Each week, during college football season DPB’s Kyle Magin and Andrew J. Pridgen pour on the prose with Pints and Picks™. Who to wager and (sometimes) what to drink while doing it. Twice a year we also check in with MLB action (pre-season and post-season picks.) Below is how we think October is going to go.
The feeling that some kind of final exhale is coming comes to me at the onset of every postseason in baseball. At the beginning of the season, it’s spring and it’s fun and it’s new and there’s hope and discovery. In the middle, it drags a little, plodding along, trying to find small assurances and self respect, speaking tangentially and in platitudes as the drudgery of everyday ensues. …Then, the end eventually does comes and, well, the end is the end. And the end is the end for everyone. It’s unromantic as it is uneventful. An instant fade from joy to darkness then… nothing.
…Take Matt Cain’s five innings of shutout ball Saturday vs. your adopted Padres at AT&T park. With nothing on the line, Cain walked the first batter in the fifth with a one-run lead. Bruce Bochy made the walk out to the mound to take the ball from the club’s most tenured arm. But Cain refused to relent, he didn’t want to go so soon on the day of his final appearance on the mound, ever. He held his glove over his face and said something to the effect of “let me finish this, Skip.” Boch grimaced his signature lament that somehow casts a shadow over his entire face. The manager nodded and sauntered back to dugout with a little hitch, like a roustabout winged in a shootout. Cain retired the side in order after that. Five innings, two hits, zero runs.
At the top of the dugout as Cain walked off the field, he was met by Buster Posey, the man who’d caught his perfect game in 2012. Buster started a procession of hi-fives and hugs that took Cain the entire length of the dugout. Some players like Pablo Sandoval and Hunter Pence held on a little long and whispered in his ear. Others offered a quick bring-it-in and let him go on his way.
There, at the end of the receiving line was Madison Bumgarner. Four years his junior, and the man who took Cain’s ace status away his second year up, they locked eyes and then joined in an embrace which resulted them rocking back and forth, suspended in the moment. Commentator Mike Krukow said, “And these aren’t effusive guys.” There was a sadness in Bumgarner’s face, he was losing a friend, a mentor and a professional equal. For Cain’s part, as he took a spot on the top step of the dugout to watch the Giants do more than what every other MLB ballclub has done to any pitcher since 2005 (relinquish the lead and eventually, the game), it was an appropriate if not unsatisfying end to a career that was at once cursed and charmed.
But the other players kept their distance and went about their business. The only thing we can’t stand more than the end of something is being around it.
Before the first ball was thrown this season Kyle, I picked a quintet of what Vegas considered long-shots to make their mark this year. They were:
New York Yankees: 30-1
Pittsburgh Pirates: 65-1
Arizona Diamondbacks: 125-1
Minnesota Twins 125-1
San Diego Padres: 500-1
Of those teams three of the five are in the playoffs and if you throw out the inevitable super-long shot (San Diego, whose rebuild came along much faster than even I anticipated this year) that’s a pretty good get.
The Yankees I felt were an easy call. Though I couldn’t have predicted such a monster year from living monster Aaron Judge, GM Brian Cashman has been quietly building a winner in the Bronx for the past three seasons. Picking the Pirates was a misstep, as their young pitching didn’t come online and, in the end, couldn’t hang in a NL Central that came to life in the second half. Looks like they’ll be losing McCutcheon for the effort in the off-season as well.
I was most right about the the D-Backs and the Twins, a pair of teams that underwent big front office changes in the offseason. Of the pair of franchises, it was in Arizona that I saw the most remarkable top-down makeover: “GM Dave Stewart and manager Chip Hale were fired in early October and the D-Backs lured (thanks to tax-friendly Arizona!) Mike Hazen as GM from Boston. Hazen brought all of the Fenway front office with him including assistant GM (Amiel Sawdaye) and manager Torey Lovullo,” I wrote as spring training broke.
My bottom line: “Arizona could be formidable and vying for that token NL West Wild Card as the guard changes on the sunny coast.”
The Twins, likewise, hired a new chief baseball officer in Derek Falvey. Falvey’s fingerprints will be all over this year’s AL playoffs as he spent the previous nine years in the front office building the juggernaut Cleveland Indians. In April, I wrote he “is known for his affability, good trade mojo and sixth sense when it comes to pitchers.”
Indeed, it was the pitching that took the Twins through some June and July doldrums, but the team top-to-bottom the lineup featuring Miguel Sano (DH), Byron Buxton (CF), Kennys Vargas (DH/OF), Jorge Polanco (IF), Berlin-born Max Kepler (OF) and Eddie Rosario (LF)… along with the inimitable Joe Mauer making a late-career resurgence just in time to save his home club, was the story of the year for me.
I wasn’t always right Kyle. I didn’t see the Astros surging back to the fore (nor could I have imagined Ver in a Houston jersey in September) or the Rockies putting on more than a decent show at Coors; and even though I planned for a decline in San Francisco this year, had you told me on April 8 that Pablo Sandoval would hit a walk-off homer for the last at-bat of the regular season… to push the Giants to 64 wins and possibly cost them the no. 1 overall pick in 2018, I absolutely would’ve smacked you around and smashed your bread bowl.
But that’s baseball. Like life, it never turns out quite the way you want to—but always ends up the way it should.
On the other side, my favorites, best bets and long-shots for who will hoist the Commissioner’s Trophy in four-and-a-half-ish weeks.
Mea culpa. In our preseason bet-it-or-forget it, I went 6/12 and encouraged readers to go in on the Tigers (over 82.5) and Cubs (over 96.5).
I watched the Tigers implode this season and kept coming back to one point: This was all built on a series of escalating ifs. IF manager Brad Ausmus found a new way to talk these guys into contesting probable losses, and IF a re-tooled bullpen led by K-Rod could perform perfectly, IF the staff could simultaneously progress as expected or simply not regress at all, and IF the aging stars stayed healthy for another year, this team could have been in the playoffs. That’s an insane collection of one-block Jenga levels on which to construct a prediction, but hindsight is 20/20 and affinity is a dark cloud for baseball writers.
As for the Cubs, a post-title swoon should have been easier to see. In his seminal hockey—and life—treatise, former Canadiens goalie Ken Dryden talks about re-focusing after you’ve played a longer season than anyone else, accomplished all of your team goals, and generally got paid, fat, and happy. It’s not easy. Guys have to want to go out there and pour it all in on a Wednesday in Pittsburgh when the weather isn’t great and you’ve got a flight for the coast coming up. People have to step in where departed stars like Dexter Fowler or bit contributors like David Ross stepped away. It didn’t happen early for the Cubs this year—they hovered around .500 for the season’s first three months—and I probably should have seen that. But, there was something about seeing a team return an entire All-Star infield that was intoxicating early on.
I was happy to be right on a few picks. The Dodgers absolutely solved their dogged makeup problems and went over their 94.5 win projection. The mix on that team is fresh now—for every long-term Dodger veteran like Clayton Kershaw or Andre Ethier, there’s a newbie in Yu Darvish and Cody Bellinger who don’t know the pressures of a pennant chase that have built up around Chavez and seemingly can’t be phased by them. Sometimes these failures are socialized and built up to levels that distract the vets, so the infusion of new blood is necessary. This is an exceedingly well-built team for both baseball purposes and those of chemistry.
Finally, I called for the Nats to outperform their 90.5 win projection, which they did handily. Probably nothing was as sure as guessing the one team in the NL East with healthy pitchers, an active payroll, and more than five guys you’ve heard of before would cruise to a win in that division.
I’m especially looking forward to the sport’s silly season. With a few exceptions, almost every perennial Cy Young contender and a score of past winners will be involved. From Max Scherzer to Robbie Ray, from Justin Verlander to Kyle Hendricks, and from Clayton Kershaw to Corey Kluber, you’ll see an unparalleled collection of pitching talent in the first few games of the playoffs.
Alright, AJ, who ya got?
I’m going to roll straight through the playoffs starting with Tuesday’s Wild Card matchups, through the LDS, LCS and finally the big one.
Readers should take note that I am (as ever) West Coast-biased. This time, it’s justifiably so. Of the teams in contention this season, I would say four of the top five all hail from West of the Mississippi—and three from the same division. They are (in my order) Los Angeles, Arizona, Houston and Colorado. Yes, even Colorado. I’d say the lone franchise that cracks that group is Cleveland, mostly because when they’re peaking, they are—simply stated—unhittable. Cubs and Nats cancel each other out. Nats win on paper but Cubs, hangover notwithstanding, actually now know how to win in the playoffs and I’ll take Maddon over Baker any day between the lines in winning time. New York is still a year and a bullpen away and Boston is mostly a beneficiary of playing in an anemic division and having some interesting arms. Houston should sweep or come close to it.
NL Wild Card:
Kyle, it’s going to be beyond tough for me to watch one of these teams bow out one-and-done and Colorado hasn’t been exposed at all but they have a quartet of scary starters 27 or younger and an increasingly effective pen that opposing advance scouts are doing gmail searches for scouting reports on and coming up empty-handed. In a best-of-seven, I actually take the Rockies, but the D-backs have a murderers’ row in JD, Goldschmidt and Lamb and they simply have fucking been lighting up NL West pitching and have had Colorado’s number since the start of the second half.
AL Wild Card:
Again, why do the only two teams I actually like watching have to cancel each other out in one moody fall evening? Conventional wisdom has the Yankees skating through this one, but the Twins lineup was the only one in baseball to crack Cleveland’s facade this season, especially in August and September. This game is going to come down to who can come out swinging first (I give both bullpens a ‘tie’) and in that respect I give the edge to the Twins’ Ervin Santana over the Yanks’ Luis Severino to quell hot bats. In a different moment, maybe as soon as next year, these teams will get their full series—maybe the LCS.
Cubs and Diamondbacks
Take my Cubs/Nats prediction with a giant grain of artisanal salt, because I don’t know much beyond institutional blah-blah about either club. If I did catch them during the regular season it was because they were playing someone I liked/follow (LA, AZ, SF, CO, SD etc.) and beyond the front line pitching of Washington and the occasional glamour build flexing from Harper or the lineup card trickery from Maddon, there wasn’t much to see (John Lackey as a reliever now? Whaaaat?) Talent-wise this series belongs to the Nats, but they’re a quasi-cursed franchise come playoff time, Harper’s knee is suspect and overall they seem a little aged and unconcerned. So, take Chicago on a flier.
The NL West side of the division tilts is where it’s at, in all of baseball. To be clear, I believe both AZ and LA are the cream of this year’s baseball crop. LA has slightly more developed talent bolstered by young difference-makers like the aforementioned Bellinger and Corey Seager, the latter broke out of a July-Sept slump to finish the season hitting around .300 with two homers and ten RBIs in the last half-dozen games. They’re also going with a three-man rotation, Kershaw, Hill and Darvish, in that order, in the playoffs, which is a “how fucking scary are you when Darvish is your third arm?” pause to shiver moment if you’re their LDS foe. But something about those D-Backs is fascinating. All they did in the second half is get timely hits and win silly-close games (to amass 93 total.) They personify clutch, unity and that weird team chemistry thing. It’s a pretty big stretch to say that they’ll overtake a juggernaut like LA who looks plenty better on paper, but I think the Dodgers are actually a season away—as they are each year—from their best performance.
Indians and Astros
I must be missing something here. Houston should sweep Boston (or at least win in five) especially with how hot Verlander has been going and Altuve, Correa and Gonzalez… good night. If the Twins advance they’ll give division foes Cleveland all they can handle. Unfortunately for the Twins, Cleveland has all that, plus a more seasoned pen. These are no-brainer picks.
Again, the real NLCS here would be Arizona vs. LA, but since I’m taking a long-shot here, I’m going to stick with it. If Arizona takes LA down there’s no way they’re not sweeping the Cubs. Should LA advance (which is the more likely scenario) there’s no way they’re not sweeping the Cubs.
While I’d accept an argument that the 2017 Indians are the 2015 Royals (tasted it the year before, got it the next year) I think Houston’s offensive firepower is just too much for Cleveland, even in light of their pen. The Indians played historically good baseball in August and September but something about the Astros’ quiet cobbling together of 101 wins out in the West had me enthralled. Many of this year’s best teams went streaking including LA, Cleveland and Washington, but nobody was able to flip a 9-1 night loss on the road into a 3-2 squeaker the next day before getting back on the road. Houston was also 53-28 on the road this season. Remember that.
World Series Champion:
Well, this could all come crashing in on me night one, but if the D-Backs can get it going early early at home on Wednesday, look for them to be set off. Sometimes that little extra head of steam from the Wild Card carries over into the ensuing series, just a little more ready/woke/and not a meaningful dip between meaningful games is the difference-maker. Besides a little scare in August, the Dodgers have been on cruise control since the break with everything breaking their way. LA, without a doubt, is the best, most complete team in baseball in 2017, but the best in this sport doesn’t often win like it does in others. Come playoff time, the glory belongs to the scrappers and the will of the gods. Something about Arizona that nobody else knows about and the fact that I’m ride-or-die NL west makes them the only pick for me. Besides, you can still get them at 14-1, … so what the hell?
OK Kyle, this is me waving you home for the season.
Here we go AJ. Gotta differ with you on a few picks.
The Rockies are relatively lukewarm headed into the playoffs—5-5 in their last 10 and 3-3 over the last week of the season. The Snakes came in only marginally warmer—6-4 and 3-3—but were the vastly superior team over the course of the regular season, cinching their playoff bid about a week before Colorado. What’s most important, though, is the fact the Diamondbacks can absolutely rake. They had the NL’s second-highest run differential with a +153, as opposed to Colorado’s NL playoff worst +67. I think the Martinez/Goldschmidt/Lamb murderer’s row gets to Jon Gray or one of his replacements in the friendly confines of the BOB Wednesday.
The Twins did most of their work against some frankly bad teams—league-worst Detroit and the anemic White Sox among them. Against playoff-bound teams, the Twins are 16-31, and they only managed a +27 run differential this season, the lowest of any playoff team in either league. This is only one game, so the Twins may well win, but I’m going to counsel bettors to play the averages. The Yankees, who’ll have Luis Severino on the mound today, are coming into the playoffs on a 5-2 tear and went 22-20 against fellow playoff-bound squads this season. I think they get over on Ervin Santana and the Twinkies.
Cubs and Dodgers
I’m picking the Cubs for a lot of the reasons you and I talked about, namely the fact that Joe Maddon is 1 million times the manager Dusty Baker is, and Baker’s foibles get magnified by the lightning-fast pace of playoff ball, while his strengths are amplified during the long grind of the regular season. I’m going against my head a little on this one, because I think Stephen Strasburg is the class of playoff pitchers based on his 2017. But, the Cubs came into the postseason on a heater (7-3 in their last 10 opposed to Washington’s 5-5) and have the experience to rally from a deficit should one present itself.
I think the Dodgers handle either of their division mates, largely on the strength of Clayton Kershaw and Yu Darvish going back-to-back. They’re the hottest NL club coming into the playoffs at 8-2 (5-1 in the last week) and have a better mix of veteran leadership and youth than either of their mostly young opponents can muster. Their lineup can truly produce pop from almost every single spot in the order and I think the Curtis Granderson/Ethier platoon/pinch-hitting options are unmatched for the quality of at-bats they can deliver during any given game. Absolutely nothing will be easy about taking out the Dodgers save some freak offensive explosion.
Indians and Astros
Cleveland should rather easily dispatch with either Wild Card team. The Indians are stacked with Frankie Lindor (.842 OPS), Edwin Encarnacion (.881 OPS) and Jose Ramirez (.957 OPS) anchoring a nearly elite offense. Two turns apiece for Kluber and Josh Tomlin (7.79 K/W) (if needed) should finish off Minnesota or New York.
The Astros’ should easily dispatch the Red Sox, a truly mediocre team who feasted on a bad division. Their game is a more polished, with five batters hitting for better than an .840 OPS, including probable AL MVP Jose Altuve (.957). The second baseman is the straw who stirs Houston’s drink, offering protection for George Springer and Alex Bregman and setting the table for Carlos Correa. The staff outside of Justin Verlander and Dallas Keuchel is pretty workmanlike—but the bullpen is strong and those two front-end starters are as good as you’ll find in the league.
Simply put: Baseball’s strongest team. I think they overpower this version of the Cubs with contributions from all over the diamond.
The ‘Stros stay hot against Cleveland, a team that excels as the sum of its parts rather than because of its talent. Houston’s top-line pitching and formidable order bury a Cleveland team that peaked just a little early this year.
World Series Champion:
Los Angeles Dodgers
Steel sharpens steel, and nobody played more games in close proximity with playoff teams all season than the Dodgers in the NL West. I’m betting they learned how to win those games.
Photo: Courtesy MLB