When the jubilant Boston Red Sox cranked up Frank Sinatra’s “New York, New York” in the visitors’ clubhouse on Tuesday night, it marked a fitful end to some interesting league divisional series.
Thumbing their noses at New York’s Aaron Judge — who trolled Boston by playing it at Fenway when the Yanks knotted up the series 1-1 last Saturday — the MLB regular season wins champion Red Sox served notice they won’t be psychologically harmed by anyone, least of all ALCS opponent and defending champion Houston.
The Astros started defence of their 2017 World Series title in fashion, smoking Cleveland in three straight, including an 11-3 thrashing in game 3.
Over in the National League, the Milwaukee Brewers kept the good times rolling right from the end of the season, taking out Colorado in a sweep and making it 11 straight wins, including the game 163 tie-breaker against the Chicago Cubs.
The Los Angeles Dodgers, defending National League champs, took another step toward a repeat appearance in the Fall Classic by beating the upstart Atlanta Braves 3-1.
The league championship series should contain enough intrigue for even the casual observer. Here are some players to look out for heading into the second last round of the MLB Playoffs. We’ll start with Milwaukee’s, then the Dodgers, Red Sox and finally the defending champion Astros.
Milwaukee Brewers – Bullpen
While this doesn’t qualify as a “player” per se, the Brewers bullpen handled 15.1 of the total 28 innings that Milwaukee needed to dispose of the Colorado Rockies. Put it this way, the longest start by any Brewers pitcher belonged to Jhoulys Chacin, who went five innings in Game 2 as Milwaukee won 4-0. Only one pitcher, closer Jeremy Jeffress, gave up any runs (two) in the three game series. Expect much of the same from the underdog Brewers in the NLCS, as they will utilize the likes of Corbin Burnes (4.0 IP in NLDS, one hit, five Ks), Corey Knebel (3.0 IP, 4 K, two holds), Joakim Soria (2.2 IP, one hit, 5 K), Josh Hader (2.1 IP, two holds, 4K) and Jeffress to great effect. We know he isn’t a reliever, but another player to look out for, and who hasn’t pitched yet, is waiver deadline acquisition Gio Gonzalez. He gets the start in game 1 of the NLCS and comes in fairly warm, winning three of five starts in the Brewers uniform (the other two were no decision).
Milwaukee Brewers – CF Lorenzo Cain
During the season, playoff hardened veteran Cain was Milwaukee’s second best batter, clocking in at .308 (a career high), with 10 homers, 38 RBI and a career high 30 stolen bases. Cain was barely a factor in the NLDS, though, collecting one hit and drawing two walks in 14 plate appearances. However, in 31 total playoff games before this season with the Kansas City Royals, Cain hit .291 with eight extra base hits, eight stolen bases and 19 RBI. During the season, Cain hit Dodger pitching very well in seven games, which should bode well for him going into the Brewers first NLCS since 2011. He was 9-for-25 in those seven games, with two walks, two runs scored, two RBI, two doubles and a triple. He failed to get a hit in only one of those games and had multi-hit efforts against Dodgers starters Rich Hill and Alex Wood.
Milwaukee Brewers – LF Ryan Braun
The “Hebrew Hammer” is the last remaining member of the 2011 Brewers playoff team — if you don’t count manager Craig Counsell. Having been in this position before, Braun should have extra motivation to help this incarnation over the NLCS hump. Braun was MVP in 2011 and on top of the baseball world, but since then his performance, while still admirable, hasn’t reached those iconic levels (.319 batting average, 41 homers, 112 RBI). In the 2011 playoffs, Braun hit .404, with two homers and 10 RBI in 11 games. He’s now 34 and coming off a season that saw him log a .254 average with 20 homers and 64 RBI in 125 games. However, Braun is his old self, sort of, in the playoffs, having gone 5-for-13 in the LDS against Colorado, along with a stolen base. He is a good bet to produce when the chips are down in the NLCS against Los Angeles.
Milwaukee Brewers – RF Christian Yelich
While Ryan Braun is an old hand at this playoffs thing, 2018 NL batting champion Christian Yelich is getting his first taste in his sixth season in the bigs. Milwaukee made the right move last winter, plucking Yelich from Miami, which was having a fire sale on starting big leaguers. Yelich responded with a monster season worthy of a MVP award, hitting .326, including 34 doubles, seven triples and career highs in homers (36) and RBI (110). He also stole a career high 22 bases and led the senior circuit in slugging percentage (.598) and OPS (1.000). So far, he’s made quite an impression in the playoffs. In game 1 against Colorado, he hit a two-run homer in the bottom of the third then came home to score the winning run on a walk-off RBI single from Mike Moustakas in the bottom of the 10th as the Brew Crew won 3-2.
Los Angeles Dodgers – 1B/OF Cody Bellinger
Right now, Cody Bellinger’s playoff batting line reads .000. That’s right, Dodgers’ fans, Bellinger is o-fer-the-playoffs. So far. For some players, going hitless in four games would have their arses planted on the end of the bench until further notice. But Bellinger, 23, has been known to be a streaky hitter, especially in the post season. Last year, his first full season in the bigs, he hit .267 with 39 homers and 97 RBI, winning Rookie of the Year honors. Then, in his first post-season, Bellinger hit just .218, but had four doubles, a triple three homers and nine RBI in 15 games. So, while his batting average didn’t reflect it, he was very productive for a new guy. It was feast or famine for the lanky left-handed batter in the 2017 post-season, with seven hit-less games. In the other eight, five were multi-hit efforts. Logic and past performance would suggest, then, that Bellinger is due a break out against Milwaukee, who have a majority of right-handed pitchers.
Los Angeles Dodgers – SP Hyun-Jin Ryu
All the evidence so far points to a very good NLCS coming for fifth-year man Ryu. He has been able to pitch very well for five seasons in Dodger Blue, mostly because Clayton Kershaw has absorbed most of the ink spilled in the press. He’s also had to overcome a debilitating shoulder injury that required surgery and sunk his whole 2015 season and most of the 2016 campaign. In 15 starts this season (Ryu had a groin injury mid-year), Ryu was an impressive 7-3 with a 1.97 ERA and 89 strikeouts in 82.1 innings pitched. He’s carried that right into the post-season as the no. 2 starter, going seven strong in his only start of the NLDS, limiting Atlanta to four hits, no runs and striking out eight as the Dodgers won 6-0. Historically, Ryu has pitched very well in the playoffs and is slated to start game 2 of the NLCS, facing Milwaukee lefty Wade Miley.
Los Angeles Dodgers – SS Manny Machado
Manny Machado only had three hits in the NLDS, but boy were they big ones. The Dodgers huge trade deadline acquisition hit just .176 (3-for-17), but all were for extra bases (one double, two homers) and he drove in a team high six runs. His two-run homer in the first inning of game 2 against the Braves was all the production L.A. needed in a 3-0 victory. Then in the deciding game 4, Machado ripped a RBI double to get the Dodgers on the board early, then smoked a three-run bomb in the seventh to seal a 6-2 Dodger win. Like Cody Bellinger, Machado is also a streaky hitter and it seems that age and wisdom have made him even more fearful at the plate. In 2012, when he was just 20, Machado was just 3-for-19 in the playoffs, with a homer and two RBI. But it was a good learning experience, which should bode well for him heading into the NLCS.
Los Angeles Dodgers – SP Clayton Kershaw
Is this finally the year that Kershaw et al put it all together? The Dodgers have been bridesmaids for too long during Kershaw’s illustrious tenure so far and a World Series victory would certainly cement his and this team’s legacy. The perennial Cy Young candidate and three time winner put in his finest post-season start ever against Atlanta, which should portend greater things to come. In his 20th ever playoff start, Kershaw went eight innings for the first time in game 2, limiting the Atlanta Braves to just two hits and zero runs, while striking out three in a 3-0 win. One of the game’s greatest ever starting pitchers is now 8-7, with a 4.08 ERA and 142 K’s in 130 innings in the playoffs. We think, with that start against Atlanta, and getting the ball in game 1 of the NLCS, there may be even brighter days ahead for Kershaw and the Dodgers.
Boston Red Sox – UT Brock Holt
How is this for a crazy post-season stat line? Brock Holt, baseball jack-of-all-trades, right now owns a .500 batting average in five playoff games, with eight hits in 16 trips to the dish, including two doubles, a triple, two homers and six RBI. Anyone needing a historical comparison for Holt would look no further than the hated former Yankee, Bucky Dent, who was a way better hitter when the chips were down in the post-season than in the regular season. The Red Sox Swiss Army Knife — Holt played seven positions this past season — became the first player in MLB history to hit for the cycle in a playoff game, doing so in his only start of the 2018 post-season, a 16-1 thumping of New York in game 3. He got the start at second base and after grounding out to start the night, then hit a single and a triple in a seven-run fourth, followed by another groundout, then a ground-ruel double and finally a two-run round-tripper in the top of the ninth. We have to wonder, are the Bosox better off spot-starting him, or starting him out right to see if that magic bat can go a whole series?
Boston Red Sox – RP Craig Kimbrel
Craig Kimbrel is arguably the best closer in baseball, a four-time saves leader in the National League with Atlanta and has 333 career saves, which is 14th, all-time. In his limited playoff experience, 12 games, Kimbrel has three saves, the last two against the Yankees in the ALDS. But neither of them would be what anyone would deem “classic.” Kimbrel certainly left more questions out on the rubber than answers in those two save opportunities, surrendering two hits, two walks and three earned runs, while striking out four in 2.1 innings. In game 1, he got the ball with Boston leading 5-3 in the bottom of the ninth and the meat of the Yankees order coming up. Right away, Aaron Judge sent a 1-1 pitch deep into the right field stands to bring New York to within one. To his credit, Kimbrel struck out the side, including Brett Gardner and Giancarlo Stanton, to lock down the win. Game 4, Kimbrel was even shakier. With a 4-1 lead and series to nail down, Kimbrel walked Judge to start the inning, then gave up a single to Didi Gregorius and a walk to Luke Voit, sandwiched around another Stanton K. With the bases loaded, he proceeded to hit Neil Walker for a run, then gave up a sacrifice fly to Gary Sanchez to make everyone in Sox Nation very nervous. But, he got Gleyber Torres to ground out and finally end it. Phew.
Boston Red Sox – RF Mookie Betts
After the wondrous season he just had, Mookie Betts may well be a MVP for the first time in his five-year career. He won the AL batting title with a .346 average, which included 47 doubles, five triples, 32 homers and 80 RBI. He was top 10 in stolen bases with 30 and also led the AL in slugging percentage at a ridiculous .640. And yet, he is another great regular season guy who has yet to really knock anyone’s socks off in the playoffs. Not that Boston really needed him in the ALDS, but Betts hit a sub-par .188 with one double, two RBI and three walks. Career-wise, he is a .238 post-season hitter, with four doubles in 42 at bats, one stolen base and a .667 OPS. However, in game 3 against the Yanks, Betts had the kind of game that shows he can get hot (watch out, Houston). Sure, it was a 16-1 blowout, but Betts was a catalyst getting two hits, scoring two runs and even drawing a bases loaded walk to record one of his two RBI on the night.
Boston Red Sox – SP David Price
Somewhere out there, premier regular season starter and $30 million man David Price has to have a solid post-season start in him. Call it hard luck, or just an inability to get it done, but Price’s playoff resume is a horror show compared to his regular stats. To wit, in 299 career regular season contests, 289 of them starts, Price is 143-75, with a 3.25 ERA, 1.144 WHIP and 1,835 strikeouts in 1,922.1 innings pitched. In the post-season, well, his numbers are rather unimpressive. In 18 games, including 10 starts, Price owns a 2-9 record, with a 5.28 ERA, 1.253 WHIP and 68 Ks in 75 innings. His last start, a 6-2 loss to the New York Yankees in game 2 of the ALDS, was so dismal he was yanked after just an inning and two thirds, having surrendered homers to Aaron Judge and Gary Sanchez, with the final blow a RBI single to Andrew McCutchen. However, he pitched Houston pretty tough in two starts against them this season and gets the start in game 2 of the ALCS. If Boston wants to win another title, he’s got to be on.
Houston Astros – LF Marwin Gonzalez
For the defending champion Houston Astros, veteran outfielder Marwin Gonzalez is kind of an unheralded lucky rabbit’s foot. Last year, with his team down 1-0 in the World Series to L.A. and facing a 2-0 hole trailing the Dodgers 3-2 in the top of then ninth in game 2, Gonzalez did something to the Dodgers that had never been done before that season. He hit a homer to knot the game 3-3, a game which the Astros would win 7-6 in 11 innings. L.A. was previously 98-0 when leading in the ninth in 2017. That homer and wild win had profound effect on a series that the Astros would end up winning in seven. Though not a hugely prolific hitter in the playoffs previously (he was .171 in 22 total games entering the 2018 post-season) he has been on a tear so far and could be key to the Astros bid to repeat. Gonzalez went 7-for-13 against Cleveland, with two doubles and five RBI. Bosox pitchers ought to take notice.
Houston Astros – SP Justin Verlander
There are so many live arms on the Houston staff, it’s hard to single out just one guy for special praise or merit. But, as the “old man” — Verlander is 35 — of a superb staff that includes Gerrit Cole and Dallas Keuchel to name two, Verlander arm is just as invaluable. He gets the nod again in game 1 of the ALCS, just like he did in the ALDS, where he wasn’t necessarily dominant, but capably effective enough to get the win, 7-2 against the Indians. He went five and a third, giving up two hits, two walks and two earned runs while striking out seven. If history is anything, Verlander is just getting warmed up for the big show. Last year in the ALCS, he pitched a complete game, five-hit, one-run, 13-strikeout gem in a 2-1 game 2 victory over the Yankees. He followed that up with seven strong in game 6 (five hits, no runs, 8 Ks) as the Astros won to force game 7. Even when he loses in the playoffs, like he did for the only time in the 2017 playoffs to Los Angeles in game 6 of the World Series, Verlander was good, giving up only three hits, two runs and striking out nine in six innings of a 3-1 defeat. He’s the glue of the Astros staff, for sure.
Houston Astros – 2B Jose Altuve
If Justin Verlander is the Prince of of the pitching staff, Jose Altuve is the Pharoah of the fielders. As 2017 AL MVP Altuve goes, so go the Astros, typically. The diminutive second baseman is probably the best second-place hitter in baseball and in the playoffs, he’s been solid in that role. In 27 games so far, he is hitting .270, with eight homers and 18 RBI. What we can’t help thinking, though, is that he still has more to give, considering he’s a career .316 hitter. Altuve was decent against Cleveland in the ALDS sweep, going 4-for-14 (.286) with a double, homer and two RBI. Last year he was a force in the ALDS against Boston, going 8-for-15 in four games, including three homers and four RBI. In the regular season this year, he went 8-for-30 against Red Sox pitching in seven games, but didn’t show them too much, with just a homer and one RBI. Maybe he was playing possum, and is going to light them up like he did the Yankees in the 2017 ALCS.
Houston Astros – RP Roberto Osuna
All of his legal troubles aside and the ignominious exit from Toronto aside, Roberto Osuna may just be the most feared closer in the final four. He has way more upside and lockdown ability than any of Craig Kimbrel of the Red Sox, Milwaukee’s Jeremy Jeffress or even the Dodgers’ Kenley Jansen. Thus, the Astros have the upper hand when the games get down to the nitty gritty. Once his league-imposed suspension was over and a trade from Toronto completed, Osuna enjoyed his greatest regular season success yet. In 23 games with Houston, Osuna logged 12 saves in 12 opportunities (he was 21 for 22 between Houston and Toronto, FYI), with two holds, a 1.99 ERA, 0.882 WHIP and 19 strikeouts in 22.2 innings. In the 2018 playoffs, Osuna has a save in his only opportunity, with just one hit and one walk against in 2.1 innings. Overall in his post-season history, Osuna is three-for-three in save opportunities and has logged a 0.92 ERA, 0.508 WHIP and 18 strikeouts in 16 appearances. Solid gold in the vital late going.