One of these series is exactly what most expected.
One of these series is absolutely not.
Both favorites lost in the NLDS. The Dodgers, the best team in baseball this season with 106 wins, completely collapsed in Game 5 thanks to egregious managing from Dave Roberts and faltering from Clayton Kershaw once again in October. The Braves had their biggest concern coming into the playoffs – an overhauled bullpen that still wasn’t fixed – bite them before getting completely throttled and embarrassed in Game 5, ending what was an incredibly fun and exciting season.
While the World Series won’t be the potentially titanic matchup we thought it could be, we’re getting at least one of those this round in Astros-Yankees. But first, let’s preview one of the more unpredictable NLCS matchups in recent history.
NLCS: Washington Nationals vs. St. Louis Cardinals
The Nationals’ ability to rally – or their incredible luck to face teams that choke in improbable ways – this postseason has gotten them here.
It’s both. They have a heavily underrated lineup that includes Anthony Rendon and Juan Soto, who have both made their impact very well known so far this postseason. But they also had one of baseball’s best relievers somehow combust against them in the Wild Card Game, and then had one of baseball’s best pitchers ever do the same in Game 5 Wednesday night.
Despite those breaks, it’s probably going to get them to the World Series.
Washington has done a fantastic job staying away from their volatile bullpen, which was brutal this season and finished 22nd in WAR accumulation. That’s because, aside from Patrick Corbin, who the Dodgers got to heavily in Game 3, the Nationals have gotten insane and long performances from their starters. Out of the 54 innings of baseball Washington has played this postseason, 38 of those have been played with a starting pitcher on the mound, not a reliever. And those starters have been excellent, posting a 2.57 ERA so far in October per ESPN.
But the best rotation ERA in these playoffs doesn’t belong to the Nationals. It belongs to St. Louis, who, despite their inexperience in that group, is still pushing right along and is four wins from the World Series because of it.
The Cardinals don’t have as faulty a bullpen to worry about; they were 7th in WAR accumulation in that department during the regular season but have posted a 4.30 ERA so far in these playoffs.
With the way most bullpens have been shelled so far though, that’s not that bad of a number, and the eye test proves a bit better than that number suggests.
It’s still a bit of a problem though. While the youngster has been awesome, who are you picking in a Max Scherzer-Jack Flaherty duel? Or Dakota Hudson vs. Stephen Strasburg? Adam Wainwright had a vintage performance in Game 3 (before it being ruined by Mike Shildt leaving him out there too long, only for Carlos Martinez to get rocked and allow Atlanta to come back); his postseason magic has not ran out and is maybe the most trustworthy pitcher in the St. Louis rotation because of his experience.
The Cardinals bullpen has Martinez, who had one of the more miserable innings from a pitcher this season (Don’t worry, Clayton Kershaw, Joe Kelly, Mike Foltynewicz and Max Fried are right up there too!), Tyler Webb (who hasn’t been great) and Giovanny Gallegos, who despite posting an ERA of 0.00 in three appearances had a rough outing in Game 4 in which he walked two batters to load the bases in a 4-3 game. They got out of it, but in the moment, you were holding your breath.
This is a large part of what’s backing up a young, inexperienced rotation tasked with going up against Scherzer, Strasburg, the ageless Anibal Sanchez and what should be an improved Corbin. Also, the Nationals lineup is terrifying, has one of the two hottest hitters in these playoffs on it (The two are Soto and Jose Altuve) and is a lineup that is significantly better than St. Louis’.
That doesn’t mean this series won’t be close. Scherzer certainly showed he wasn’t invincible in the Wild Card game, where he was shelled before the Nats rallied, and Corbin as mentioned was not good at all in Game 3 against the Dodgers. Both should improve; the Cardinals offense isn’t as good as Milwaukee or LA’s. But if the Cardinals can rough one or two guys up early and force an early shift to the bullpen, then that only increases their odds.
Prediction: Nationals in 6
ALCS: New York Yankees vs. Houston Astros
Like the Yankees last series against the Twins, this matchup could not be more evenly matched.
Arguably the two best offenses in baseball are armed each with top ten bullpens. Both teams won more than 103 games. One of them will not play in the World Series.
Houston’s vaunted rotation looked the part early before somewhat losing its shine later on against Tampa Bay. Justin Verlander and Gerrit Cole completed dominated in Games 1 and 2 before Zack Greinke fell off, getting roughed up early in Game 3 and setting a bit of a trend until Cole came back in Game 5 put up a similar performance to Game 2.
If the Astros struggled with a Rays lineup that wasn’t off-the-chart menacing, then what happens against a Yankees batting order that is full of sluggers?
The Astros had the best offense in baseball this season. They hit a ton of home runs, had the highest team batting average out of anyone and, like the Yankees, bring up slugger after slugger.
This series could turn into a bit of a shootout instead of a pitching duel. New York blanked the Twins in three games, but had James Paxton struggle in Game 1. They were also ultra-aggressive, letting no starter of their’s stay in the game more than five innings. Manager Aaron Boone has been smart this postseason unlike other decisions we’ve seen made, but with Houston putting longer leashes on their guys, the Yankees could seek to do the same if the starter is firing.
If the Astros can work it so that only Cole, Greinke and Verlander start the entire series, it likely heavily rests the bullpen. But Wade Miley, who was surprisingly good during the regular season, didn’t have a great ALDS in the 2.2 innings he pitched. Neither did Ryan Presley, who turned back into the Twins version of himself, or Hector Rondon, who came into a high leverage situation and blew it in the Rays Game 3 slaughter.
The Yankees bullpen was expectedly great against Minnesota, and shut down a top three offense in baseball. The rest of the Houston staff was excellent versus Tampa Bay.
So what gives?
The Nationals, similar to Houston, have had two of their top three starters have so-so performances at times during this postseason. I picked Washington to win because of the expected rebound those players should have, in addition to the competition they will be facing.
Perhaps, in this ALCS, it could be the Yankees that see some production dip from their starters. Sure, Paxton already wasn’t great, but Masahiro Tanaka is home run prone-pitcher who wasn’t very good this season. We’ve seen Luis Severino have bad games in October before. There’s no way Greinke can be as bad as he was in Game 3. There’s no way Verlander lasts only 3.2 innings and gives up four runs in the process again.
Prediction: Astros in 7