Monday, 23 September 2019 19:07

'MATTer of Opinion' Sports Column: October baseball is almost here

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The beginning of a new school year marks the end of the 2019 Major League Baseball season. While home run numbers are higher than ever before in baseball, a common theme while putting together a list of predictions was the strength of teams' pitching.

As showcased in arms like Madison Bumgarner and Chris Sale in recent playoff memory, starting pitching is key for going deep in games and keeping your bullpen arms rested. This playoff picture is, of course, subject to change with about a week left in the season. Every team mentioned here can win the World Series because it's been an incredible year for baseball.

The National League division leaders at the moment are the Los Angeles Dodgers, the St. Louis Cardinals and the Atlanta Braves (NL West, Central and East, respectively). Due to their substantial leads in the West and East, the Dodgers and Braves have clinched their division titles and will be heading to the postseason.

Each team is stacked to the brim with bats, including three MVP candidates, Cody Bellinger in L.A. and Ronald Acuna Jr. and Freddie Freeman in Atlanta. The Dodgers certainly pack more of a punch than Atlanta does with their deep pitching rotation, but definitely expect to see both of them play many games in October.

On the other hand, the NL Wild Card race is the most fun thing to watch in sports right now. I can see a scenario where the Cardinals hang on to their division title, but there are several cases where they may end up in one of the two available Wild Card spots.

The Cards will have to face, or have already faced off against four Wild Card contending teams in the last two weeks of the season in the form of the Milwaukee Brewers, Washington Nationals, Arizona Diamondbacks and Chicago Cubs. While the Cubs have had their own struggles this season, they have been pretty evenly matched with St. Louis and have a significantly easier schedule down the stretch.

The Nationals, who currently lead the Wild Card race, are playing their best baseball of the season over the last month and are a shoe-in for the top Wild Card spot. The Brewers are a tricky nut to crack because, while they lost 2018 MVP Christian Yelich to a fractured kneecap, they've still managed to win seven games in a row a couple of weeks ago. 

Even teams like the New York Mets and Philadelphia Phillies have been hot as of late and can possible move into the second Wild Card spot. This is definitely the race to watch right now. While it may be tough to predict, I can see the Cubs taking the division lead by the end of the season, with Max Scherzer and the Nats ultimately eliminating the Cardinals in the Wild Card game.

It also could, just as easily, take a "Game 163" to figure it out.

The American League is a very top- and bottom-heavy league. While the talent at the top of the standings are incredibly formidable foes, the teams at the other end, like the Baltimore Orioles, Kansas City Royals, Detroit Tigers and the Toronto Blue Jays, stand as the bottom of the barrel for all of baseball. For this reason, I find it hard to judge the New York Yankees and the Minnesota Twins, who are first place in the AL East and AL Central, respectively.

While there is no argument that these two teams are talented and will make the postseason, it's difficult to truly analyze how far their run can go against similar-caliber teams. Winning a lot of games isn't a simple task, but when your division features some of the league's worst teams, it isn't as challenging to rack up win after win.

Aside from easier schedules, a lack of starting pitching would be my fear for either of these teams to make a deep postseason run. Both the Twins and the Yanks have top-tier bullpens, but they also have starting rotations that grow weaker and weaker the deeper you go. Both teams would have absolutely benefited from acquiring a starting arm before the trade deadline, but their big bats have certainly gotten them into the playoffs.

The AL Wild Card race is really only a three-team competition between the Oakland Athletics, Tampa Bay Rays and Cleveland Indians. At the time of this writing, the A's were 94-62 and in the first Wild Card slot, while Cleveland and Tampa were both just two games back at 92-64.

When it comes down to predicting who I think will end up with the final two AL Wild Card spots, I believe experience down the stretch is the most pivotal aspect in making a postseason run. Both the Indians and A's have been in situations similar to this in recent years.

The A's were a postseason staple through 2012-2014, and the Indians have been the kings of the AL Central for the past five years. Cleveland's dents in their pitching staff as a whole may hurt them in a Wild Card game against the A's hot hitters, so for the American League, I think Oakland will ultimately go on to enter the postseason beyond the Wild Card game. (On a different, yet similar note, I also want to see my friend and A's pitching coach Scott Emerson continue to show how great of a baseball mind he has and potentially turn that into a managing gig in the near future.)

I have left out one team from the American League because they are my favorite to win the World Series, as they are a lot of people's pick. The Houston Astros may only be playing decent baseball at this moment, but a team with postseason experience is especially dangerous for other teams. 

Not only do they have possibly the best lineup in baseball, but they have the best "one, two, three" punch in their rotation with Justin Verlander, Gerrit Cole and Zack Grienke. With easily the strongest rotation in baseball right now, this team is primed for the playoffs.

Shockingly enough — or not shocking at all, depending on how you look at it — I see this shaking out as an exact replica of the 2017 postseason, with the Cubs getting beaten by the Dodgers in the National League Championship Series and the Astros sending home the Yankees in the ALCS. 

The World Series rematch from two years ago will most likely end again with the Houston Astros on top.

 

Matt Harrelson is the co-host of Good Morning Sandhills, lead anchor for Live at 5 and the host of The RO Sports Show, the ROSS Raider Wrap Up and ROSS Racin'.