MLB Playoffs: Wild Card Preview

After 2,430 regular season games, baseball’s playoffs are here.  And despite the longest regular season in professional sports, and despite the entire season being played in series of two to four games apiece, the entire season comes down to a one-game playoff for the Wild Card teams in both leagues.  But I’ll hold my opinion on that for later.  Tonight, the AL Wild Card Game is in Kansas City (8:00, TBS), and the NL Wild Card Game will follow, tomorrow night in Pittsburgh (8:00, ESPN).

AL Wild Card Game:  Oakland Athletics at Kansas City Royals

The Royals are in the playoffs for the first time since the 1985 World Series, and will face a team, the Athletics, that were, once upon a time, actually based in Kansas City.  The A’s are in the playoffs for the third straight season, and in some ways are the Braves of the AL, failing to advance past the first round in six of their last seven appearances, with the 2006 ALCS, in which they were swept, serving as the exception.  The Royals can say they haven’t won a playoff series since 1985, but that’s because they haven’t even been to the playoffs since that team beat the Cardinals in the World Series 29 years ago.  Kauffman Stadium will be rocking on Tuesday night, as anyone in Kansas City under 35 isn’t old enough to remember the joy and agony of previous playoff runs.  For what it’s worth, the three-game playoff winning streak held by the Royals (even if the three games were in 1985) is the second longest in baseball.

Pitching: For Tuesday’s game, the A’s will turn to the man they acquired at the trade deadline on July 31 to pitch big games like this one, Jon Lester (2.46 ERA, 2.35 with A’s, 2.11 career ERA in playoffs), one of the heroes of last year’s World Series run for the Red Sox.  Behind Lester, while the A’s won’t even have the strongest bullpen in the ballpark (keep reading), they do have a strong relief core, led by closer Sean Doolittle (22 saves).  Before the ninth, bullpen options include Dan Otero and Luke Gregerson, both of whom have an ERA under 2.30, and Fernando Abad, who has the best ERA on the team (1.57).  For the Royals, they give the ball to “Big Game James”, James Shields.  Shields is the staff ace (14-8, 3.21 ERA), although his career ERA in the playoffs is an iffy 4.98, but he hasn’t appeared in a playoff game since 2010, and is a different pitcher today.  If the Royals take the lead to the seventh inning, they will like their chances, as the best bullpen in baseball will get to work.  Kelvin Herrera (1.41 ERA) is normally their seventh inning pitcher, followed by setup man Wade Davis (1.00 ERA) in the eighth and closer Greg Holland (1.44 ERA, 46 saves) in the ninth.

Hitting: For the first four months of the season, Oakland’s offense was among the best in baseball.  But when they traded for Lester, they gave up Yoenis Cespedes to get him.  While the A’s also got Jonny Gomes in the trade, the output isn’t the same for their offense without Cespedes in the middle of the order.  The highest batting average on the team belongs to Derek Norris, and that’s just .270.  While Josh Donaldson and Brandon Moss had 98 and 81 RBI, respectively, the offense as a unit certainly has less than overwhelming numbers.  Adam Dunn is on the Athletics bench for the game tonight, but is in the playoffs for the first time after 2,001 regular season games, as he plays his final season.  The Royals offense isn’t going to dominate anyone either, but comparing them to Oakland they are the better unit, led by Alex Gordon, Salvador Perez (74 and 70 RBI, respectively), and Lorenzo Cain (.301 average).  Obviously pitching, not scoring runs, is the strength of both teams in this game.

Other: Bob Melvin is managing the A’s in the playoffs for the third straight year, after a couple of five-game losses to Detroit in Division Series play the last two years.  In the other dugout Ned Yost is managing his first playoff game.  The former Brewers manager took over in Kansas City in 2010 and the team has improved under him each year.  As mentioned, Kansas City has waited for this game for 29 years, so they will certainly have a strong home field advantage.  That, coupled with Oakland’s 28-39 post-All-Star Break record which took them from World Series favorite to only making the playoffs by a single game, points to a Royals victory.

The Royals will win to advance to the ALDS to play the Los Angeles Angels.

NL Wild Card Game: San Francisco Giants at Pittsburgh Pirates

Last year, the Pirates were a lot like the Royals this year, hosting the Wild Card Game after a long playoff drought (it had been 21 years, in their case).  This year they are back, and hosting the Wild Card game once again, becoming the first team in the current format to play in the Wild Card round for a second time.  They face the San Francisco Giants, who have had plenty of recent postseason success, winning the World Series in 2010 and 2012.  They missed the playoffs last year, and carry a league-high seven-game playoff winning streak into this postseason.  Last year Pittsburgh’s crowd was very hungry for playoff success after such a long drought, so don’t think they’ve forgotten the past, even though they are in the same situation once again.  Perhaps the most picturesque park in all of baseball will also be one of the loudest this postseason, just as it was a year ago.  Both teams in this game are 88-74, with the Pirates winning four out of six in the head-to-head series in the regular season.

Pitching:  Some have criticized the Pirates’ decision to pitch Edison Volquez in this game, but Volquez leads the team’s major contributors in ERA (among starters), at 3.04.  The Pirates bullpen has been a bit of a liability at times, but has been strong during their September run to a playoff berth.  Closer Mark Melancon (33 saves) took over the role after the midseason trade of Jason Grilli to the Angels.  Add Tony Watson and Jared Hughes, and you have a trio of relievers, all of whom have an ERA under 2.00.  The Giants previous titles were based on pitching, but many of those players have either moved on, lost form, or gotten hurt.  Enter Madison Bumgarner (18-10, 2.98 ERA), who was a middle-of-the-rotation pitcher before, has stepped up and become the ace of the staff.  The Giants bullpen isn’t the force it has been in the past, but it is still a solid unit, with the workload split pretty evenly between closer Santiago Casilla (1.70 ERA, 19 saves) and fellow relievers Sergio Romo (3.72 ERA, 23 saves before losing closer’s job), Jeremy Affeldt (2.28), Jean Machi (2.58), Javier Lopez (3.11), J.C. Gutierrez (3.96).

Hitting:  The Pirates have two of the top three batting averages in Josh Harrison (.315), and Andrew McCutcheon (.314), the 2013 NL MVP.  While the team isn’t the best slugging team in the game, they do have six players with at least 13 homers, including McCutcheon (25) and the team’s slugger Pedro Alvarez (18 in 122 games).  Neil Walker (23 HR, 76 RBI) is also an impact hitter, and Russell Martin (.290, 11 HR, 67 RBI) has had a solid season and was very clutch for the Pirates in last year’s postseason.  The Giants are led offensively by Buster Posey (.311 average, 22 HR, 89 RBI), Hunter Pence (.277, 20, 74), and Pablo Sandoval (.279, 16, 73).  Angel Pagan (.300) has hit for a high average at the top of the order, and Joe Panik (.305) helped solve the team’s early season second baseman woes when he came up from the minors.

Other: Both managers in this game are postseason veterans, with Bruce Bochy of the Giants in his seventh postseason, dating back to his time with the Padres, and looking to reach the World Series for the fourth time, and Clint Hurdle of the Pirates in his third postseason, having reached the World Series in 2007 with the Rockies.  As I mentioned, the Pirates have home field advantage for this one-game playoff, and with two very even teams taking the field Wednesday night at PNC Park, the crowd may just be the difference.

The Pirates will win to advance to the NLDS to play the Washington Nationals.

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