THE MLB DIVISION ROUND
After going 1-3 with my series picks for the Wild Card round, I’d like to remind you of this important fact that should not be overlooked: hired as manager of the Cardinals before the 1996 season, Tony La Russa didn’t win his first NL pennant until 2004, or his first World Series in St. Louis until 2006.
What does that have to do with me? Well, give your boy here a little time to win big. Next up: the division round in both leagues. At least the LDS series – best of five – gives teams a chance to recover after losing the first game.
Texas (4) vs. Baltimore (1)
I grew up as an Orioles fan, so I hope the Rangers find burly Nelson Cruz in right field again, just as they did back in 2011. If you don’t get the joke, I can’t help you.
FanGraphs gives the Rangers a 53.8 percent probability of clearing the birdhouse and moving onto the ALCS. I fear that FanGraphs may be right.
The Rangers have the better offense, though part of that is because of their ballpark-effects advantage in home games. Per wRC+ Texas was 23 percent better offensively in Arlington this season and the revised Camden Yards is a tougher place to hit, with the overall MLB offensive performance around 11 percent below league average in games played at Camden. And this could be a factor because the Orioles will play three in Baltimore if this competition goes the full five games.
I like the Rangers’ seasoned veteran experience over the Orioles’ crab-seasoned exuberance, but the Texas bullpen blew 33 saves this season. On a related note, the O’s lead MLB in comeback wins and never lose their energy when trailing. The shaky bullpen should doom Texas, but in his Hall of Fame (eventually) career, manager Bruce Bochy has genius, metaphysical powers when running a postseason bullpen.
The Rangers were crazily streaky late in the season, and the Orioles specialized in consistency. And if the O’s get the jump, their home ballpark will have the same raucous vibe that we’ve seen at Philadelphia’s Citizens Bank Park over the last two postseasons.
And yeah, it sure does help to win Game 1. On that point, Game 1 Baltimore starter Kyle Bradish had a 2.34 overall ERA after the All-Star break. He had a 2.23 ERA at Camden Yards this season. Down the stretch he didn’t allow a run (anywhere) over his final 16 innings. He allowed one run over 8.1 innings in two regular-starts vs. the Rangers. And because of playing in the wild card round, the Rangers have to open the series with their No. 3 or No. 4 starter.
Then again my friend the baseball analyst Joe Sheehan bummed me out by writing this conclusion: “I just see more paths for the Rangers in this series than I do for the Orioles. I see a dugout edge for the Rangers, where Bochy has a 46-33 postseason record and it’s not like he did that with the 1927 Yankees. I worry about what Bradish and Grayson Rodriguez have left in the tank. The Rangers’ lineup is the best unit in this series, and as we saw this week, it can dictate terms. I think it will here. Rangers in four.”
The Orioles have to win this for Brooks Robinson.
Pick: O’s in five.
Minnesota (3) vs. Houston (2)
FanGraphs is all over the Astros, as evidenced by their 55.7 percent win probability. And why not? Since 2017, the Astros have won more postseason games (53) than any team in the majors. And then there’s Minnesota, which broke an 18-game postseason losing streak by shooing Toronto out of the first round with two rapid wins.
I’m trying to be wary of a few predictable narratives from the BBWAA card-carrying writers: (1) the Astros had a losing record at home so give the Twins the edge: (2) the Twins were liberated from the haunting postseasons of the past by sweeping the Blue Jays and making it look easy … which means WATCH OUT, THE TWINS ARE THE HOT TEAM! THEY HAVE MOMENTUM!
OK, but on the pro-Houston side there’s (3) the Astros have been here many times before and this is their time of the year and their bullpen is loaded with cold-blooded baseball assassins; and (4) the Astros are especially built for the playoffs so prepare to lose and go back to the Twin Cities because it’s hockey season anyway.
The Twins have the best pitching staff in the American League, and they can bomb home runs like Harmon Killebrew. And that home-run asset to back up that good pitching is why the Twins would win this round. And at some point the Astros have to be tired of winning or tired after playing 250 games a season (or so it seems) because of their many extended playoff runs.
Tough call. I’ll be wrong. But I’ll go with the surest narrative of them all: I would never bet against the Astros and I refuse to believe that any team can beat them until I see it happen. That’s on you, Twins.
Pick: Astros in four.
Philadelphia (4) vs. Atlanta (1)
FanGraphs is all but doing the idiotic Tomahawk Chop, giving the Braves a 61 percent chance of silencing Philly’s Tastykake pie hole. (Tasty Kake is a Philadelphia thing; work with me people.)
The mighty 104-win Braves had the privilege of the first-round bye to set up their rotation the way they wanted to, and that should give them an advantage. The Phillies started their two top dogs, Zack Wheeler and Aaron Nola, to dispose of the Marlins in the WC round.
OK, but wasn’t Atlanta supposed to have this same advantage last October after having the bye and having the Phillies start Wheeler and Nola in St. Louis? Philadelphia – the team, more than the city itself – is nuts. These brash fellers don’t fear anything. They’re scary that way. And I’d give the Philadelphians the edge with the two bullpens in this series.
The 2023 Braves delivered one of the greatest seasons of offense in MLB history this season. That offense is too good to shut down over two games, three games, etc. But the Braves also have some starting pitching concerns with Charlie Morton out and Max Fried dealing with a blister. If the regular-season means much, Atlanta averaged 5.7 runs, slugged .498 and homered 24 times in 13 games vs. the Phils. Yes, I’m saying that Atlanta can outscore Philadelphia if this turns into a Coors Field or Great American Ball Park type of series. This should be a helluva good time.
Pick: Braves in five.
Arizona (6) vs. Los Angeles (2)
The 100-win Dodgers finished 16 games ahead of the 84-win Diamondbacks in the NL West this season, but we’ve seen plot twists in these movies before. (Cardinals 2006, Cardinals 2011, etc.)
Arizona was impressive in wiping out the Brewers in two consecutive comeback victories, but I didn’t see Mookie Betts and Freddie Freeman in the Milwaukee lineup. The Dodgers were second to the Braves in the MLB rankings for runs, homers, onbase percentage, slugging and OPS. That presents a much more extreme challenge for the Diamondbacks.
Yeah, the Dodgers have a beaten-up starting staff, but the bullpen is acid, and manager Dave Roberts will go to those relievers early if trouble brews.
Great offense vs. a great Arizona defense. And the D-backs are set up nicely for a five-game series because they have Merrill Kelly ready for Game 1, and can start Zac Gallen two times if it goes five.
I’m tempted to go with the upset …
Nah. Arizona was fabulous against Milwaukee. But I don’t want to overreact to that. Recent history has told us that beating the Brewers in the playoffs is not exactly the impossible dream. The Crew is 1-9 in their last 10 postseason chokes.
Pick: Dodgers in five.
Thanks for reading …
And have a nice weekend…
For the last 35 years Bernie Miklasz has entertained, enlightened, and connected with generations of St. Louis sports fans.
While best known for his voice as the lead sports columnist at the Post-Dispatch for 26 years, Bernie has also written for The Athletic, Dallas Morning News and Baltimore News American. Bernie has hosted radio shows in St. Louis, Dallas, Baltimore and Washington D.C.
Bernie, his wife Kirsten and their cats reside in the Skinker-DeBaliviere neighborhood of St. Louis.