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MLB Wild Card Series Previews

Oct. 3, 2023

Morgan Killian-Moseley

At long last, October is upon us. Where legends are born and history is made; where a dominant season can evaporate in the blink of an eye and a team that treaded water late can ignite and blast themselves to the top of the mountain.

It all begins with the Wild Card Series. Instituted last year as part of the Collective Bargaining Agreement between MLB owners and the MLB Players' Association, the Wild Card Series is a best-of-3 battle, with the higher seed having home-field advantage in all three games. The winners advance to take on a division winner whose record earned them a first-round bye.

Let's take a look at the matchups and break down how things may go down.

American League

#6 Toronto Blue Jays (89-73) vs. #3 Minnesota Twins (87-75)

All games at 4:38 ET on ESPN

Head-to-head split 3-3, Blue Jays won head-to-head at Target Field 2-1

Probable Pitching Matchups:

Game 1: (TOR) Kevin Gausman vs. (MIN) Pablo Lopez

Game 2: (TOR) Chris Bassitt vs. (MIN) Sonny Gray

Game 3: (TOR) Jose Berríos vs. (MIN) Joe Ryan

Two of the top pitching staffs in the Majors square off, as do two offenses who left a lot to be desired. The defending champion Houston Astros await the winners.

What has Kevin Gausman been to the Jays pitching staff? Well, what's the name of his warmup song? Exactly. Money. The AL Cy Young candidate led the Junior Circuit in strikeouts and finished with the AL's fourth-best ERA. Chris Bassitt has stepped up in his first year in The Six, finishing tied for the AL lead in wins and sporting the ninth-best AL ERA. And imagine if the top ten ERA-boasting Jose Berríos took the mound in Game 3 with a chance to send his former team home? If not him, Yusei Kikuchi, having himself a career year, might get the ball. And while the bridge to Jordan Romano hasn't been foolproof, with the way Toronto's starters eat innings (especially Bassitt) it doesn't need to be. And while Romano hasn't been lights out either, he usually gets the job done.

Of course, the focal point of the Toronto offense is Vladimir Guerrero Jr. And while his numbers haven't been "Vlad Junior-esque" per se, he's still delivered solid stats (.264 AVG, .788 OPS, 26 HR, 94 RBI) Bo Bichette has served well as Vladito's wingman, his .306 average sitting third-best in the AL. Catcher Danny Jansen delivered a career year, but a broken finger ended it. Former All-Star Alejandro Kirk gets his chance at redemption the rest of the way, and Jays manager John Schneider would love to see a resurgence from him, as well as from Matt Chapman, who crashed to earth after an outstanding April. Of course, a leadoff home run or two from George Springer wouldn't hurt either.

Somebody had to win the abysmal AL Central. It just so happened the Twins used the strength of their pitching staff to beat up on their division rivals and win enough against everyone else to do so.

All-Star hurlers Pablo Lopez and Sonny Gray have held opponents in check all year round, with Lopez having the second-most strikeouts in the AL behind Gausman, as well as the ninth best WHIP ratio, and Gray's 154 ERA+ rating is the best of anyone in the AL playoff bracket. In fact, Gray's ERA would be best in the AL of he had enough innings pitched to qualify. Joe Ryan and Bailey Ober have taken significant steps forward in their development as well. And Jhoan Duran has emerged as one of the more solid closers in the game, and has a pretty cool entrance to boot.

The Twins lineup hasn't had anyone stand out too much. Far removed from the Bombasota lineup of 2021, right fielder Max Kepler was the team's top run producer with 24 home runs and 66 RBIs. But while the Minnesota lineup may lack prolific run producers, it has plenty of capable run producers. 12 Twins hit double-digit home runs this season, and 12 knocked in at least 40 runs. Utility man Willi Castro also stole 33 bases this season, the most of any AL playoff player, so Rocco Baldelli's lineup is not to be underestimated. Unfortunately, the injury statuses of Byron Buxton, Carlos Correa, and Royce Lewis are very much in doubt, and that could be what dooms the Twins.

Prediction: The teams' pitching staffs are evenly matched, but the Toronto offense looks a smidge better, if only for the certainty of who will be available. The Twins streak of losing playoff games may be broken, but their streak of losing playoff series will continue.

Blue Jays in 3

#5 Texas Rangers (90-72) vs. #4 Tampa Bay Rays (99-63)

All games at 3:08 ET on ABC

Rangers won head-to-head 4-2; Rays won head-to-head at Tropicana Field 2-1

Probable Pitching Matchups:

Game 1: (TEX) Jordan Montgomery vs. (TB) Tyler Glasnow

Game 2: (TEX) Nathan Eovaldi vs. (TB) Zach Eflin

Game 3: (TEX) Dane Dunning vs. (TB) Aaron Civale

These two teams had the best records in the American League at the All-Star break, but had their struggles afterwards and will now battle in the best-of-3 at Tropicana Field with the winners taking on the AL top seed Baltimore Orioles.

The Lowe brothers (Rangers 1st baseman Nathaniel and Rays right fielder Josh) will square off in this series, but sadly their mother Wendy, who is undergoing cancer treatments, will not be in attendance at The Trop. This series will also showcase "brothers from other mothers" squaring off in the two AL All-Star starting corner outfielders: Rays left fielder Randy Arozarena and Rangers right fielder Adolis Garcia.

The Texas offense is built from up the middle outward. Shortstop Corey Seager led the AL in doubles and finished top ten in batting average, on-base percentage, slugging percentage, OPS, home runs, and runs batted in; while 2nd baseman Marcus Semien led the AL in base hits and runs scored, was top ten in total bases, doubles, and RBI, and was one of two players in the Junior Circuit to play all 162 games (Mariners 3rd baseman Eugenio Suarez being the other). Garcia has had a career year, as has catcher Jonah Heim. And AL Rookie of the Year frontrunner Josh Jung is no longer the only first-year player helping the Rangers out, as left fielder Evan Carter has stepped up in September. Overall, the Texas offense is dangerous, especially with runners in scoring position.

The Texas offense has some pieces who recently came back from the IL, but the Rangers pitching staff is still hurting. Jacob deGrom had his second Tommy John surgery in June and will miss most, if not all, of 2024. Trade deadline acquisition Max Scherzer is dealing with a shoulder injury and is out for at least the Wild Card Series. But the injuries allowed other members of the rotation to step up. All-Star Nathan Eovaldi has been solid all season long, while Jordan Montgomery has proven reliable since coming over from St. Louis. And likely Game 3 starter Dane Dunning has had himself a career year. Of course, former All-Star Martín Pérez is someone who can provide innings when needed. And though the bullpen has been shaky recently, Aroldis Chapman and Will M. Smith are two good lefty late-game options to pair with Brock Burke, Josh Sborz, and incumbent closer Jose Leclerc.

You have to start at the top when looking at the Tampa offense, with AL batting champion Yandy Diaz setting the table. He and Arozarena scored 95 runs apiece, tied for ninth in the AL. Diaz also boasts a .932 OPS, which is top-five in the AL. And who would have expected a 31 homer, 98 RBI, .840 OPS season from Isaac Paredes? Of course the Tampa offense would be boosted even more if Wander Franco were available, but Franco's off-field issues have sunk his season- and possibly doomed his career.

Just like their opponents, the Rays' pitching staff is nowhere near full health. Shane McClanahan, Jeffrey Springs, and Drew Rasmussen are all done for the year.

But just like the Rays may boast the most improved position player in the AL in Paredes, they also may possess the AL's most improved pitcher as well in Zach Eflin, who tied with Chris Bassitt atop the AL wins leaderboard in his first year since coming over from Philadelphia. And as has been proven over the years, Rays manager Kevin Cash has been more than willing to use unconventional tactics when it comes to his pitching staff.

Prediction: The Rangers can certainly get big leads, but they haven't been that good at keeping leads. And the Rays tend to love being comeback kings. Nobody would say Kevin Cash is a better manager than Bruce Bochy, but the Rays just might make him look like he is.

Rays in 3

National League

#6 Arizona Diamondbacks (84-78) vs. #3 Milwaukee Brewers (92-70)

All games at 7:08 ET on ESPN2

Diamondbacks won head-to-head 4-2, won head-to-head at American Family Field 2-1

Probable Pitching Matchups:

Game 1: (AZ) Brandon Pfaadt vs. (MIL) Corbin Burnes

Game 2: (AZ) Zac Gallen vs. (MIL) Freddy Peralta

Game 3: (AZ) Merrill Kelly vs. (MIL) Wade Miley

The Los Angeles Dodgers will face the winner of this series. And this series may be more even than some think.

The Snakes' rotation boasts NL All-Star starter Zac Gallen and arguably an All-Star snub in Merrill Kelly. Gallen's 17 wins are second-most in the Majors, while his ERA and WHIP are both top ten in the NL, and his 220 strikeouts are third-most in the Senior Circuit. Kelly's ERA is top five in the NL while his WHIP is tenth. And there are plenty of ways for skipper Torrey Lovullo to cobble together 27 outs on the mound. The cobbling will probably start in Game 1, where Brandon Pfaadt will likely serve as an opener for Ryne Nelson. But getting the ball to trade deadline acquisition Paul Sewald should spell victory for Arizona.

The spotlight for the Arizona offense falls on likely NL Rookie of the Year Corbin Carroll, who pulled off the first 25-home run, 50-stolen base rookie season in MLB history. But there are plenty of players for Carroll to share the spotlight with. A 33 home run, 103 RBI season was delivered by Christian Walker, Ketel Marte had yet another solid season all around, including finishing second behind Carroll in the NL in triples, and Gabriel Moreno solidified himself as the D-Backs backstop of the present both with the bat and glove, registering the best Defensive WAR rating of all NL position players.

The Brew Crew won the NL Central on the strength of their pitching staff, who had an NL-best 3.71 team ERA. But a key member of their rotation, Brandon Woodruff, has been dealing with injury problems all season. Woodruff will not be able to pitch in the Wild Card Series and may not be able to return at all in the postseason.

Corbin Burnes has further solidified himself as Milwaukee's ace, however, with a top ten mark in strikeouts and ERA, and the best WHIP in the NL. Freddy Peralta has been excellent as a #2 starter, and 36-year old Wade Miley turned back the clock to turn in his best season in years. The Brewer bullpen may not be as solid as recent years, but there are several options for Craig Counsell to build the bridge to Devin Williams with; including rookie fireballer Abner Uribe, the 6-0 record-sporting Bryse Wilson, and the former Diamondback lefty nicknamed the Sheriff, Andrew Chafin. And if that bridge does get to Williams? Good luck.

Just like Minnesota, Milwaukee would like some more production in their lineup, as Willy Adames led the Brewers with 24 home runs and 80 RBI. William Contreras had 78 RBI of his own. But of course, as Christian Yelich goes, so goes the Milwaukee lineup, and he's been solid at the top of the order.

Prediction: The Arizona lineup has the advantage overall on Milwaukee, and if any rotation can go toe-to-toe with the Brew Crew, it's the Snakes. But playoff baseball tends to be determined by the bullpens and Milwaukee's is more reliable right now. If the D-Backs can get to the Brewers starters early and often, things may break differently, but for now the home team gets the nod.

Brewers in 3

#5 Miami Marlins (84-77) vs. #4 Philadelphia Phillies (90-72)

All games at 8:08 ET on ESPN

Marlins won head-to-head 7-6, won head-to-head at Citizens Bank Park 4-2

Probable Pitching Matchups:

Game 1: (MIA) Jesús Luzardo vs. (PHI) Zack Wheeler

Game 2: (MIA) Braxton Garrett vs. (PHI) Aaron Nola

Game 3: (MIA) Edward Cabrera vs. (PHI) Taijuan Walker

This the only Wild Card Series that features division rivals squaring off. It also ensures that at least one Division Series will do the same, as the winner will battle the Atlanta Braves; MLB's overall #1 seed.

For the Marlins offense, it all starts with Luis Arraez, the Major League Batting Champion who is the first player in NL/AL history to win one league's batting title one year, then win the other's the next. Jorge Soler can still hit the ball a long way, and so can Jake Burger, who has continued his power surge since coming from the Chicago White Sox. Jazz Chisholm Jr. heating up certainly helps Miami's lineup as well.

Pitching-wise for Miami, Sandy Alcantara has struggled mightily after his Cy Young performance last season. He hasn't pitched in a month; and considering this season's effort, the possibility exists that Alcantara may have been pitching hurt all season. The Fish might be wise to shut him down until Spring Training.

But while Alcantara has stumbled, the rest of the Marlins rotation has stepped up. Jesús Luzardo boasts a top ten mark in ERA and strikeouts. Braxton Garrett and Edward Cabrera have taken steps forward in their development, as has Eury Pérez, who may not be available to manager Skip Schumaker due to injury. The Miami bullpen has had problems holding leads, even with the addition of David Robertson. It could be a long day if the relief corps continues to struggle.

Of course the defending NL Champs are built around Bryce Harper, but this lineup has firepower to spare. Kyle Schwarber is definitely not a prototypical leadoff hitter, but the Phils will take 47 home runs, and over 100 RBI, runs scored, and walks drawn every time. They'll also take Trea Turner becoming the first player to steal 30 bases and not get caught even once. Nick Castellanos has been solid most of the year, and the team has gotten many a boost from "The Daycare Boys" Alec Bohm, Bryson Stott, and Brandon Marsh. What would give the Phils a major shot in the arm is if J.T. Realmuto, who has been flat-out terrible at home and with runners in scoring position this year, can find a way to step it up against his former team. It's time for the so-called "Best catcher in baseball" to start playing like it.

The Philadelphia pitching staff can be described as mercurial, inconsistent, and plenty of other analogous terms. When they're good, they're very good; but when they're bad beer bottles get thrown at TVs all over the Delaware Valley. Zack Wheeler has been mostly good for the Phils. Aaron Nola can still come up with big outings, but tends to get taken deep at least once a start and is prone to collapse. Taijuan Walker led the NL in wins at one point, but has fallen off. Michael Lorenzen threw a no-hitter in his first home start for the Phils after coming over from Detroit, but seemed to have used nearly all his skill in that game. He, Cristopher Sanchez, and Ranger Suarez could be used in super swingman roles similar to the one Suarez had last postseason.

And as usual, the Phils bullpen may need a Surgeon General's health warning attached to it. Craig Kimbrel seized the closer's role early in the season but seems to have coughed it up to Jose Alvarado, who seems to walk the tightrope in every outing. Jeff Hoffman, picked up off the Cincinnati scrap heap, has proven to be a reliable piece for Rob Thomson; if such a piece exists in a Phillies bullpen. At this point, Topper may even be willing to use super-fast-track rookie Orion Kerkering in high-leverage situations.

Prediction: Miami has played the Phillies tough since Don Mattingly took over as manager, and have continued to do so in Schumaker's first year at the helm. As Phillies radio analyst Kevin Stocker described it, Miami doesn't get intimidated by the Phils. But the playoffs are a whole different animal, and Philadelphia playoff baseball is a whole different animal in of itself. If the Marlins can take the crowd out of it, it bodes well for them. But look for the Phils to use the most distinct home-field advantage in the Wild Card round to its fullest and pull it out.

Phillies in 3


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