After the Blue Jays and Indians took a 1-0 series lead in the two American League Division Series yesterday, each of those series will play Game 2 this afternoon, setting the stage for two series openers tonight in the National League.
(For a preview of each ALDS matchup, click here.)
Los Angeles Dodgers (91-71, NL West champion) vs. Washington Nationals (95-67, NL East champion)
(Game 1: Friday, 5:38 pm ET, FS1)
This series matches a pair of teams notorious for postseason struggles in recent years, and that will continue for one of them. The Dodgers won the season series, 5-1, but that doesn’t do justice to how good a matchup this should be.
Both teams, and especially the Dodgers, have overcome injuries throughout the season, making Dodgers manager Dave Roberts and Nationals manager Dusty Baker the two favorites for NL Manager of the Year (I’d give the advantage to Roberts).
Both pitching rotations are very strong, although the Dodgers may have a slight advantage. Washington, with a 3.51 team ERA, has NL Cy Young contender Max Scherzer (20-7, 2.96 ERA) to start Game 1, underrated Tanner Roark (16-10, 2.83 ERA) in Game 2, and Gio Gonzalez (11-11, 4.57 ERA) in Game 3, but are without Steven Strasburg (15-4, 3.60 ERA). The Dodgers, with a 3.70 team ERA, have the very strong trio of Clayton Kershaw (12-4, 1.69 ERA), Rich Hill (for the season with OAK/LAD combined: 12-5, 2.12 ERA), and Kenta Maeda (16-11, 3.48 ERA) lined up for the first three games.
The two bullpens have nearly identical ERAs (3.35 for Los Angeles, 3.37 for Washington), and each have lockdown closers who will be tough to come from behind on in the ninth inning, with deadline acquisition Mark Melancon (for the season with PIT/WAS combined: 47/51 saves, 1.64 ERA) for the Nationals, and Kenley Jansen (47/53 saves, 1.83 ERA) for the Dodgers.
Offensively, both teams have a blend of exciting young talent and experienced stars in their lineup. The Dodgers (.249 team BA) feature likely NL Rookie of the Year Corey Seager (.308 BA, 26 HR, 72 RBI) and veteran leaders Adrian Gonzalez (.285 BA, 18 HR, 90 RBI) and Justin Turner (.275 BA, 27 HR, 90 RBI). The Nationals (.256 team BA) are led by NL MVP contender Daniel Murphy (.347 BA, 25 HR, 104 RBI), while rookie Trea Turner (.342 BA, 13 HR, 40 RBI, 33 steals) has made his mark in just 73 games, and 2015 NL MVP Bryce Harper (.243 BA, 24 HR, 86 RBI), even after a down year, is always a threat.
The Nationals have never won a postseason series in franchise history, while the Dodgers have won four straight division titles and only have one series win to show for it (and that was against another team known for postseason struggles, the Braves). One team has to win this one, and this is the toughest pick for me of all four LDS matchups, as I can see reasons why both teams can win, and why both teams can lose. That said, the Nationals do have home-field advantage, and fit more of my criteria for teams that do well in the postseason, including playing better than the Dodgers away from home and in one-run games. I expect this series to be really close, with the Nationals squeaking out a victory.
Prediction: The Nationals will win the series, 3-2.
San Francisco Giants (87-75, NL Wild Card Game winner) vs. Chicago Cubs (103-58, NL Central champion)
(Game 1: Friday, 9:15 pm ET, FS1)
This highly-anticipated series matches the Cubs, who seem to be considered a team of destiny, against the Giants, the Wild Card Game winners who have won the World Series in the last three even-numbered years. The Cubs won the season series, 4-3.
This series features two very good pitching rotations. The Cubs, led by the trio of Jon Lester (19-5, 2.44 ERA, Game 1 starter), Kyle Hendricks (16-8, 2.13 ERA, Game 2 starter), and Jake Arrieta (18-8, 3.10 ERA, Game 3 starter) have a ridiculously good rotation ERA of 2.96, with an overall team ERA of 3.15. The Giants counter with Johnny Cueto (18-5, 2.79 ERA, Game 1 starter), former Cub Jeff Samardzija (12-11, 3.81 ERA, Game 2 starter), and Wild Card Game hero Madison Bumgarner (15-9, 2.74 ERA, Game 3 starter; complete game, 4-hit shutout in Wild Card Game).
The Cubs have the overall pitching edge, however, because of the differences in these two bullpens. The Cubs bullpen, led by closer Aroldis Chapman (for the season with NYY/CHC combined: 36/39 saves, 1.55 ERA), have a 3.56 ERA as a unit. The Giants bullpen had a 3.65 ERA for the season, but struggled mightily in the second half, blowing 13 games for the Giants.
While the Giants have a higher team average than the Cubs (.258 for the Giants, .256 for the Cubs), the Giants dropped from .263 in the first half to .252 in the second half of the season. The Cubs are clearly the more explosive offense of the two, as they ranked second in the NL in runs, fifth in home runs, and second in OPS (on-base plus slugging), while the Giants were ninth in runs, 13th in home runs, and 10th in OPS,
No one in the Giants lineup particularly stands out, although Brandon Crawford (.275 BA, 12 HR, 84 RBI) led the team in RBI, Brandon Belt (.275 BA, 17 HR, 82 RBI) led in homers, Hunter Pence (.289 BA, 13 HR, 57 RBI) led in batting average, and team leader Buster Posey (.288 BA, 14 HR, 80 RBI) is strong all around. The Cubs have arguably the best assemblage of young hitting talent in baseball, featuring likely NL MVP Kris Bryant (.292 BA, 39 HR, 102 RBI), Anthony Rizzo (.292 BA, 32 HR, 109 RBI) and Addison Russell (.238 BA, 21 HR, 95 RBI).
The Cubs are the best team in baseball, and won 103 games this season for a reason. While the Giants are certainly a talented team, Bumgarner can’t pitch every game for them, and while Cueto and Samardzija are certainly worthy starters, I’m not sure the Giants bullpen can hold a lead against this potent Cubs lineup. I’m also not sure how many leads they will get, as I expect their offense to struggle against the Cubs starting pitchers.
Prediction: The Cubs will win the series, 3-1.