Fast Five: Greatest Moments of 2016 MLB Postseason

It’s baseball season.

Pitchers and catchers reported to Spring Training for a few teams on Monday, and most report today.  All of them have one goal in mind:  playing (and winning) in October.

Sure, the 2017 postseason is a long way off, and while many (including me) will try to predict who will reach the playoffs, there are always surprise teams, especially in baseball.

Whoever makes the playoffs will have a tough act to follow, after so many great moments in the 2016 postseason, culminating with the first Chicago Cubs World Series title in 108 years.

As we look ahead to the 2017 season, here’s a look back on the best moments from last October (and early November):

5.  The Cubs comeback to win NLDS

After the Cubs led the best-of-5 NLDS 2-0, the San Francisco Giants came back to win Game 3 in extra innings and stay alive.

In Game 4, the Cubs trailed 5-2 after eight innings, and Giants starter Matt Moore looked unstoppable.  However, Moore due to a high pitch count Moore had to come out after the eighth, handing the game over to the shaky Giants bullpen.  A pair of Giants relievers allowed four Cubs to score, including a game-tying 2-RBI single by Willson Contreras and a go-ahead RBI single by Javier Baez.

When Aroldis Chapman got the save, the Cubs had completed the largest ninth-inning comeback in a series-clinching game in MLB history, and ended the Giants run of “even year” dominance (they won the World Series in 2010, 2012 and 2014).


4.  Two Blue Jays walkoff clinchers

The Toronto Blue Jays reached the ALCS, doing so on the strength of walk-off wins to clinch both the AL Wild Card Game and the ALDS.

In the Wild Card Game, with lights-out Orioles closer Zach Britton still in the bullpen in the 11th inning, Edwin Encarnacion hit a 3-run homer off Ubaldo Jimenez, giving the Blue Jays a 5-2 win to advance to the ALDS.

In Game 3 of the ALDS, with Toronto leading the series 2-0, a Russell Martin grounder seemed poised to send the 6-6 game to the 11th.  But after a bad throw pulled Texas Rangers 1B Mitch Moreland off the base, Josh Donaldson broke for the plate, beating the throw to score, winning the game and the series.

This play had some additional procedural drama, as the Rangers appealed that there had been obstruction at second base on Encarnacion.  When the play was reviewed and upheld, the top-seeded Rangers had been swept, and the Blue Jays were in their second straight ALCS.


3.  Indians shutout wins pennant

The Cleveland Indians progressed through the playoffs on the strength of their incredible pitching.  After ousting the Boston Red Sox in the ALDS to end David Ortiz’s career, the Indians took a 3-0 lead in the ALCS against Toronto.

The Blue Jays won Game 4, and many favored Toronto to win Game 5, as Cleveland turned to rookie Ryan Merritt, who had just one regular season start.

Merritt, who inherited a 1-0 lead after a run scored on an error in the top of the first, went 4.2 scoreless innings (falling one out short of qualifying for the win), and the Indians bullpen finished the job (one inning by Bryan Shaw, 2.2 innings by Andrew Miller, one inning by Cody Allen).

All told, it was a six-hit shutout of a potent Blue Jays lineup, as Cleveland clinched their first pennant in 19 years.  They would eventually fall just short in the World Series, and enter 2017 seeking their first title since 1948.


2.  Kershaw saves Game 5

The winner-take-all Game 5 of the NLDS between the Los Angeles Dodgers and Washington Nationals was the longest nine-inning game in MLB postseason history–and was well worth the time investment to watch.

Starters Max Scherzer (WAS) and Rich Hill (LAD) both pitched well, allowing a single run.  Scherzer’s run was a game-tying homer in the seventh by Joc Pederson.

That only began the wild seventh–after Scherzer was relieved, Carlos Ruiz gave the Dodgers a lead with an RBI single, and Justin Turner stretched it to 4-1 with a 2-RBI double.  In the bottom half, Chris Heisey hit a 2-run pinch-hit homer to make it 4-3.

After the homer, Dodgers closer Kenley Jansen entered with no outs in the seventh.  He stranded the bases loaded in the seventh, and another runner in the eighth.

With two on and one out in the ninth, Dodgers ace Clayton Kershaw entered the game on one day rest.

Kershaw got Daniel Murphy to pop up, then struck out Wilmer Difo to end the game, earning his first major league save to clinch a postseason series (and his first save at any level since 2006 in rookie ball).


1.  Cubs win first World Series since 1908 in Game 7 for the ages

After six thrilling games, the 112th World Series between the Indians and Cubs was tied at 3-3.  The Indians had led the Series 3-1, but the Cubs had come back to force Game 7.

Before Game 7, I called it baseball’s “game of the century” thus far, fully expecting that it would not live up to that lofty level of hype.  And yet, the game far surpassed it, legitimately becoming the greatest baseball game played in the 21st century.

Game 7 had everything.  Dexter Fowler led off the game with a home run, and Javier Baez and David Ross added solo homers for the Cubs, with Ross’s coming in the final at-bat of his career.  Cubs starter Jon Lester came in in relief, giving up one earned run in three innings.

The Cubs committed three errors, and two Indians scored on a wild pitch, the first such play in a World Series game since 1911.  Cubs leads of 5-1 and 6-3 evaporated almost instantly in the eighth, with Rajai Davis tying the game with a 2-run homer.

It became the first Game 7 to go to extra innings since 1997 (which the Indians lost to the Florida Marlins), and that was put on hold for 17 minutes by a passing shower (the first World Series rain delay since 2008).

Ben Zobrist’s RBI double put the Cubs ahead, and Miguel Montero added an RBI that turned out to be a big insurance run.  In the bottom of the 10th, Davis singled to pull to within 8-7, before Mike Montgomery came in to pitch and took just two pitches to record his first professional save, a final out that will be replayed forever.

A story that many veteran writers called the best story they had ever covered–the Cubs finally winning the World Series–was an appropriate end to an insane 2016 MLB postseason.  After Cubs fans waited 108 years,

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MLB Playoffs: NLDS Preview

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.

Trends of a World Series Champion, Revisited

As the MLB Postsesason moves into series play today following a couple of fantastic Wild Card Games, many will try to take their pick of who is best equipped to win the World Series.

Last year, I did this by statistically putting the playoff teams up against the previous 20 World Series champions based on the trends that the majority of those champions showed, in a post called “Trends of a World Series Champion.”

Every world champion did not necessarily fit every one of the 10 criteria, but most were within the trend in a majority of the categories.  Last year’s Kansas City Royals fit eight of the 10 criteria and won the World Series.

Eight teams are still alive in the chase for the Commissioner’s Trophy:  The Chicago Cubs, Washington Nationals, Los Angeles Dodgers, and San Francisco Giants from the National League, and the Texas Rangers, Cleveland Indians, Boston Red Sox, and Toronto Blue Jays in the American League.

Here is how each of the eight fit the trends of a World Series champion:

 

Trend:  Team batting average of .250 or better
Within the trend:  Red Sox (.282), Rangers (.262), Indians (.262), Giants (.258), Cubs (.256), Nationals (.256)
Outside the trend:  Dodgers (.249), Blue Jays (.248)

Trend:  Number of offensive starters hitting .290 or better (min. 50 games)
Within the trend:  Red Sox (5), Indians (3), Nationals (3), Cubs (2), Rangers (2)
Outside the trend:  Dodgers (1), Blue Jays (1), Giants (0)

Trend:  Team ERA of 4.00 or better
Within the trend:  Cubs (3.15), Nationals (3.51), Giants (3.65), Dodgers (3.70), Blue Jays (3.78), Indians (3.84), Red Sox (4.00)
Outside the trend:  Rangers (4.37)

Trend:  Starting rotation ERA of 4.25 or better
Within the trend:  Cubs (2.96), Nationals (3.60), Blue Jays (3.64), Giants (3.71), Dodgers (3.95), Indians (4.08), Red Sox (4.22)
Outside the trend:  Rangers (4.38)

Trend:  Bullpen ERA of 3.92 or better
Within the trend:  Dodgers (3.35), Nationals (3.37), Indians (3.45), Red Sox (3.56), Cubs (3.56), Giants (3.65)
Outside the trend:  Blue Jays (4.11), Rangers (4.40)

Trend:  Home winning percentage of .550 or better
Within the trend:  Cubs (.704), Rangers (.654), Indians (.654), Dodgers (.654), Nationals (.617), Red Sox (.580), Blue Jays (.568), Giants (.556)
Outside the trend:  none

Trend:  Away winning percentage of .520 or better
Within the trend:  Cubs (.575), Red Sox (.568), Nationals (.556), Blue Jays (.531)
Outside the trend:  Rangers (.519), Giants (.519), Indians (.513), Dodgers (.469)

Trend:  Win percentage after Sept. 1 of .500 or better
Within the trend:  Red Sox (.655), Cubs (.621), Indians (.621), Nationals (.586), Dodgers (.586), Rangers (.536), Giants (.500)
Outside the trend:  Blue Jays (.448)

Trend:  Baseball-Reference.com Simple Rating System of 0.2 or better
Within the trend:  Cubs (1.3), Red Sox (1.3), Blue Jays (0.8), Nationals (0.6), Indians (0.6), Dodgers (0.4), Giants (0.3), Rangers (0.2)
Outside the trend:  none

 

Here are how many of the criteria each team fits the trend:

Nationals 10
Cubs 9
Indians 9
Red Sox 9
Giants 8
Dodgers 7
Rangers 6
Blue Jays 5

By this token, the Nationals should be the favorites to win the 2016 World Series.  But as I mentioned, last year’s Royals only fit eight of the criteria, so that would suggest that the top five all have a legitimate chance to win it all.

With five teams qualifying so well to make a deep run, and four rating better than the Royals (or anyone else) did last year, it shows the strength of this year’s playoff field.

In other words, it should be quite a postseason.

MLB Wild Card Games Preview

It’s October, one of the best sports months of the year.  This past weekend featured the Ryder Cup, football is in midseason form, NASCAR is in its Chase for the Cup, and basketball is just around the corner.

But most of all, October means its the baseball postseason.  The playoffs start tonight with the first Wild Card Game, the AL edition between the Orioles and Blue Jays in Toronto.  The Wild Card round is one game between the two wild card winners in each league, leaving little margin for error. The winners of each Wild Card Game will advance to their respective league’s Division Series.

American League Wild Card Game
Baltimore Orioles (89-73) at Toronto Blue Jays (89-73)
Tonight, 8:08 pm ET, TBS

Tonight’s matchup is the battle of the birds, a pair of division rivals from the AL East, who finished tied for second in that division behind the Boston Red Sox.  Toronto has homefield advantage tonight in front of what should be a boisterous crowd at the SkyDome.  The Blue Jays won the season series 10-9, including winning six of 10 in Toronto, although the Orioles won two out of three in a series at the SkyDome last week.

The winner of this game will play the Texas Rangers in the ALDS.  If it is Toronto, it would be a rematch of last year’s epic series, while Baltimore defeated Texas in the 2012 AL Wild Card Game (the first year of this format).

This game features two of the most potent offenses in the game.  Toronto, led by Edwin Encarnacion (.263 BA, 42 HR, 127 RBI) and 2015 AL MVP Josh Donaldson (.284 BA, 37 HR, 99 RBI), is fifth in the AL in runs (759) and third in homers (221).

Baltimore, led by Mark Trumbo (.256 BA, MLB-leading 47 HR, 108 RBI) and Manny Machado (.294 BA, 37 HR, 96 RBI, 105 runs), is only seventh in the AL in runs (744) but leads the majors in home runs (253, the fifth most in a season ever) and is second in the AL in slugging (.443).

Veteran pitcher Chris Tillman (16-6, 3.77 ERA) will start for Baltimore, facing young gun Marcus Stroman (9-10, 4.37 ERA) for Toronto.  Tillman is 1-1 with a 3.79 ERA in four starts since a DL stint (two good, one average, one bad), and had one good and one bad start in the 2014 postseason for the O’s.

Stroman was strong for the Jays in last year’s ALDS against the Rangers, but struggled in the ALCS against the Royals.  Interestingly, Stroman has lowered his ERA from 4.63 to 4.37 since August 21, but is 0-5 in eight starts over that stretch due to a lack of run support.

While Stroman this season has over a half-point higher of an ERA than Tillman this season, sabermetricians will be interested to know that Stroman actually has a better FIP (Fielding-Independent Pitching) at 3.71, compared to Tillman’s mark of 4.23.

This game, as a lot of baseball playoff games do, may come down to the bullpens.  The Blue Jays, whose ‘pen pitched to a 4.11 ERA this season, are led by 21-year old closer Roberto Osuna (he’s 17 days older than me; 36/42 saves, 2.68 ERA).

The Orioles relievers have a 3.40 ERA, the best among AL playoff teams.  Closer Zach Britton (47/47 saves, 0.54 ERA) is a Cy Young contender (rare for a reliever), while Brad Brach (10-4, 24 holds, 2.05 ERA) is nearly as strong as a setup man.

These two teams are very even entering this Wild Card Game, and even have identical 89-73 records.  In a one-game scenario such as this one, home-field advantage can play a huge role in determining the outcome, and historically has in the MLB postseason.

That being said, neither team has a statistical advantage, and we saw in last year’s playoffs how incredible the atmosphere at the SkyDome can be when Canada’s team is fighting for their playoff lives.

Prediction:  The Blue Jays will win and advance to the ALDS

 

National League Wild Card Game
San Francisco Giants (87-75) at New York Mets (87-75)
Wednesday, 8:08 pm ET, ESPN

Tomorrow night’s game in the National League features the Giants, who have won the World Series the last three even-numbered years (2010, ’12, ’14), and the New York Mets, who represented the NL in the World Series last year, losing to the Royals in five games.  The Mets won the season series against the Giants, 4-3.

The winner of this game will face the Chicago Cubs, the favorite to win the World Series, in the NLDS beginning Friday.  If it is the Mets, it would be a rematch of last year’s NLCS, a Mets sweep.

The Giants were 57-33 in the first half, and had the best record in MLB at the All-Star break, but struggled to a 30-42 record in the second half and clinched their playoff spot on the season’s final day.  The Mets were 15-7 in April and 18-11 after Sept. 1, but 54-57 in between.

This game features a matchup of two aces, as Madison Bumgarner (15-9, 2.74 ERA) of the Giants faces Noah Syndergaard (14-9, 2.60 ERA) of the Mets.  Bumgarner, one of baseball’s best postseason performers, pitched the 2014 Wild Card Game for the Giants, throwing a four-hit shutout on the road in Pittsburgh, and in 14 postseason games (12 starts) has a lifetime 2.15 ERA, as well as two series MVPs (2014 NLCS and World Series).  MadBum is one of baseball’s great postseason veterans, and yet he is only 26 years old.  However, in Bumgarner’s last nine starts of the season, he struggled to a 4.66 ERA.

Syndergaard pitched to a 3.32 ERA in last year’s postseason for the Mets as a rookie in four appearances (three starts), and is 4-2 with a 2.06 his last seven starts.  The Mets have had to be careful with the right-hander, nicknamed Thor, all season due to elbow concerns.

The Mets bullpen has a 3.53 ERA, led by closer Jeurys Familia (51/56 saves, 2.55 ERA) and setup man Addison Reed (40 holds, 1.97 ERA, 7.00 K/BB ratio).  The Giants bullpen ERA is 3.65, but this unit struggled mightily down the stretch, as the ‘pen was responsible for 13 losses in the second half.  This includes Santiago Casilla losing the closer’s role after nine blown saves.

Offensively, the Giants have the highest team batting average of any NL playoff team at .258, although no qualifying hitter is better than .289 (Hunter Pence).  Brandon Crawford (.275 BA, 12 HR, 84 RBI) leads the team in RBI, Brandon Belt (.275 BA, 17 HR, 82 RBI) leads the team in homers, and team leader Buster Posey (.288 BA, 14 HR, 80 RBI, 82 runs) leads in runs.

The Mets have a .246 team batting average, the fourth worst in the NL, and the worst among all 10 playoff teams in either league.  Yoenis Cespedes leads the active roster in essentially nearly every category (.280 BA, 31 HR, 86 RBI), while the rest of the team has been hot and cold on offense all year, as the team ranked fifth worst in the NL in runs (671) and fourth worst in hits (1,342).

Like the AL Wild Card Game, both teams in this game have identical records.  The Mets will be at home at Citi Field, which also had a fantastic postseason atmosphere in 2015.

While the Mets are at home, to me the Giants still have the more impressive roster, and while Syndergaard should be good for the Mets, it’s only fitting to expect Bumgarner, with his postseason history, to be even better.  This should be a low-scoring game, but its hard to see the Mets offense scoring much, if any, against Bumgarner.

Prediction:  The Giants will win and advance to the NLDS.

Column: A Sentimental Sunday of Baseball

On Sundays in October, the focus in the sports world is typically on the NFL.  NASCAR in The Chase, its version of playoffs, and today is also the final day of the Ryder Cup.

But even with everything else going on, today is baseball’s day, as it will be one of the most historic days of regular season play in the game’s history.

The final day of the regular season is often frantic as the final playoff spots are up for grabs, and this year is no different.  While each division race has already been decided, both the NL and AL Wild Card races are coming down to the final day.  In the NL Wild Card race, the Giants lead the Cardinals by one game for the final spot (the Mets clinched their spot Saturday), while in the AL Wild Card, the Orioles and Blue Jays currently hold the spots, but the Tigers can make it interesting with a win on Sunday (Detroit also has a potential makeup game on Monday, and needs help from Baltimore and/or Toronto).  To learn what would happen in the event of a three-way tie (which is a very real possibility), click here.

All games are scheduled for 3 p.m. ET, so the games with postseason implications will all play out at the same time (L.A. Dodgers at San Francisco, Pittsburgh at St. Louis, Baltimore at N.Y. Yankees, Toronto at Boston, Detroit at Atlanta).

But in addition to the jostling for playoff berths and positioning, there will be three farewells within the game taking place this afternoon.

David Ortiz

David Ortiz will be playing his final regular season game, as his Boston Red Sox host the Toronto Blue Jays.  In over 2,400 games, the 10-time All-Star is a career .286 hitter, and has hit 541 home runs, which is 17th all-time.  He has won three World Series titles in 14 seasons with the Red Sox, including winning World Series MVP in 2013, after playing his first six seasons with the Minnesota Twins.

Big Papi has had an exceptional final season, with 38 HR and 127 RBI, while leading the league in doubles (48), slugging percentage (.625), and OPS (1.027).  This strong season has left Ortiz as a contender for his first MVP award, as he could become the first player to win an MVP in his final season, and would be the oldest MVP in history (40). Ortiz has led the Red Sox to an AL East Division title in 2016, and his farewell will continue into the postseason, beginning Thursday against the Cleveland Indians in the ALDS.

Other players who have already announced their retirement after the season include Yankees 1B Mark Teixeira and Cubs C David Ross, although Ross’s Cubs will continue into the postseason after the regular season ends.

Vin Scully

Sunday also marks the final game of the incomparable career of legendary Dodgers broadcaster Vin Scully.  Scully will make his final broadcast this afternoon when the Dodgers take on the Giants in San Francisco.

Scully already had one fantastic farewell at his final home game at Dodger Stadium last Sunday, calling Charlie Culbertson’s walkoff homer to clinch the NL West Division title for the Dodgers, before the team played a beautiful recording of Scully singing “Wind Beneath My Wings” for Dodger fans after the game.  While the Dodgers are headed for an NLDS matchup with the Washington Nationals, Scully will not be working any playoff games.

Scully’s final game is the 88-year old’s 10,640th game with the Dodgers over his 67 years with the team, since starting in the 1950 season when the team was still in Brooklyn.  The game will be the 1,216th game Scully has called in the Dodgers-Giants rivalry, one of the most heated in the game, and Scully has covered 975 Dodgers players.

Baseball’s greatest storyteller has captivated audiences since the days of Jackie Robinson with his grand and elegant style, one that will never be duplicated.

Turner Field

Lastly, I will be in attendance for the final game at Turner Field in Atlanta, as the Braves bid farewell to “The Ted” before moving into SunTrust Park in northern Atlanta in 2017.

Turner Field was built as Centennial Olympic Stadium for the 1996 Olympic Games in Atlanta, then retro-fitted and downsized into a baseball stadium for the Braves, who played across the street at Atlanta-Fulton County Stadium from 1966-96.  The Braves beat the Cubs, 5-4, in the first game at Turner Field on April 4, 1997.

In 20 seasons at Turner Field, the Braves have won 10 division titles (including the final eight of the team’s record 14 consecutive from 1991-2005), and appeared in 12 postseasons.  Turner Field has hosted 39 playoff games, including two games in the 1999 World Series, and the first ever National League Wild Card Game in 2012, which was the final game in the career of sure-fire future Hall-of-Famer Chipper Jones.

Turner Field also hosted the 2000 MLB All-Star Game and was site of Diamondbacks LHP Randy Johnson’s 2004 perfect game and manager Bobby Cox’s 2000th win later that year, as well as Braves RHP John Smoltz’s 3000th strikeout in 2008.

Sunday’s final game at Turner Field is against the Detroit Tigers who, as previously mentioned, are fighting for their postseason lives.  There will be a pregame ceremony featuring Braves alumni who played at Turner Field, and a ceremonial first pitch, and a postgame ceremony that will include a ceremonial final pitch and the transfer of home plate to SunTrust Park.  Braves ace pitcher Julio Teheran will be facing Tigers ace Justin Verlander in the finale.

This day is not a normal final day of the regular season in Major League Baseball.  Instead, it is a historic and sentimental Sunday, as one of the games most popular players, its greatest broadcaster, and the home ballpark of its longest continuously operated franchise all bid farewell.

 

 

MLB Races

AL Wild Card
1. Toronto 88-73, 0 games ahead (at Boston)
2. Baltimore 88-73 (at N.Y. Yankees)
3. Detroit 86-74, 1.5 games back (at Atlanta)

NL Wild Card
1. N.Y. Mets 87-74, 1 game ahead (at Philadelphia)
2. San Francisco 86-75 (vs. L.A. Dodgers)
3. St. Louis 85-76, 1 game back (vs. Pittsburgh)

Fast Five: World Series Favorites After the All-Star Break

Play resumes tonight in MLB after a four day break for the league’s All-Star Game in San Diego.  Roughly 21 of the 30 teams still have a realistic chance at making the playoffs (exactly how many depends on your definition of realistic), but a few stand out at the most likely teams to make a deep run come October.  Here are my five biggest favorites to win the World Series:

5. Cleveland Indians (52-36)
Over the last few years, my biggest point of skepticism with the Indians has been whether they could score runs, because they’ve had the pitching to contend for a while.  This year, while the pitching continues to be strong (the staff leads the AL with a 3.63 ERA), the offense is beyond just a complement to the pitching, as the Indians have become a force on both sides of the ball.  The Tribe scored 5.4 runs per game during a recent 14-game winning streak, and are led by SS Francisco Lindor (.306 BA, 10 HR, 45 RBI).  While Lindor leads the club in Wins Above Replacement (WAR), however, the next five are still pitchers (Danny Salazar, Trevor Bauer, Carlos Carrasco, Corey Kluber, Josh Tomlin), showing that the pitching staff is still the foundation as the club tries to make its first World Series trip since 1997, and tries to win it for the first time.  The Indians currently have a comfortable 6.5 game lead in the AL Central over the Tigers.

4. Washington Nationals (54-36)
Last year the Nats were a team of dysfunction, but under new manager Dusty Baker they have, at least thus far, realized their potential in 2016.  Bryce Harper, the defending NL MVP, is having somewhat of a down year, at least by his lofty standards (.256 BA, 19 HR, 52 RBI), and is seventh on the team in WAR.  Like the Indians, the Nationals are built with pitching; four of the top five in WAR are pitchers (Steven Strasburg, Max Scherzer, Tanner Roark, and Joe Ross, with 2B Daniel Murphy being the exception), and the team leads all of baseball with a 3.29 ERA.  Offensively, it is Murphy who is putting up MVP numbers (.348 BA, 17 HR, 66 RBI), as part of an offense that is sixth in the NL in runs and first in homers.  This team, who leads the Mets and Marlins by six games in the NL East, has the talent to win it all in October, although they have never even won a playoff series, something they would have to do twice to reach the Fall Classic.

3. Texas Rangers (54-36)
Last year, the Rangers made a surprise run in the second half to reach the postseason after many pundits thought they were best positioned for a run in 2016.  Well, they have an excellent chance at another playoff opportunity this year, as they sport the best record in the AL and have a 5.5 game lead on the resurgent Houston Astros.  The scary thing for the rest of baseball is that this team, as good as they have been, has not been completely healthy at any point yet this season.  Ian Desmond (.322 BA, 15 HR, 55 RBI) is a candidate for the MLB Comeback Player of the Year Award after a very poor 2015 campaign with Washington, although Matt Bush (3-1, 2.49 ERA) also has an exceptional comeback story as a key contributor on the AL favorites just months after his release from a 39-month prison term.  This particular year, the AL field in the playoffs will likely not be as strong as the NL field, something that could play right into the Rangers’ hands as they try to win their first World Series title.

2. San Francisco Giants (57-33)
Yes, it is an even-numbered year, but that is not the main reason the Giants are on this list.  The team has a remarkable stretch of winning the World Series the last three even years (2010, ’12, ’14), and they are contenders to do it again in 2016, currently leading the Dodgers by 6.5 games in the NL West.  The Giants are fourth in the NL in runs, despite ranking next to last in homers, and are still doing well at the plate despite three offensive starters on the DL.  But like most of the teams on this list, the Giants’ strength is their pitching, with a 3.55 team ERA that is fifth in MLB, and two bona fide aces leading the staff in All-Star starting pitcher Johnny Cueto (13-1, 2.47 ERA) and Madison Bumgarner (10-4, 1.94 ERA).  10 teams do not yet have a complete game, yet Cueto has four and Bumgarner three.  The team is 40-15 (albeit against a weak schedule) since May 10, and has the best record in baseball at the All-Star break for the first time since 1993, although just six of the last 30 teams to lead baseball at the break have followed in the fall with a title (and the ’93 edition is the last team to miss the playoffs with 100+ wins).  Only time will tell if this even year plays out like the last three.

1. Chicago Cubs (53-35)
In April I picked the Cubs to end their infamous 108-year championship drought, and I am sticking with it despite their recent 6-15 midseason swoon.  This team is simply too good for this slump to continue, and while I am not explicitly saying they will definitely win the World Series, I do still believe they have the best chance of anyone in baseball.  The Cubs are built differently than the other teams on this list, as five of their top six in WAR are position players, including their leaders in 3B/OF Kris Bryant (.286 BA, 25 HR, 65 RBI) and 1B Anthony Rizzo (.299 BA, 21 HR, 63 RBI).  That being said, their pitching has (for the most part) been outstanding as well, led by defending NL Cy Young winner Jake Arrieta (12-4, 2.68 ERA) and Jon Lester (9-4, 3.01 ERA).  This team is much better than recent form would indicate, and this rough patch is not likely to be anything more than a blip on the radar screen and is something every team goes through at some point.  The Cubs still lead the NL Central by 6.5 games over the Cardinals, and to me are still the World Series favorites just as they have been all along in 2016, as they try to do something that very few living souls have ever seen and win their first title since 1908.

 

 

 

MLB Standings

AL East
1. Baltimore 51-36
2. Boston 49-38, 2 GB
2. Toronto 51-40, 2 GB
4. N.Y. Yankees 44-44, 7.5 GB
5. Tampa Bay 34-54, 17.5 GB

AL Central
1. Cleveland 52-36
2. Detroit 46-43, 6.5 GB
3. Chi. White Sox 45-43, 7 GB
3. Kansas City 45-43, 7 GB
5. Minnesota 32-56, 20 GB

AL West
1. Texas 54-36
2. Houston 48-41, 5.5 GB
3. Seattle 45-44, 8.5 GB
4. Oakland 38-51, 15.5 GB
5. L.A. Angels 37-52, 16.5 GB

NL East
1. Washington 54-36
2. N.Y. Mets 47-41, 6 GB
2. Miami 47-41, 6 GB
4. Philadelphia 42-48, 12 GB
5. Atlanta 31-58, 22.5 GB

NL Central
1. Chi. Cubs 53-35
2. St. Louis 46-42, 7 GB
3. Pittsburgh 46-43, 7.5 GB
4. Milwaukee 38-49, 14.5 GB
5. Cincinnati 32-57, 21.5 GB

NL West
1. San Francisco 57-33
2. L.A. Dodgers 51-40, 6.5 GB
3. Colorado 40-48, 16 GB
4. San Diego 38-51, 18.5 GB
5. Arizona 38-52, 19 GB

MLB Pennant Races with Two Weeks Remaining

October is just a few days away, which for baseball fans means the regular season is closing down and the playoffs are close.  And while for some teams it is, at this point, just a formality that they will make the postseason, for others, they still have very meaningful games left, as they need to survive September if they want to experience October.

Some will say that whoever the last couple of teams to get in the playoffs are won’t be irrelevant because they have no chance of winning the World Series, but that simply isn’t true.  Both teams who reached the World Series a year ago, the Giants and the Royals, were Wild Card teams, with the Giants being the last team to get in the NL, and both franchises not clinching their spots until the season’s final weekend.

That being said, here is a look at every playoff race in baseball, with some expected to come down to the wire, while others are already a foregone conclusion.

(Note: this post uses the “magic number”, which tells how close a team is to clinching.  The number reduces by one each time the team leading wins a game, or the team chasing them loses a game, and the team leading clinches when the number hits zero.  It is explained more in-depth here.)

Division Races

American League

AL West
Texas  80-69  —
Houston  80-71  -1.0
LA Angels  76-74  -4.5

The Rangers were 9.5 games back on May 20, and were 47-52 on July 28, just two days before they acquired Cole Hamels, but thanks to a 33-17 stretch since, and a four-game sweep of Houston last week, they have passed the Astros, who spent 139 days in first place.  The Angels, who were the favorites of many before the season, have very gotten back within arms reach of first after sitting 65-66 on August 31 after a 2-9 stretch.  The Angels are in Houston for three games this weekend, and the Rangers head to Houston for three this weekend, giving the Astros a change to rectify their 6-12 September record before ending with six games on the road.  Should the Angels be able to get any closer to the Rangers, they’ll have a great chance to win the division when they play a season-closing four-game set at Texas.  This race is the most up in the air of all of the division races, as it is the closest, and also has three teams involved, but with Texas’s recent run I expect them to win the division, albeit by a very narrow margin.  The Rangers’ “magic number” is 12.

AL Central
Kansas City  87-62  —
Minnesota  76-73  -11.0

The Royals have the best record in the American League, as they have for a majority of the season, and have been in first place for 150 days.  The Twins have been a nice story as a surprise contender, and have a shot at the Wild Card, but this division race that’s been “over” for quite a while will officially, mathematically be over very soon; the Royals “magic number” is down to three.

AL East
Toronto  86-64  —
NY Yankees  82-67 -3.5

The AL East race has been a fun one all year, with the Yankees, Orioles, and Rays taking turns in the lead through the first half, although the Yankees led the most, totaling 100 days in first place for the season.  The Blue Jays were 50-51 and eight games back on July 28, just before they acquired Troy Tulowitzki and David Price.  By August 12, in the midst of an 11-game winning streak, the Jays were up a half game on the Yankees.  They’ve led every day since August 23, and have led by as many as four and a half games, but for most of that time the Yankees have stayed much closer than that.  Toronto and New York are currently in the midst of a huge three-game series in Toronto through Wednesday, which Toronto won the opener of, after which both teams will play out the regular season against teams that are going to miss the playoffs.  While the Jays do play their last seven games on the road, I expect them to ride their hot second half all the way to the division title, although it may come down to the final weekend.  The Blue Jays’ “magic number” is 10.

National League

NL West
LA Dodgers  85-64  —
San Francisco  78-71  -7.0

Many thought the NL West would be a three-team race, with the Padres acquiring several big name players in the offseason, but San Diego started 39-49 and never recovered.  The Dodgers have led the division nearly wire-to-wire, and have led every day since May 29.  The Giants were within a game and a half as late as August 23, but the Dodgers swept them in a three-game series from August 31 to September 2, which stretched the lead to six and a half.  The Giants are the defending World Series champions, but don’t have the momentum to catch the Dodgers, whose “magic number” is seven.

NL Central
St. Louis  94-56  —
Pittsburgh  90-60  -4.0
Chic. Cubs  88-62  -6.0

This is a strange division race, because all three teams are realistically guaranteed to make the playoffs, with the Cardinals already clinching at worst a Wild Card berth, and the Pirates and Cubs also about to do so as well, with the nearest Wild Card challengers nine games behind the Cubs.  But all of these teams want to avoid the one-off Wild Card Game, so they all want to win the division.  The Cubs and Cardinals have been over from the beginning, with the Pirates struggling early to an 18-22 record before an 11-2 stretch got them into the race.  The Cardinals have the best record in baseball, as they have most of the season, and these three teams have the best three records in the NL.  The Cubs won two out of three over the weekend in their last series of the regular season against the Cardinals, and host the Pirates for three games this weekend.  Pittsburgh then hosts St. Louis next week for three games.  The Cardinals and Cubs finish with six straight on the road, while the Pirates finish with six straight at home, although overall between now and the end of the season, all three teams have six at home and six on the road.  The Cardinals are the best team in baseball, so they should be able to hold their four game lead over the last two weeks, and their “magic number” is nine.  It is really unfortunate that two of these three teams are going to be in the Wild Card Game, and one of them will lose it, meaning their season will be over on October 7.

NL East
NY Mets  85-65  —
Washington  78-71  -6.5

The Mets are looking for their first playoff berth since 2006, but New York winning the division didn’t look likely before the season, with the Nationals being picked by every single season preview I read, and in a “World Series-or-bust” state of mind.  The Mets strong pitching staff, and their resurgent offense since trading for Yoenis Cespedes at the trade deadline, took the lead for good on August 3rd, after the two teams had gone back-and-forth on top for most of the season.  The Mets steadily built their lead up to nine and a half games on September 13, a seemingly insurmountable gap for the Nationals, but Washington has closed the gap a little bit coming into the season’s final stretch.  Both teams have games exclusively against teams under .500 until the season’s final weekend, when they play each other, but by that time the race will very likely be over.  The Mets’ “magic number” in seven.

Wild Card Races

AL Wild Card
NY Yankees  82-67 +3.0
Houston  80-71   —

Minnesota 76-73  -3.0
LA Angels  76-74  -3.5
Cleveland  74-74  -4.5

The Yankees and Astros have both spent a lot of time in first place, with the Astros only spending 31 days not in first, but have been the victims of big second half pushes by the Blue Jays and Rangers and, should they not come back to win the division, are currently positioned to appear in the Wild Card Game.  The Twins were not picked by anyone to be in this position, but can be very proud of their contention to make the postseason.  However, three games may be hard to make up with this little time left in the regular season.  It’s even more unlikely for the Angels and Indians to reach the playoffs as they have multiple teams to pass at this point, although they can still keep fighting with the hope of a strong finish and some help from those above them.  The Yankees are currently playing division leader Toronto, but have an easy finishing stretch after that series is done.  Houston is hosting the Angels this week in a big three-game set, which they took the opener of last night.  The Twins and Indians have seven games left against each other, and since both need an excellent stretch to catch Houston, if they split these games fairly evenly, it may end both teams’ playoff shot, but if one wins five or more out of the seven, that could be the team to make a run.  The Astros’ “magic number” is 10, and the Yankees’ is 8.

NL Wild Card
Pittsburgh  90-60  —
Chic. Cubs  88-62  -2.0

Washington  78-71  -9.5
San Francisco  78-71  -9.5

The Nationals and Giants both came into the season with the playoffs as a goal, but both are closer to their division leaders than they are to the Wild Card at this point, a race that is nearly over.  The only part of it that isn’t realistically over is between the Pirates and the Cubs to see who will host the Wild Card Game, although one or both of them could catch the Cardinals in the NL Central to shake things up as well.  A big series towards determining that home field advantage for the one-game happens this weekend in Chicago, when the Cubs host Pittsburgh.  As for clinching a playoff berth, the Cubs’ “magic number” is four, and the Pirates’ is two.

 

While this isn’t necessarily the closest pennant race we’ve ever seen, with many of the races being a foregone conclusion, this should be an excellent postseason.  We know this because all of the teams in playoff positions are very deserving, and there are some very good teams that are going to be left out, no matter how these last two weeks play out.  We also know this because teams like the Mets, Cubs, and Astros haven’t been in the playoffs in a while, and the Blue Jays haven’t been in them in my lifetime, not appearing in the postseason since Joe Carter’s World Series-winning walkoff homer in 1993, the last year before the Wild Card era began.  Add the teams that haven’t been in the playoffs in this decade to teams like the Rangers and Yankees that have but have had a couple of down years in between, as well as the Royals, who appeared in the playoffs last year for the first time since 1985, and teams like the Cardinals, Pirates, and Dodgers who we’ve become accustomed to seeing in the postseason, and there will be no shortage whatsoever of storylines this October.