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MLB League Championship Series Preview

Oct. 15, 2023

Morgan Killian-Moseley


And then there were four. 


Four teams remain, all of them four wins away from the World Series. And none of those four had any of the top four records in the regular season.


But both World Series teams are still actively defending their pennants. The defending champions face a very familiar opponent, while the runners-up face one similar to themselves.


Let's break down the matchups:


American League

Texas Rangers vs. Houston Astros


Projected Starting Lineups


Rangers

2B #2 Marcus Semien R

SS #5 Corey Seager L

DH #18 Mitch Garver R

RF #53 Adolis Garcia R

LF #32 Evan Carter L

C #28 Jonah Heim S

1B #30 Nathaniel Lowe L

3B #6 Josh Jung R

CF #3 Leody Taveras S


Astros

2B #27 Jose Altuve R

3B #2 Alex Bregman R

LF #44 Yordan Alvarez L

RF #30 Kyle Tucker L

1B #79 Jose Abreu R

DH #23 Michael Brantley L

SS #3 Jeremy Peña R

CF #20 Chas McCormick R

C #15 Martín Maldonado R


Projected Pitching Matchups 

Game 1: (TEX) LH #52 Jordan Montgomery vs. (HOU) RH #35 Justin Verlander

Game 2: (TEX) RH #17 Nathan Eovaldi vs. (HOU) LH #59 Framber Valdez 

Game 3: (HOU) RH #53 Cristian Javier vs. (TEX) RH #31 Max Scherzer

Game 4: (HOU RH #65 Jose Urquidy vs. (TEX) LH #44 Andrew Heaney/RH #38 Dane Dunning


The Lone Star Showdown is on. The Astros come into this matchup as the only team remaining in the bracket who earned a first-round bye, and if the Rangers weren’t shut out by the Mariners in Game 162 things would have been the other way around. 


After losing the AL West crown to their cross-state rivals on the final day of the regular season, Texas went out and made short work of their AL East opponents; drumming out the 99-win Rays in two games and clipping the 101-win Orioles’ wings in three. Meanwhile Houston took care of the Twins in the Division Series in four games, and at times in that series as if the Astros were pacing themselves.


Of course, both Bruce Bochy and Dusty Baker are shoo-ins for Cooperstown whenever they decide to retire. Two of the greatest baseball minds of any generation, it will be very interesting to see the chess match between them.


It will also be interesting to see how Max Scherzer performs off the IL and if he'll eventually get his rematch against former Mets (and Tigers) teammate Justin Verlander.  


Another Ranger hurler coming off the IL is Jon Gray. Bochy said that Gray will likely be a bullpen arm, but it's possible he could be used as an opener in Game 4.

Considering the fact that Framber Valdez is the only lefty on the Houston pitching staff, the Rangers would love to see their lefty hitters step up. Corey Seager, of course, has been his typical playoff star self; becoming the first player in MLB playoff history to draw five walks in a single game in ALDS Game 2 against the Orioles, and getting the scoring started with a solo home run in Game 3. And while Nathaniel Lowe struggled mightily late in the regular season- to the tune of a .553 OPS percentage in the final two months, his 435-foot bomb off of Baltimore's Kyle Gibson has to make Rangers fans hopeful that Lowe is starting to trend upwards again.


The Rangers would also love to see Marcus Semien return to regular season form. Their leadoff hitter has hit only .174 in the Rangers playoff run thus far.


For Houston, Jose Altuve, Alex Bregman, and Yordan Alvarez make one of the scariest 1-2-3 punches any starting pitcher can face in the 1st inning. But Baker would love to see some more production out of his cleanup hitter Kyle Tucker, who is only 2 for 14 in the postseason with one RBI. Luckily, Jose Abreu has done well in the 5-hole (.313 AVG, 1.228 OPS, 3 HR, 8 RBI) after struggling in the regular season.


Another hitter Houston would like to get more production from is Jeremy Peña. Last year's ALCS and World Series MVP is 4-for-15 in this year's playoffs, but has only one extra base hit and does not have a run batted in. If Peña's magic from last year returns, the 'Stros should be in good shape.


All four remaining teams have great 1-2 punches at the top of their rotations, but there's a little extra edge in Houston's. The Astros brought Verlander back specifically to pitch in games like this. And Valdez has been outstanding all season long as well, likely earning some Cy Young votes.


The Astros may not have any southpaws in their bullpen, but their northpaws are pretty solid. Baker has gone on record saying he trusts swingman Hunter Brown and veteran Hector Neris to get lefty hitters out. Bryan Abreu has been outstanding in the setup role, not giving up an earned run in 3⅓ innings in the postseason. In fact, Abreu hasn't given up an earned run in exactly three months. And Ryan Pressly has not blown a save in his playoff career, 11-for-11. The Dallas native will be looking to extend that streak and send his hometown team to their couches.


Prediction: If there's any team that can knock out the defending champions, it's the Rangers. They have all the pieces to do it, especially on offense.

But Houston won the regular season head-to-head 9-4. And as we've seen now more than ever, playoff baseball is a game of bullpens. The Rangers have a good relief corps, but the Astros have an excellent one. This factor alone gives the champions the edge.


Astros in 6


National League

Arizona Diamondbacks vs. Philadelphia Phillies 


Projected Starting Lineups

Diamondbacks

RF #7 Corbin Carroll L

2B #4 Ketel Marte S

DH #28 Tommy Pham R

1B #53 Christian Walker R

C #14 Gabriel Moreno R

LF #12 Lourdes Gurriel Jr. R

CF #5 Alek Thomas L

3B #3 Evan Longoria R

SS #2 Geraldo Perdomo S


Phillies

DH #12 Kyle Schwarber L

SS #7 Trea Turner R

1B #3 Bryce Harper L

3B #28 Alec Bohm R

2B #5 Bryson Stott L

C #10 JT Realmuto R

RF #8 Nick Castellanos R

LF #16 Brandon Marsh L/#19 Cristian Pache R

CF #18 Johan Rojas R

(Against lefty starters, Bohm and Harper flip-flop, Stott bats 7th, Realmuto and Castellanos both move up a spot)


Projected Pitching Matchups

Game 1: (AZ) RH #23 Zac Gallen vs. (PHI) RH #45 Zack Wheeler

Game 2: (AZ) RH #29 Merrill Kelly vs. (PHI) RH #27 Aaron Nola

Game 3: (PHI) LH #55 Ranger Suarez vs. (AZ) RH #32 Brandon Pfaadt

Game 4: (PHI) RH #99 Taijuan Walker vs. (AZ) LH #24 Kyle Nelson


There are plenty of similarities between these two teams. Both have had their periods of struggle in the regular season; the Phillies early on, the Diamondbacks after the All-Star break. Both have managers (Arizona's Torrey Lovullo and Philadelphia's Rob Thomson) who their players love to play for. And both have palpable camaraderie on and off the field.


Both teams swept their Wild Card Series opponents. (Arizona knocking out the Brewers on the road, Philadelphia taking down the Marlins at home) Both teams eliminated their own divisions' champions in the Division Series. (The Snakes stunning the Dodgers in a sweep, the Phils booting the Braves in four games as they did last year)


For the D-Backs, it all starts at the top of the lineup with likely NL Rookie of the Year Corbin Carroll. He's 7-for-17 in the postseason this far, with two homers, four RBI, two steals, and four walks drawn. Behind him, Ketel Marte has been a stalwart presence in Arizona since 2017, and has two homers and four RBI of his own in the playoffs.


It'll be interesting to see how Christian Walker will perform against his hometown team. Walker hails from Norristown, PA; approximately 40 minutes northwest of Philadelphia, and could very well have been a fan of former Phillies right fielder Bobby Abreu. (Abreu wore #53 throughout his career, as Walker does) Walker is hitting .325 in his career against current Phillies pitchers, and has taken four of them deep.


Gabriel Moreno has been outstanding at the plate and behind it for the Snakes this year. He's hit three home runs in the playoffs thus far, and his 3.1 dWAR (defensive wins above replacement) rating was the best in the Majors. Moreno did suffer a contusion in his throwing hand that forced him to leave Game 3 against L.A.; and how that injury affects him (and how much the Phillies will test it in the running game) is something to keep an eye on.


Zac Gallen has been a top-tier starter this season and will earn plenty of Cy Young votes, and Merrill Kelly has quietly been an upper echelon starter as well. But behind them lie some questions. Brandon Pfaadt has only thrown seven innings in his two playoff starts, and though Kyle Nelson seems the likely pick for Game 4 he'd likely get as quick of a hook from Lovullo as Pfaadt has.


Former All-Star Joe Mantiply and veteran Kevin Ginkel have handled things well in the Arizona bullpen, and Ryan Thompson has turned things around nicely since being scooped up off the Rays waiver wire, but the Snakes would love to get Miguel Castro back on track, which would make the bridge to Paul Sewald much sturdier.


For the Fightin' Phils, as long as he's in the lineup Bryce Harper will be the name circled by opposing managers as the one guy you can't let beat you. Harper's two home runs in NLDS Game 3 (and his "Atta Boy" staredowns towards Atlanta's Orlando Arcia as he rounded the bases on both) lit up Citizens Bank Park. (And social media) Harper suffered an arm injury in the 8th inning of Game 4 in a collision with Matt Olson, but he remained in the game. We'll see if that injury affects Harper's swing or his ability to play 1st base.


Trea Turner has been on fire hitting ahead his old buddy Harper, hitting .500 in the playoffs with a 1.455 OPS. He became the first Phillies player to have four hits in a postseason game in Game 4, six of his 12 hits have been for extra bases, and he's also swiped four bags. And yes, he is still perfect at stealing bases this season.


But the hottest hitter in the Phils' lineup right now has to be Nick Castellanos, whose two home runs each in Games 3 and 4 made him the first player in MLB playoff history with back-to-back multi-jack games. Having his son Liam in the front row has to be a calming influence for him.


The Phillies would love to see more production out of Alec Bohm, who is 4-for-21 in the playoffs. And Kyle Schwarber has been uncharacteristically quiet, going 4-for-25 with only one RBI and only one walk drawn.


Zack Wheeler and Aaron Nola have done their jobs at the top of the rotation, giving up a total of five runs (four earned) over a combined 25 ⅔ innings pitched. And though Ranger Suarez had two short outings against the Braves, he's done well in them; giving up only one earned run in his 8 ⅔ innings.


But where would the Phils go for Game 4? 15-game winner Taijuan Walker seems like the logical choice, but he's been subpar over the final two months of the regular season with just two wins and one quality start over his last nine games. It's possible he could piggyback with Cristopher Sanchez, who showed plenty of promise late in the year.


The Phillies bullpen has been up and down, as has been the norm for this franchise. But Thomson's ability to spin in the right reliever at the right time helped the Fightins win the clincher against the Braves, Lefties Jose Alvarado and Matt Strahm have come through in the clutch, and Seranthony Dominguez has gotten eight outs in the playoffs (four via strikeouts) without giving up a run. Craig Kimbrel was able to walk the tightrope in Game 4 as well (with a pretty big assist from Johan Rojas), and the Phils pitching staff seems to have adopted the mentality of "doesn't matter who gets the outs, as long as we get 27 of them".


Prediction: Arizona may be the hottest teams in the playoffs right now, with many calling them a "team of destiny". And they certainly can go toe-to-toe with the Phillies in all facets of the game.

But no amount of piped in crowd noise can prepare any team for Citizens Bank Park in Red October. The most distinct home-field advantage in MLB shines through, and the rematch will be on.


Phillies in 6

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