Playoff baseball sure to entertain

Encarnacion celebrates with his walk-off homerun. (NY Daily News)

The Major League Baseball playoff schedule kicked off on Tuesday, October 4th, and if the controversy and drama of the Wild Card Game between the Blue Jays and Orioles is any indication, the road to the World Series will be full of thrills. The Blue Jays prevailed in a do-or-die matchup at home in front of their raucous fans by the score of 5-2. The game went into extra innings with Edwin Encarnacion taking on the hero’s role hitting a walk-off three run homerun in the bottom of the 11th inning.

The game was not lacking in controversy, as Orioles manager Buck Showalter has come under heavy criticism for his handling of the team’s pitching staff. Showalter failed to bring All-Star closer Zach Britton into the game at any point, instead choosing to rely on 6 different pitchers. In the 11th inning, Showalter chose to bring in the erratic Ubaldo Jimenez who sported an ERA of 5.54 on the season, compared to Britton’s 0.54. Media coverage after the game centered on criticism of Showalter’s inexplicable decision.

Looking ahead, the Blue Jays now travel to Arlington, Texas to open a series against their rivals the Texas Rangers. The two teams met in the playoffs last year with the Blue Jays taking the series three games to two. Jose Bautista’s epic bat flip after his series changing homerun in Game 5 irritated the Rangers greatly, and this conflict continued through the team’s matchups in the 2016 regular season. Famously, Rougned Odor landed a vicious punch to the face of Bautista touching off a massive brawl during the team’s matchup on May, 15. The series figures to be intense with two powerful offenses squaring off, with the Rangers holding an edge due to their twin ace pitchers, Cole Hamels and Yu Darvish.

The other American League Series has no shortage of subplots as well. The streaking Boston Red Sox open their playoff schedule against the Cleveland Indians. The Indians are managed by beloved former Red Sox manager Terry Francona. Current Red Sox manager John Farrell served as a pitching coach under Francona during the 2007 Red Sox World Series title run. The Indians come into the series with a strong 94-67 record, but have been battered by injuries. All-Star starters Carlos Carrasco and Danny Salazar are both out with injuries. The Red Sox, meanwhile, have seemingly found their groove, and are led by stalwarts David Ortiz, Mookie Betts, and Dustin Pedroia. The key to the series will be the Red Sox starting pitching which if solid, should be enough to eliminate the scrappy Indians.

The National League side of the bracket features the one team that faces the most pressure and scrutiny, the Chicago Cubs. The Cubs, famously, have not won the World Series in 107 years and have gone a stunning 71 years since last winning the NL Pennant. The Cubs enter the postseason as the overwhelming favorites sporting a record of 103-58 and a MLB best run differential of +252. The Cubs pitching staff has been the key to their success fronted by aces, Jon Lester, Jake Arrieta, and Kyle Hendricks. Chicago has also been historically good at turning batted balls into outs, and has perhaps the best closer remaining in the playoffs in Aroldis Chapman. However, the team must manage inflated expectations and the pressure of performing well in front of its tortured fan base at Wrigley Field. The Cubs will face the winner of the Wild Card Game between the Mets and Giants played late Wednesday night.

In the final playoff matchup, the Washington Nationals face the Los Angeles Dodgers for a berth in the NL Championship Series. The two teams each feature erstwhile stars have stir controversy amongst viewers and players. Bryce Harper is coming off a disappointing regular season for the Nationals in which he batted only .243. However, the Dodgers’ Yasiel Puig had perhaps a more trying season. Puig struggled in the summer months eventually earning a demotion to Triple-A. However, Puig comes into the post season on a tear having resurrected his season just when it seemed he no longer had a future with the Dodgers. Beyond the two lightning rods, each team features an unhittable ace with the Dodgers’ Clayton Kershaw back from injury to face the Nationals’ Max Scherzer. An injury to the Nationals’ Stephen Strasburg however has thinned the teams pitching and gives the Dodgers the slightest of advantages.