A few new rules were introduced to the truncated 60-game season that played out in July, August and September. The NL adopted the designated hitter. We saw the three-batter minimum for relief pitchers. We also saw the introduction of what once seemed like a lame-brain idea of starting extra innings with a runner at second to provide a faster closure to games. The extra-inning rule was for regular season games only.
Now we enter a postseason with eight teams per league. The first round will feature eight three-game series at the home venue of the higher seed. And then for the first time in baseball history we will see playoff games and the World Series played in bubbles, much like the NBA’s regular-season finish and playoffs all taking place in Orlando, Fla.
It’s really a pretty simple proposition. All along, MLB’s eye was merely on getting through the fanless, shortened regular season and getting their hands on TV revenue that would be split up between the 30 money-starved franchises.
With all that money at stake, MLB could ill-afford to forfeit that pay day due to a COVID outbreak. Hence, the bubble comes to MLB.
Here’s a brief look at the four initial best-of-three series in the National League. For my American League preview, click here.
Milwaukee Brewers at Los Angeles Dodgers
The Brewers are the NL’s only below-.500 team to make the postseason. And they have their work cut out for them, especially in light of the fact that top starter Corbin Burnes (4-1, 2.11 ERA) went down Sept. 25 with a strained left oblique. Barring a long playoff run, his season is over.
The Brewers scored a total of 245 runs during the season and their pitchers allowed 259. The Dodgers scored 99 more runs than the Brewers while allowing 46 fewer runs.
With Burnes out, Game 1 will go to Brandon Woodruff, who was just 3-5 but had a very good 3.05 ERA and 0.99 WHIP. On the mound for the Dodgers in Game 1 will either be future Hall of Famer Clayton Kershaw or young Walker Buehler, who has made just one start in the past three weeks with a blister problem on his right index finger.
The big story on the Brewers’ side of things is Christian Yelich, who missed the last three weeks of the 2019 season with an injured kneecap that came about when he fouled a ball off of it. Doctors told him he’d make a full recovery with surgery. While he hasn’t missed any time in 2020, the numbers are paltry considering Yelich, 28, is in his prime. He hit .202/.350/.449 with seven doubles, 12 homers and just 22 RBIs.
The Dodgers are vulnerable in their rotation and bullpen, but those issues aren’t big enough to halt their path back to another World Series. This should be a professional hit job — short and sweet.
St. Louis Cardinals at San Diego Padres
The Padres were not only the NL West’s second-best club during the regular season — they were the NL’s second-best team with a 37-23 record.
The Cardinals are a solid baseball team. They were hit with an early-season COVID outbreak and missed a bunch of games that had to be made up. That eventually led to six doubleheaders from mid-September until the end of the regular season. Veteran Adam Wainwright has had another terrific season, and you have to wonder if he and the club will come up with another one-year deal.
However, the club’s top two young pitchers have struggled. Jack Flaherty has an ERA above 5.00 and hasn’t looked even close to the pitcher he was in 2019, and Dakota Hudson is out for the rest of the season with an elbow issue.
Two pitchers for the Cards will have to step up. One is youngster Daniel Ponce de Leon, who has pitched four times in September. In 20 innings, he has a 3.15 ERA and opponents are batting just .178 against him. He has struck out 28 batters but has allowed four homers. The other is 32-year-old lefty Kwang Hyun Kim, who pitched in the KBO prior to joining the Cardinals. Kim has made seven starts and pitched to a 1.62 ERA and a 1.02 WHIP. He has given up just three homers in his 39 innings.
The Cardinals will need to be at their best if they are to have any chance to beat the fast-rising Padres. Fernando Tatis Jr. was looking like a shoo-in for NL MVP before going into a deep slump from Sept. 7 until the last week of the season. That date just happened to coincide with what looked like a disastrous finger injury for Eric Hosmer, who suffered the injury Sept. 8 while attempting an ill-advised first-inning bunt. The ball veered in on him, and he fractured a finger. Hosmer is now back in the lineup for the Padres.
The Padres made a major acquisition at the trade deadline when they packaged several young players to pick up right-hander Mike Clevinger. The deal looked like it could bump the Padres into World Series contender status, but the team suffered recent setbacks with Clevinger (elbow impingement) and Dinelson Lamet (biceps tightness). Neither has been ruled out for the first-round series, but with Chris Paddack and Zach Davies, they just might be able to beat the Cardinals anyway. However, if Clevinger and Lamet are out long term, the Padres’ World Series hopes for 2020 will take quite a hit.
Miami Marlins at Chicago Cubs
The Marlins started this shortened season 2-1. Then came their COVID outbreak. For the next seven days, they sat at 2-1 and had a week’s worth of games postponed. The first week back, the Marlins went 5-2. From there, they played pretty steady baseball in the tough Eastern corridor. They finished up 31-29, and they’ll play the 34-26 Cubs. Based on reputation, the Cubs should win this series, but truth be told, the Cubs have been living on their reputation since they won their one World Series way back in 2016.
From a starting pitching standpoint, Yu Darvish is the best pitcher in this series, and the wily one Kyle Hendricks isn’t far behind. The problem is that a very inconsistent and lackluster bullpen stands behind the two of them. Sure, Jeremy Jeffress is good, but he’s not dominant enough to get the strikeout he needs at a key moment in the game.
If the upstart and mostly young Marlins can get solid starting pitching of their own from the likes of Sixto Sanchez, Sandy Alcantara, Pablo Lopez and Trevor Rogers, they could spring an upset. This series is a lot closer than people think.
Cincinnati Reds at Atlanta Braves
The Braves are the coulda, woulda, shoulda team in Major League Baseball. If they still had starting pitcher Mike Sroka, who tore an Achilles in the second week of the season, they’d be substantially better. If expensive one-year add-on Cole Hamels had been healthy enough to do for their rotation in 2020 what Josh Donaldson did for their offense in 2019, they’d have been one of the favorites to win the World Series.
And of course, what if GM Alex Anthopoulos had seen that he had to trade prospects for a meaningful starting pitcher — say a Lance Lynn or a Dylan Bundy? Instead, he went the cheap route (in terms of prospects) by acquiring Tommy Milone.
And now they come up against a reasonably hot team in the Reds, who boast a very good starting rotation. The Braves are in for a fist fight. And frankly, it’s one they could lose to the likes of Trevor Bauer, Sonny Gray and Luis Castillo.
Now, the Braves can score runs. They totaled 348, while the pitching staff gave up 288. The rotation features lefty Max Fried, who will garner Cy Young votes, and right-hander Ian Anderson.
That Reds’ rotation is headlined by Bauer, who will actually win the Cy Young Award. Bauer is just 5-4, but in his 73 innings, he has pitched to a 1.73 ERA and a 0.79 WHIP. Behind him is Castillo, who is just 4-6 but has a 3.21 ERA and 1.22 WHIP. Then there is Gray (5-3, 3.70 ERA, 1.21 WHIP).
The bullpens in this series are outstanding. The Braves’ terrific group includes Shane Greene, Chris Martin, Darren O’Day, Will Smith, AJ Minter and Mark Melancon. They are matched by the Reds’ group of Archie Bradley, Amir Garrett, Raisel Iglesias, Tejay Antone, Lucas Sims and Michael Lorenzen.
The Braves have the superior offense — but you know the old adage that good pitching beats good hitting. It very well could happen, especially if Bauer bests Fried in Game 1.
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