October baseball, y’all. Are you worn out from watching your favorite Cincinnati Reds play out the string of yet another losing season? Well, that’s over and done. I’m certainly gonna miss baseball when it’s gone, but graciously we have a full month of the very best baseball has to offer yet ahead of us. There aren’t really any surprises or underdog darlings included in the festivities this year, which probably says something about the state of baseball. But this ain’t about that.
Let’s take a look-see at the teams engaged in the Wild Card matches and try to figure who deserves our collective support. We’ll look at the LDS participants later on.
NL Wild Card Game: Milwaukee Brewers at Washington Nationals
The Brewers won 89 games this season, the fewest among our postseason participants. They battled with the Cardinals for the NL Central crown right up to the final day but things shook out to lock them up with the Nats for the Wild Card.
This year’s Brewers are not quite what they were last year when they took the Dodgers all the way to Game 7 in the NLCS, mostly because the pitiless blackness of the ever-expanding universe took our beautiful child Christian Yelich away from us. He put together another MVP-caliber season, but he bonked his knee bone a few weeks ago and will not play again until next year. The Brewers steered the ship into port without him and earned their ticket to the Wild Card, but it’s gonna be really, really hard to win 12 games against the best teams in baseball without him.
Fortunately, they have other guys. Keston Hiura would be a legit Rookie of the Year if it weren’t for the feats of Pete Alonso in New York. In 84 games he hit .303/.368/.570 with 44 (!!) extra-base hits while playing a perfectly cromulent second base. Ryan Braun, Mike Moustakas, Eric Thames, and Yasmani Grandal all hit at respectably above-average rates, as well. With Yelich out they are missing the centerpiece of their lineup, but they can still field a starting eight capable of scoring enough runs to make this work.
Brandon Woodruff will take the baseball to the bump at the start of this one, but manager Craig Counsell has proved time and again that he is not at all reticent to call on his bullpen early and often. That said, Woodruff has been arguably their best pitcher this season, accumulating 3.3 bWAR in 22 starts with a FIP of just 3.01. I’m nearly certain we’ll see Josh Hader this evening, too. He established himself as one of baseball’s very best relievers last season and didn’t really miss a beat this year. He actually lowered his walk rate and increased his already-unbelievable strikeout rate (2.4 and 16.4 per nine, respectively), but he also gave up a few more home runs. Still, he is an otherworldly baseball monster.
The Nationals have made the postseason this year after just missing out last year. They have been one of the very best NL clubs of this decade, yet they have never advanced beyond the division series. Of course, if they are to beat the Brewers tonight, they’ll have the honor of facing the Dodgers, so you know best of luck with all that I guess.
Future Hall of Famer Max Scherzer is set to start for the Nats, and though he has dealt with some injuries issues this year he will still finish in the top five in Cy Young voting. He may not be fully healthy at the moment, so the Brewers could have an opening. I wouldn’t bet against Maximum Scherzer, though.
The Nationals can score some runs when they wanna, that’s for sure. Future Red Anthony Rendon is a top five MVP candidate this year after he slashed .319/.412/.598. Juan Soto, last year’s Rookie of the Year, is still just 20 years old. He’s pretty much everything we thought Bryce Harper would be. He slashed .282/.401/.548. I think his most impressive accomplishment is that he walked 108 times and walloped 71 extra-base hits while striking out just 132 times. As a 20-year-old. It is not hyperbolic in the slightest to fit him in next to the very best baseball wunderkinds in history. He has been every bit the hitter that young Ted Williams, Mickey Mantle, Jimmy Foxx, Mike Trout, and so on were. He is one of my very favorite dudes playing my favorite game right now, which is totally my favorite.
It’s also worth mentioning that although both Howie Kendrick and Asdrubal Cabrera are old enough to serve as board members for their respective Rotary Clubs, they have been integral to the team’s success. Kendrick got 370 PAs as a sixth man and slashed a blistering .344/.395/.572 while playing 1B, 2B, and 3B. Cabrera was signed in early August after being outright released by the Rangers and all he did was hit .323/.404/.565 in 146 PAs. With the empty Taco Bell party pack box known as Matt Adams hitting like a chalupa at 1B, Kendrick/Cabrera have been able to more than make up for it.
My initial feel is to sympathize with our NL Central brethren, but I think I’m going with the Nationals here. Max and Soto are too much fun to be just a one-and-done. And the Reds are going to sign Rendon this winter, so I’m excited about that, too. If Yelich was playing I think it’d tip the scale for me, but what if.
AL Wild Card Game: Tampa Bay Rays at Oakland A’s
I’m going to be honest right up front here: given the way the Reds’ rebuild has progressed (I’m using that term loosely I know) I’m really goddamn angry about the Rays and A’s, man. They spend far less money than even our Reds do and yet here we are. The Rays have emerged from a recent rebuild to win 90 or more games the last two years. They are back in the postseason this year after missing out every year since 2013 (sound familiar?). That really salts my bananas if you know what I mean.
Charlie Morton will start for the Rays, which is the right choice. He’s 35 and somehow at the peak of his powers. He set career-highs this year in innings pitched, wins, starts, ERA, FIP, WHIP, and K/BB. He also led the league in HR rate (in a year when home runs went all Hot Girl Summer on us). He’s a top five Cy Young candidate.
Their starting lineup does not feature a single destroyanizer but is seriously deep. Your old friend Tommy Pham put in a great year, as did former Pirate Austin Meadows (as you might have guessed, the Rays fleeced the Pirates in that Chris Archer trade). Avisail Garcia, Yandy Diaz, Brandon Lowe, and Willy Adames also played really well.
Do you know who Emilio Pagan, Diego Castillo, Oliver Drake, and Colin Poche are? Me neither. But apparently they all work in the Rays’ bullpen and they are all good.
You wanna hear some serious gangster shit? The A’s have won 97 games the past two seasons. And that’s 16 games behind the pace set in the AL West by the Astros in that time. The best baseball in the world the last few years has been played after my bedtime and I’m cranky about it.
Everybody talks about the Astros’ infield and how fantastically talented it is (and rightfully so), but the A’s are every bit as incredible on the dirt. Marcus Semien at shortstop and Matt Chapman at 3B are top ten MVP candidates and Matt Olsen at 1B put up a five-WAR season himself. Ramon Laureano in center field is a legit Gold Glover who posted a 126 RC+ this season. He is like a million funs to watch.
As of the moment I’m writing this, they haven’t announced a starter for the game yet. Mike Fiers is likely (he no-hit the Reds this year, remember?), but the A’s are on the vanguard of pitcher usage right now so they probably won’t follow the traditional playbook. Their bullpen is anchored by Liam Hendriks, who has been good for a while but sweet god he is something else entirely this year. In 85 innings he has given up just 17 earned runs. His K/BB is nearly 6.0. 54-year-olds Yusmeiro Petit and Joakim Soria also put in quality work this year. Tanner Roark, who was traded to Oakland at the end of July, made ten cromulent starts for the A’s. They also have Homer Bailey, who put in his best season since 2013 between the Royals and A’s. You can be pissy about that I guess, but I’m choosing to be hyped for the old fella. Git ‘em, Hoss.
Both of these teams are incredibly fun to watch, and I’m loathe to choose between them. But according to ironclad self-imposed rules of this here diddle, I can’t not. So I’ll go with the A’s because while they are really fun they also have cool hats.
We’ll look at the rest of baseball’s postseason participants later this week.