Each contender's best Game 1 starter

August 31st, 2021

It isn’t often that one pitcher carries a team all the way to a World Series title -- not entirely by himself but in a way that feels like he did it by himself, but when it happens, you never forget it. Madison Bumgarner in 2014, Randy Johnson (and Curt Schilling) in 2001, Bret Saberhagen in 1985 (in the World Series anyway). These are the postseasons in which legends are made. 

Every team wants to line up its postseason rotation so it can have their best starter ready to set the tone from the get-go. It will even shift around their rotations to make sure it gets that top starter available in Game 1. Everything in a postseason is chaotic and unpredictable, and you don’t really have much control over it. The one thing you have: Who starts Game 1. He’s the one who sets the tone. 

So, with a month left in the season, we take a look at the ideal Game 1 (or Wild Card) starter for each team remaining in the playoff race. It might not actually line up perfectly for this particular pitcher to go for their teams in the first postseason game. But this is who the clubs would love to see.

American League

Astros: Zack Greinke
I’m a full-fledged member of Team Zack Greinke Is Already A Hall of Famer, but it’d be a fun boost to see him just blast through a postseason. He has played in seven postseasons but never won a World Series, and while the Astros have a lot of options -- Lance McCullers Jr., Framber Valdez, even Luis Garcia -- it feels like the steadiness of Greinke would be the pick.

A’s: Sean Manaea
It would be wonderful if Chris Bassitt would be able to return in time to make a Game 1 or Wild Card Game start, but as much as he has said he wants to make it back this year, the team is clearly not going to rush him. Either Manaea or Frankie Montas would likely get the Wild Card start, if the A’s are to make it.

Blue Jays: Robbie Ray
Ray was good in the first half, but he has been downright magical in the second half, with a 1.99 ERA in nine starts. It’s going to be a tough climb for the Jays to sneak into the playoffs, but if they’re able to do it, they’ll take their chances with Ray right now against anybody.

Mariners: Marco Gonzales
Are we still counting the Mariners as contenders? Sure, let’s still count the Mariners. Chris Flexen is a possibility here, but have you seen how good Gonzales has been in the second half? He’s 5-0 with a 1.95 ERA.

Rays: Shane McClanahan
My colleagues Mike Petriello and Matt Myers discussed this on their Ballpark Dimensions podcast last week: Who in the world starts a Game 1 for the Rays? Tyler Glasnow won’t be back; they traded Rich Hill. McClanahan or Ryan Yarbrough is probably the best guess, but, you know, it’s the Rays: If there were ever a team that would go with the opener for a whole series, or even a whole postseason, it’s them.

Red Sox: Chris Sale
So far, it looks like all the time the Red Sox gave Sale to get fully healthy is paying off big time: This Chris Sale has more than a passing resemblance to 2018 Chris Sale right now. Of course, it may only matter how he looks against the Yankees.

White Sox: Lance Lynn
Here’s a fun Lance Lynn fact: The notorious innings-eater has actually appeared in relief in more postseason games (19) than he has started them (seven). He hasn’t started a postseason game since 2014, though he made relief appearances in '15 with the Cardinals and '18 with the Yankees. Since that last relief appearance, he has simply become one of the best starting pitchers in baseball.

Yankees: Gerrit Cole
This is why Cole is here. For what it’s worth, he has a 2.68 ERA in 13 postseason starts for the Pirates, Astros and Yankees. He was terrific as a rookie for the Pirates in the NL Division Series against the Cardinals way back in 2013.

National League

Braves: Max Fried
His ERA was 5.12 on June 1, but he has dropped it all the way to 3.54 in the two months since then. Also, Fried was their workhorse last postseason. He’s peaking at the right time.

Brewers: Corbin Burnes
No team has more top-shelf options here than the Brewers, particularly if Freddy Peralta comes back fully healthy. You really can’t go wrong with either Burnes or Brandon Woodruff: Go ahead and flip a coin if you wish.

Cardinals: Adam Wainwright
Jack Flaherty is likely out for the season, which means the Wild Card Game start would go to Wainwright, who would be appearing in his ninth postseason for the Cardinals. (And he wasn’t even a part of the 2011 team.) If the Cardinals make the NLDS, it is very possible their first three starters will all be over the age of 37. Jon Lester would be the youngest of them!

Dodgers: Walker Buehler
It seems wild to think that two likely future Hall of Famers like Max Scherzer and Clayton Kershaw, who will hopefully be back by October, wouldn’t be the lead starter, but it’s worth noting that Buehler was the Game 1 starter last year … and he’s a shutout start away from having an ERA under 2.00.

Giants: Kevin Gausman
Logan Webb has actually been the best starter on the team over the last month, but we’ve all seen how Gausman can shut down people. The Giants have a solid top three once you throw in Anthony DeSclafani, though that rotation is starting to look a little thin.

Mets: Marcus Stroman
It’s possible that including the Mets in this listing of potential playoff teams is the nicest thing that has happened to the Mets all week.

Padres: Yu Darvish
The rotation is starting to look a little more normal again, and if San Diego can survive the gauntlet of their September schedule, Darvish starting would be a nice place to land in a Wild Card Game.

Phillies: Zack Wheeler
As long as he doesn’t fall off a cliff, he’s going to win the NL Cy Young Award this year. What a terrific free agent signing this has turned out to be.

Reds: Wade Miley
The Reds’ rotation stacks up better than most people realize, but Miley, who is having the best year of his 11-year career at the exact right time, could be the unconventional pick.