After an agonizingly long two days without baseball -- two whole days! In October! -- we are back in business today. And wow, are we ever!
All four Division Series commence today, with potentially a full 12 hours of baseball on tap for us all. While the series have expanded from best-of-three to best-of-five, they’ll be no less stressful: The whole season comes down, for these eight teams, to the next seven days. And it starts today.
Here's a look at the key storyline for each team heading into Game 1.
Rangers at Orioles
Rangers: Is this the real Evan Carter coming out party?
For all the pitching injuries that have decimated this Rangers rotation -- a rotation that still cruised them through the Wild Card Series, it must be said -- the lineup has gotten healthy at just the right time.
Getting Josh Jung back the final weeks of the season strengthened an already formidable lineup considerably, but the real revelation in the Wild Card Series was the rookie Carter, who -- after debuting with Texas on Sept. 9 -- was a catalyst against the Rays, getting on base six times with two doubles and a homer in the two-game series. And he’ll likely be batting ninth.
With the Rangers’ pitching worries, they’re going to have to slug their way to victory in this ALDS. Top to bottom, 1 to 9, they might have the guys to do it.
Orioles: Can they keep the Splash Party going?
This season has been one unlike any other for the Orioles, and the way the postseason has set up for them -- avoiding the vexing Rays, getting a Rangers team that is thin on pitching -- is particularly ideal.
The Camden Yards crowd, pushed into an afternoon game because of a Billy Joel/Stevie Nicks concert on Saturday night at adjacent M&T Bank Stadium, is going to be vibrating with excitement; this is a series they have been waiting for.
But any team with the history of the Orioles is going to inherently be a little on edge, fair to say. Their previous postseason hopes were dashed on a walk-off homer by the Blue Jays' Edwin Encarnación in the 2016 AL Wild Card Game, and it's been a long time without meaningful October baseball since then.
For all the success they've had this season, that remains the Orioles’ last postseason game, exactly the sort of game the franchise would like planted firmly in the past. A fast start would be a great reminder -- and a grand harbinger of things to come -- that those were those Orioles … not these Orioles.
Twins at Astros
Twins: Can Royce Lewis and Carlos Correa be a 1-2 postseason punch?
When the Twins signed Carlos Correa -- both times, before last season and before this season -- a large part of the idea was that he would combine with fellow top-two Draft pick Byron Buxton to be the superstars the rest of the team could be built around. That has not worked out, to say the least: Buxton has been as hurt as he usually is, and Correa had the worst season of his career.
But suddenly, now that we’re in the postseason, the Twins have their 1-2 punch … with a different top-two Draft pick. Royce Lewis, the No. 1 pick in the 2017 Draft, has emerged as the phenom we all once thought he was this postseason (and really over the last month of the season, with Buxton present in the dugout in a mentoring role), and Correa (the No. 1 pick in 2012) has begun to look like himself again -- October Correa, something the Astros know all too well.
Astros: Does Verlander restore Astros' order?
It has been a strange season for the Astros, one in which (sans Verlander for most of it) they seemed to have a bit of a post-championship hangover. It was the Rangers who led the AL West for much of the year, and the Mariners who captured the late-season excitement. And yet the Astros kept hanging around, and hanging around, and next thing you knew, they’d not only won the AL West again but they seemed to be peaking at the right time … as they have a tendency to do. (This is a team going for its seventh consecutive ALCS appearance, after all.)
Here they are, in that familiar spot: Hosting Game 1 of the ALDS, with Verlander on the mound, and all those established Altuves/Alvarezes/Tuckers in the lineup. The Astros are trying to firmly establish themselves as the dynasty of this era. On first pitch, with Verlander on the mound, they’ll absolutely look like it.
Phillies at Braves
Phillies: Can they slow down this Braves lineup at all?
You want to know what the Braves winning the division and the Phillies finishing (distant) second cost them? The ability to use one of their best advantages in any series -- Zack Wheeler and Aaron Nola, two pitchers becoming October television regulars -- right from the top. Because the Phillies had to dispatch the Marlins in the Wild Card Series, Wheeler and Nola will only be available for Games 2 and 3, meaning Suárez has to take the ball against what has proven to be one of the best offenses in recent memory.
The Phillies proved last year they could beat the big, bad Braves. But Atlanta is bigger and badder than it was a season ago. Suárez has the unenviable job of figuring out what to do with them first.
Braves: Can postseason Spencer Strider be regular-season Spencer Strider?
Strider probably won’t win the Cy Young Award this year, but you can certainly make an argument for him: He struck out 281 batters, for crying out loud, most in the Majors by far. He was terrific last year too, which is why the Braves trusted him to start Game 3 of the NLDS against the Phillies. But it went terribly, with Strider collapsing in the third inning, giving up five runs in a series in which the Braves would never hold the lead again.
Strider was dealing with injury issues last year that he isn't right now -- and it’s worth noting he’s been terrific against the Phillies this season -- but you can’t blame Braves fans for having some uncomfortable flashbacks regardless.
The Braves’ offense will be their postseason engine, but Strider could offer the cherry on top: A full-on shutdown playoff starter. But he has to slay those Phillies demons first.
D-backs at Dodgers
D-backs: Can the bullpen keep pitching like it did against Milwaukee?
We get all caught up in matchups, starting pitchers, platoon advantages and everything else when we’re previewing all these series, but oftentimes, it’s much simpler than that: The team with the bullpen that pitches the best has a tendency to win. You couldn’t pitch any better than the D-backs’ bullpen did against the Brewers: 9 1/3 scoreless innings, essentially shutting down any comeback hopes the Brewers could have.
The Dodgers’ lineup is considerably tougher than the Brewers’ was, so it’s a tougher test, but the fact remains that the D-backs’ bullpen is the best thing they’ve got going right now. Lesser teams than the D-backs have ridden their bullpen to a World Series. Can this bullpen stay this hot? It may have to.
Dodgers: How much can Kershaw give them?
The thinness of the Dodgers rotation has been well-documented: It’s basically Kershaw, rookie right-hander Bobby Miller and throw-the-bullpen-at-them. That strategy worked well down the stretch, as it tends to when you have as many excellent bullpen pieces as the Dodgers do. But it does put them in a potential bind if, say, their two starters can’t ease the pressure on that bullpen right from the start.
Kershaw has for the most part silenced any postseason doubters, but he’s still a 35-year-old pitcher who has had injury issues all year, lost a lot of velocity, and hasn’t surpassed 90 pitches or 5 1/3 innings pitched since June. The Dodgers will be mixing and matching pitches all series, and any potential future ones.
But they’d sure like Kershaw to buy them a little bit of room ... potentially with Cy Young contender Zac Gallen lurking for Arizona in Game 2.