to do so – who knows what will happen next year?
The Yanks bullpen is probably their strongest asset – and it’s been one of the weakest in baseball over the past month – with that leaky rotation in front of them, innings pile up. Andrew Miller and Dellin Betances are as fearful a 1-2 punch as any other team in the league, but they need leads to protect. And if Tanaka gets into trouble against the power-hitting Astros, it might as well be game over.
I can see the Yankees grinding out a win, but the Astros are young and full of fire. In a one-game playoff, I’m taking Houston.
NL Wild Card: Pittsburgh Pirates vs Chicago Cubs, Wednesday at 8:00 PM (EST)
And then there’s this game, which pits the second and third best teams in baseball against one another.
I don’t want a one game playoff here. It’s just not fair. I want a seven game series full of dominating pitching, full of young stars making the most of their time in the October spotlight. I want Pittsburgh and Chicago, two baseball towns starved for postseason success to rock and roll long into the depths of October.
Instead, one team goes home while the other goes off to wreak havoc on the overrated St. Louis Cardinals. (Did I mention I don’t think much of the only team to win 100 games this year? Because I don’t.) Is it fair? Well, this is why baseball set the onus on winning your division, and both teams early season slumps (if you can call .500 baseball a slump) doomed them to the Wild Card game.
Pittsburgh has been here twice before – this is their third Wild Card game in a row. Two years ago, they rocked Johnny Cueto <drinks> and shook the foundations of PNC Park on their way to a win. Last year, they ran into the human buzzsaw from the Carolinas known as Madison Bumgarner. They’re hungry for more, and for a shot at the Cardinals. Winning in this year would cement Andrew McCutchen’s status as an icon in Pittsburgh for years to come. Gerrit Cole is one of the best young starters in the league. The line-up is strong. The bullpen is strong. This team is ready…
…but so are the Cubs. Like the Astros, the Cubs ascended far quicker than many (myself included) predicted. Joe Maddon’s effect on the team cannot be quantified – except to the tune of a 97-65 record, which would lead every other division in baseball. Haters of the Wild Card game, I offer you the Chicago Cubs as the answer to “why have a second team at all?”.
I’m gifted with an information bias (I live here, after all, and saw more than a dozen games in person), but it’s hard not to like this team. They’ve got Anthony Rizzo, the closest thing to a crossbreed of Joey Votto and Paul Goldschmidt as walks this earth. They’ve got rookie phenom Kris Bryant, and other youngsters like Addison Russell and Jorge Soler and Kyle Schwarber. They’ve got one of three possible Cy Young winners in the National League in Jake Arrieta, who last gave up an earned run sometime during the Bush Administration (or so it would feel). This is a loaded team, and the winners of eight straight games heading into Wednesday night.
But they’ve also got over 100 years of postseason heartbreak, a legacy which doesn’t fade lightly, and which bears heavily upon the thoughts of every Cubs fan in the nation.
(Nerd Rant: The Cubs are totally like the Elves of J.R.R. Tolkien’s The Silmarillion. They’ve come back to Middle-Earth, subdued the evil of Morgoth, and have their nice, little kingdoms set up in Beleriand, and they’re enjoying themselves, but the whole while, they know that Morgoth is probably going to break loose and destroy everything at some point and pretty much wipe them off the face of the map, but they still stick around because Middle Earth sure is nice and all. And then Morgoth breaks loose and fucks their shit right the fuck up and they’re all like ‘oh the tragedy’ even though literally every single one of them saw this coming from hundreds of years out. Anyway, yeah, I have a hard time pulling for the Cubs because the St. Louis Morgoths are totally going to fuck their shit up over and over and over and…the point is, I read too much Tolkien.)
The Pirates have been the best team in baseball since mid-May, and at PNC I’d normally want to say the Pirates will win this one easily. But then, I look at Arrieta’s stat line against Pittsburgh this season and see that in five starts, he’s pitched to a .151/.192/.176 slash line, which is just criminally unfair. And then, I think about The Silmarillion (Steve Bartman is totally Turin Turambar, btw, a guy who just has the worst luck in all Middle-Earth) and I think the Pirates. And then I think about the Cubs who can’t say die.
I have no clue who’s going to win. Because of that, I’ll go with what I know and pick the home team: Pittsburgh on a walk-off.
Whoever wins, we all win. It’s the postseason, y’all.