And Then There Were Three Super Teams, and the Brewers
After an uncompetitive divisional round, the championship series promise to be much more entertaining.
Photos by Shawn Thew, Justin Lane, Tannen Maury, Mike Nelson/EPA-EFE
Baseball’s first postseason round this year was uncompetitive, to say the least. Not one of the four series took a full five games to decide. Two were decided via the sweep. In one of those series, the losing team scored in only one inning out of the 28 played; the other was an unbelievably lopsided dismantling. After being shut out twice to begin their series against the Dodgers, the Braves managed to scrape a win across at home thanks to a grand slam from Ronald Acuña Jr. before they were easily dispatched the next day. Even the series that promised both the tightest competition and the biggest spectacle—Yankees vs. Red Sox, meeting in the postseason for the first time since their fateful clash in the 2004 ALCS—didn’t go the distance, and also featured one of the most pathetically one-sided games in MLB postseason history. (Almost as consolation, the ninth inning of the final division series was, for its part, a true nail-biter.) Thankfully, the pair of championship series promise to be a great deal more entertaining.
The Astros, advancing to their second consecutive ALCS, won the World Series last year, lest anyone forget. They were a team strong enough to dispel even the curse placed upon them by having a Sports Illustrated cover declare them 2017 World Series champions in 2014. They were propelled to their franchise-first title by one of the most powerful offenses ever, with a pitching staff helmed by Justin Verlander. The Astros were a train, unstoppable, driven by the dual pistons of one of baseball’s most advanced front offices and the superb on-field talent they had developed and acquired.
This season, somehow, they look even better. Unlike last season, the 2018 Astros had legitimate competition in the AL West, with the A’s winning 97 games and the Mariners winning 89. They still won two more games than they did in 2017. They got a full season of a Cy Young-worthy Justin Verlander. Gerrit Cole, acquired from the Pirates at what has so far appeared to be precious little cost on Houston’s end, upped his spin rate and transformed into an ace almost as frightening as Verlander. Alex Bregman, who was not long ago the subject of much handwringing and trade discussion for Astros fans—is he a bust? Could we trade him for Chris Sale?—turned into an MVP-caliber player seemingly overnight, in a lineup already stacked with MVP-caliber players. A struggling Carlos Correa, Jose Altuve’s first-ever DL stint, and a general decrease in effectiveness on the offensive front couldn’t stop the train. In the three games they played against Cleveland, a team largely the same as the one that got to Game 7 of the World Series in 2016 and won 22 straight in 2017, the Astros looked like they belonged in a different league. Forget the Cubs: The Astros might be the dynasty that was promised.
And this finely-tuned machine of destruction will run into a team that won 108 games this season. The Red Sox won their third consecutive division title this year, and after two quick postseason exits, they’ve finally managed to compete for the pennant, vanquishing their division rivals (though things got a bit dubious at the end). Like the Astros, the Red Sox have a frightening offensive barrage and a rotation full of top-end starting pitching. Mookie Betts, the presumptive AL MVP, was mostly quiet in the division series, but the rest of their lineup—even Brock Holt, who of all people in the world became the owner of the first-ever postseason cycle—lived up to its billing. Their oft-scorned non-Craig Kimbrel relief corps, the team’s one obvious area of weakness, managed a 2.45 ERA against a historically powerful Yankees lineup in the ALDS. Might they be able to hold off the Astros? Can David Price win a start in the postseason? That a 108-win team seems like the underdog is a testament to just how dominant the Astros are, and just how incredible a clash of titans the ALCS promises to be.
Over in the National League, the matchup is between the one of the most obvious suspects—the Dodgers, appearing in their third consecutive NLCS after winning their sixth consecutive division title—and one of the least. The Brewers were, by record, the NL’s best team. The Brewers! In a league that featured the Nationals and the Cubs and the Dodgers, with their market sizes and their homegrown talent, the Brewers bested them all. They acquired Lorenzo Cain and Christian Yelich in the offseason, and they were both among baseball’s top 15 hitters, with Yelich becoming the favorite for the league MVP. Finding themselves in a close division race at midsummer, they acquired Mike Moustakas, Jonathan Schoop, and Joakim Soria to bolster their efforts. The Brewers’ most potent tool, though, is their deep, strikeout-heavy bullpen, headed by Corey Knebel, Josh Hader, and Jeremy Jeffress—a strength that has carried them past their lack of quality starting pitching.
Four games back of the Cubs at the start of September, the Brewers had every element of their attack click at the right time. They won their final eight games of the regular season, including the division-clinching Game 163 at Wrigley. Their sweep of the Rockies, aside from a single bad ninth inning from Jeremy Jeffress in Game 1, was around as effortless as a postseason series can get—a 13-2 run differential over three games doesn’t suggest much in the way of competition. In a postseason otherwise dominated by super-teams, the Brewers are a felicitous surprise: a team constructed on the fly, a team that maybe shouldn’t work as well as it has, that nonetheless captured lightning in a bottle.
They will have their work cut out for them with the Dodgers, who clawed their way out of the mystifyingly deep early-season hole they created for themselves to fulfill the outcome that seemed all but inevitable at the beginning of the season: yet another NL West title, though it took them 163 games to do it. While the Brewers may have had the NL’s best win-loss record, the Dodgers had the best run differential, clobbering homers at a rate second only to the record-setting Yankees. And like the Brewers, the Dodgers had everything click for them at the right time in September. Hyun-jin Ryu, returned from an early-season groin injury, has been utterly dominant. The diminished-velocity version of Clayton Kershaw has become a different kind of excellent pitcher, and though he was shaken up for one bad inning against Atlanta, Walker Buehler has made a case for himself as the most exciting pitcher on the Dodgers’ staff. If there’s a weakness on this team, it’s in the bullpen—even the previously unassailable Kenley Jansen has shown significant reason for concern this season. But when the starting pitchers are as dominant as they were in two first games of the Division Series—Ryu pitching seven scoreless, Kershaw pitching eight—that concern becomes far less significant.
We might be facing down the first World Series rematch since 1978, with the attendant possibilities either of the first back-to-back championship team since the turn of the millennium, or of a runner-up getting their revenge. We might see a 108-win team cap off their franchise-best season with a championship, or we might see an unexpected victory from a team that, pre-season, was given a 1.5 percent chance to win the pennant. October is the best month of the year for exactly this reason. Despite what the lackluster Division Series action might suggest, the next week is going to be a hell of a time to be a baseball fan.
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