The weekend was quiet in the baseball world following the expanded Wild Card round, but it’s roaring back this week with the best-of-five Division Series. The ALDS matchups (Yankees/Rays, Astros/Athletics) will begin on Monday with the NLDS matchups (Padres/Dodgers, Marlins/Braves) to follow on Tuesday. For the purposes of this column, we’ll focus on what to watch during the ALDS.
Yankees (33-27) vs. Rays (40-20) - Petco Park (San Diego)
While the series will take place at a neutral location, the Rays will effectively serve as the “home team” for the first two games as the higher seed. The Yankees will follow suit in Game 3 and a potential Game 4, with the Rays serving as the home team if the series goes to a decisive Game 5.
Regular season results: The Rays won eight out of 10 games against the Yankees during the regular season, outscoring them 47-34 in the process. Not to bury the lede here, but these teams don’t like each other. The most recent indecent was Aroldis Chapman throwing a 101 mph fastball at Mike Brosseau on September 1, but the bad blood pre-dates 2020. The umpiring crew will certainly be on the lookout for any sort of shenanigans.
Cole lived up to the billing in his Wild Card Series start against the Indians last week, allowing two runs over seven innings with 13 strikeouts. After a shaky introduction in pinstripes, he’s found a chemistry with Kyle Higashioka behind the plate and odds are they’ll be paired together again on Monday. Snell took a no-hitter into the sixth inning in his Wild Card start against the Blue Jays, ultimately allowing one hit with two walks and nine strikeouts over 5 1/3 scoreless frames.
The Yankees haven’t officially announced a starter for Game 2, though the Rays are expected to go with Charlie Morton. It’s worth noting that there will not be any days off during the series, with games on five consecutive days, if necessary. Depth is going to be tested during this unique postseason set-up. Cole hasn’t been officially ruled out for a potential Game 5 start.
Lineup edge: Yankees
The Rays are capable of mixing and matching with the best of them and will certainly look more potent if Austin Meadows is able to return from an oblique injury, but the Yankees would appear to have the advantage on paper. And why not, seeing as they have the MLB home run king (Luke Voit) and AL batting champ (DJ LeMahieu). Finally healthy, Giancarlo Stanton homered in both games against the Indians last week, making a good lineup that much deeper. Gary Sanchez, Gleyber Torres, and Brett Gardner even showed signs of life.
Pitching edge: Rays
This goes for both the rotation and the bullpen. Cole is the best pitcher in this series, but Snell and Glasnow aren’t far behind and are perfectly capable of dominant performances. Charlie Morton, Ryan Yarbrough, and Josh Fleming are also in the starting mix for Tampa Bay while Masahiro Tanaka, JA Happ, and Deivi Garcia round things out for New York. The Yankees have the most familiar names in their bullpen (Aroldis Chapman, Zach Britton, Adam Ottavino, Chad Green), but the Rays (featuring the likes of Nick Anderson, Diego Castillo, and Aaron Loup) were just flat-out better during the regular season despite a handful of notable injuries. In fact, only two teams had a lower ERA.
Astros (29-31) vs. Athletics (36-24) - Dodger Stadium (Los Angeles)
Like the Rays above, the Athletics were the higher seed coming into the playoffs, so they’ll serve as the home team for the first two games of the series at the neutral site. That will switch to the Astros for Game 3 and Game 4 (if necessary), setting up the Athletics to be the home team if the series goes the distance.
Regular season results: The Athletics won seven out of the 10 games against the Astros during the regular season, outscoring them 38-25 along the way. Bad blood isn’t exclusive to the Yankees and Rays, as benches cleared on August 9 after Athletics center fielder Ramon Laureano was hit by a pitch for the second time in a game and charged at the Astros dugout after being goaded by hitting coach Alex Cintron. Laureano was handed a six-game suspension (shortened to four games after appeal) for his actions while Cintron received a 20-game suspension.
The Astros swept their Wild Card Series against the Twins last week, so McCullers hasn’t pitched since last Saturday against the Rangers. There’s naturally been some bumps in the road in his return from Tommy John surgery, but he was lights out after returning from a neck injury in September, allowing just four unearned runs in 17 2/3 innings with a 24/4 K/BB ratio over his final three starts. Bassitt was fantastic in his Wild Card Series start against the White Sox, allowing one run on six hits and one walk with five strikeouts over seven innings.
The Game 2 matchup is also set, as the Astros will go with Framber Valdez and the Athletics have selected Sean Manaea for the assignment. Zack Greinke and Jose Urquidy are the probable options from there for Houston. The Athletics will also wait before deciding on Game 3 and beyond, but Jesus Luzardo and Frankie Montas figure to start at some point. Mike Fiers is also in the mix, which would be fascinating after he blew the whistle on the Astros’ cheating scandal. He didn’t face Houston during the 60-game regular season.
Lineup edge: Astros
Outside of Kyle Tucker, the Astros’ lineup underwhelmed across the board during the regular season, but they still have the biggest names with the most upside. They also have loads of postseason experience, which counts for something if you are into narratives. These teams are admittedly close on paper offensively, but the Athletics are missing Matt Chapman due to injury and Marcus Semien and Matt Olson have underwhelmed as well this season. Khris Davis had a couple of big hits during the Wild Card Series and could be an x-factor here. The A’s really need to move rookie catcher Sean Murphy up in the lineup.
Pitching edge: Athletics
The rotations are close to a wash here, but it’s the bullpen where the Athletics thrive. Led by dominant closer Liam Hendricks, Oakland led the majors with a 2.72 ERA out of the bullpen during the regular season. Ryan Pressly had a strong finish to the season after replacing the injured Roberto Osuna as the Astros’ closer, but otherwise the club is mostly relying on inexperienced arms.
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Help On the Way for Padres?
The Padres’ postseason rotation isn’t what the team envisioned just a couple of weeks ago. Look no further than Craig Stammen being thrown into the opener role for the decisive Game 3 of the Wild Card Series against the Cardinals last Friday. The Padres became the first team to ever throw a shutout using nine different pitchers, but such an approach isn’t exactly sustainable for a deep playoff run. Fortunately, there could be some help around the corner.
After missing the Wild Card Series with a posterior elbow impingement, right-hander Mike Clevinger was able to throw a “high intensity” bullpen session on Sunday at Globe Life Field in Arlington, per Jon Morosi of MLB Network. The specifics aren’t yet clear, but it’s a good sign that he was at least able to air it out. Clevinger hasn’t pitched since September 23. He received cortisone shot two days later and threw a bullpen session on September 29 before being left off the Wild Card roster.
Dinelson Lamet, the other injured Padres hurler, was able to play catch on Sunday as he works his way back from biceps tightness. He hasn’t pitched since September 25 and has yet to test himself with a bullpen session, so he would appear to be more of a long-shot than Clevinger to contribute during the NLDS against the Dodgers this week.
Quick Hits: Walker Buehler will start Game 1 of the NLDS against the Padres on Tuesday. … Marlins manager Don Mattingly said Sunday that it remains unclear whether Starling Marte (hand) will be able to play in the NLDS against the Braves. … Dodgers manager Dave Roberts said Sunday that Kenley Jansen is open to pitching earlier than the ninth inning for the remainder of the postseason. … James Paxton (elbow) threw from a distance of 75 feet on Sunday. … Derrick Goold of the St. Louis Post-Dispatch writes that Adam Wainwright and Yadier Molina “have discussed privately the possibility going elsewhere to play, together”. … Marlins manager Don Mattingly has considered adding prospect right-hander Edward Cabrera to the team’s NLDS roster.