The MLB playoffs have advanced to round 2, the Division Series. Typically seen as the first round, the adjustment for the Wild Card games to now be a full series as opposed to a one-game playoff has changed the DS round to round 2. The DS (also known as the “Division Series”) typically features the 3 Division winners, with the winner of the Wild Card game as the final team. The Wild Card winner faces the Division winner with the best record, and the remaining two Division winners face each other. Had this season been under the normal format, the Rays would have the #1 seed and face the winner of Yankees/Indians, and the Twins and Athletics would play each other in the other series. In this year’s playoff format, there are 16 teams instead of 10, and the Tampa Bay Rays, Oakland Athletics, New York Yankees, and Houston Astros all won their respective Wild Card rounds to advance to the bubble eliminating the Toronto Blue Jays, Chicago White Sox, Cleveland Indians, and Minnesota Twins respectively. With all 3 AL Central teams eliminated in the first round, each matchup is set to be a Division rematch that makes the Division Series quite an appropriate name. Playing for keeps are the beasts of the easts and the best in the west.
Tampa Bay Rays (1 seed) vs New York Yankees (5 seed)
It was no surprise that the Rays and Yankees were the best two teams in the AL East but which of the two teams that would end up performing better was quite a surprise. The Yankees were always being sized up as the World Series favorite to come out of the American League and yet all year they were more streaky rather than being a powerhouse. During their season, the Yankees won 8 of their first 9, lost 15 of 20, won 10 in a row, and ended the season losing 6 of their last 8. They faced many inconsistencies by many of their key hitters, including Giancarlo Stanton, Gleyber Torres, Gary Sánchez, Brett Gardner, and Aaron Hicks. Leading the way has been DJ LeMahieu who won the batting title in convincing fashion, Luke Voit leading the MLB in home runs (22), and Gio Urshela playing well both offensively and defensively. Pitching has been less than ideal for the Yankees. Gerrit Cole was his dominant self all year (albeit for 3 straight starts when he went 0-3) but none of the other pitchers, both starting and bullpen, have been as consistently dominant as Cole. They have great pitchers that can be frightening when they are on their game, but most of the hype has been on paper. Sweeping the Indians, and taking down the best pitcher in 2020, Shane Bieber has woken up the bats a bit. The biggest challenge going against the Rays will be figuring out a pitching staff that was able to keep them mostly quiet all year. New York only scored 34 runs in 10 games against the Rays all year and their biggest strength was in the home run, but they only hit 13 against Tampa. The Yankees have proven that if they can connect, they will be dangerous, and nothing would be more of a statement than taking down the team that kept them in check all year. That being said, they won only 2 games against the Rays, and the DS is a series where you need 3 so it’s easier said than done.
On the other hand, the Rays had a much smoother run through the season, becoming only one of two teams to reach 40 wins, and the only team to do so in the AL. They won their 1st division title since 2010 and were able to navigate through tons of injuries to many of their pitchers to still throw out a scary stable of pitchers that all can throw up to 98mph. Pitching has no doubt been the biggest strength of the Rays and is what the team is centered around. All of the guys they put in to pitch are able to get their jobs done effectively. They kept the Blue Jays, a team that has faced them and knows who they’re up against, locked them down to just 3 runs in 2 games. Thanks in part to great starting pitching performances by Blake Snell and Tyler Glasnow, along with Nick Anderson, Diego Castillo, Peter Fairbanks, Aaron Slegers, John Curtiss, Oliver Drakel, Jalen Beeks, and so many more all in the bullpen, scoring against the Rays is no easy task. Their offense is not as strong as the pitching, but they have a well-balanced offense to keep up and score effectively. The Rays can mix and match to line themselves up against any pitcher but with guys like Brandon Lowe, Willy Adames, Randy Arozarena, Manuel Margot, Hunter Renfroe, Joey Wendle, and Mike Brosseau they can beat you at any time with anyone.
The season series between the Rays and Yankees was very one-sided. The Rays won the season series 8-2, outscored the Yankees 47-34, had a better team OPS of .768 compared to .683 for the Yankees, and most importantly, hit .253 with runners in scoring position while the Yankees hit only .117. The biggest question will be which team can score the most against the other’s pitching. The Yankees know they have their best shot at winning with Gerrit Cole on the mound but the Rays were able to get to Cole during all of their matchups. The games will be played all in San Diego, which is known for being a pitcher’s park so Tampa Bay looks to be more favored. Another key difference is that there will be no off days, so bullpen management will be trickier, especially for a team like the Yankees who don’t have as strong of a starting rotation, and rely on their bullpen more especially in the postseason as seen during the 2019 playoffs. There was also some beef between the two teams in the regular season including a bench-clearing incident, which resulted in the Rays running away with the division after it happened. The Rays are the favorites, but it can still go either way. As seen in the past, counting the Yankees out is never a wise decision.
Oakland Athletics (2 seed) vs Houston Astros (6 seed)
From the AL West comes two different takes on the same narrative. Both teams are trying to prove themselves but for drastically different reasons. For Houston, it’s all about proving that they don’t need cheating to win. For Oakland, it’s about proving that they’re capable of taking down teams that are on a higher level than them. Houston was one of 2 teams to make the playoffs with a sub .500 record of 29-31 and made it in since the top 2 teams from each division got an automatic in. What has hurt them the most is well, everything. Hitting has gone up and down all year, but most of their big bats have been having bad years. Most notably are Jose Altuve, and Alex Bregman, two players that when at their best and fairly recently, were MVP candidates. Carrying the hitting all year has mainly been Kyle Tucker, Carlos Correa, George Springer, and Michael Brantly. Pitching for them has been a nightmare, and injuries have been the biggest issue. Zack Greinke and Framber Valdez have been the best starting pitchers but aside from those two, there isn’t much to show for. The bullpen hasn’t fared much better and is the clear weakness of the team. Ryan Pressly as the closer hasn’t been as good as hoped but he’s only there because he’s their best reliever. Every other pitcher in the bullpen is a rookie and they’ve all been inconsistent the whole year. Houston wants to prove that they’re still threats without cheating and they have the team to do it. They swept a division winner on the road in the first round and if they can defeat the team that wants to take them down the most, then they would be making the statement they’ve been trying to all year. If Houston’s bats can lock in, than they are as big of a threat as they’ve been for the past few years.
Their opposition however is the team that wants to beat Houston more than anyone, the Oakland Athletics. During the Astros’ reign of terror over the division, the Athletics always had a strong team but were always stuck in second place and left to play in the Wild Card game where in back-to-back years, they were silenced by the Yankees in 2018, and the Rays in 2019. The A’s were back with a vengeance in 2020 and they stopped at nothing to win the division. They were the first to clinch a division title and their strengths and weaknesses have been very clearly marked. The clear Achilles’ heel for the A’s is the hitting. They were shut down by Lucas Giolito and the White Sox in game 1 of the Wild Card series and won games 2 and 3 in close scoring affairs. Usual big boppers like Matt Olson, Ramón Laureano, Marcus Semien, and Khris Davis have all had poor 2020s. The biggest loss is Matt Chapman who was the center of the team and the best hitter on the team. In his place is Jake Lamb who has been playing at an elite level since joining the team. In addition to Lamb are Tommy La Stella, Mark Canha, and Robbie Grossman all helping out in the hitting department. Pitching has been a completely different story for the A’s as it’s been their biggest asset. Starting hasn’t been as loud, but Chris Bassitt quietly putting up CY Young numbers in 2020 certainly has helped. Sean Manaea, Jesús Luzardo, and Frankie Montas all have great talent but whether or not they can stay consistent enough for October is yet to be seen, especially with Luzardo not having a great start in the Wild Card round. Their Bullpen has been the best in baseball and is a big reason why when they get a lead, they do well at keeping it intact. Liam Hendriks is still one of the best closers in the games, but having back up in the form of Jake Diekman (who is in the running for reliever of the year), as well as J.B. Wendelken, Joakim Soria, Yusmeiro Petit, Lou Trivino, Burch Smith, and Daniel Mengden are definitely some good reassurance.
Comparing the head-to-head matchups is also a one-sided affair with the A’s having won 7 of the 10 games. These two teams also included one of the more entertaining brawls of the season and the A’s players have been very outspoken about how badly they want to win this series. It’ll be a big test for Houston to go up against Oakland but they showed in the Wild Card against Minnesota how good they can be. Oakland is still the favorite, and most of America is rooting for Houston to lose. But Houston defeated doubters once, and they could very well do it again. With Oakland’s great pitching against Houston’s potent offense, it’ll be a great duel from start to finish. Oakland does however get the advantage in the series as they get to face an up and down hitting core to go against their consistently dominant pitching staff, combined with Houston’s weak pitching for their sub-par hitting.
Both ALDS matchups begin on Monday, October 5th with Athletics-Astros at 4:00 pm EST, and Rays-Yankees at 8:00 pm EST both on TBS.