The narrative machine never turns off, huh? Just as the national fanbase spent week after week at odds over the merits of the single-season home run record, that same fanbase seamlessly transitioned into a new debate: the playoff format. The first couple of weeks of the postseason saw some of the “best” teams of the bunch — the Dodgers, Mets, and Braves — wiped out with only one win apiece for the three of them. This led to a renewed debate about the initiation of the new playoff format, where the expanded Wild Card Series was supposed to provide some benefit to a Wild Card spot over just a one-game elimination. I personally found that to be a wild success.
Yet even though one could argue that the format was made to make it more “fair,” the debate really circled around the essence of the Wild Card Era itself, where a five-game series is seemingly “too short” to decide the best team. It’s pretty funny that after a few days of hand-wringing about three measly upsets, we’re staring down the barrel of yet another Yankees and Astros ALCS — the third such showdown in six years.
I’m not here to say that the regular season is inferior, though, and once again, it’s been a decent-enough proxy of the best team in the American League. There’s always a formulation of Talent + Contingencies = Results, except over a much longer period in a full season. The hot-and-cold experience was the contingency portion of the equation, where injuries and underperformance sent the team into a near-tailspin. We certainly saw where the teams’ true strengths and weaknesses were exposed in a much shorter LDS round, which saw a whole ton of contingencies.
For one thing, the schedule was completely out of control. Due to the owners’ lockout way, way back in March, the entire playoff schedule was condensed, and chicanery around TV scheduling made it even worse. A scheduled offday after Game 1 turned into two days off with a rain-induced postponement, potentially setting up four straight games across multiple locales. Yet another postponement for Game 5 forced another offday Monday, setting up an ALCS where the winner has to potentially play eight games in nine days, with the Astros dangling their feet on the office table relaxingly for days on end.
You don’t win a five-game series under these circumstances without some positives, and there were a few. The obvious strength on display was PSA’s ALDS MVP, Gerrit Cole. Every fan’s mental model was primed to assume that Cole would underwhelm in Game 1 and a potential Game 4, and he sparkled instead, pitching to a 2.03 ERA over 13.1 innings, keeping his home run damage to just two solo shots. It gives me vibes akin to Giancarlo Stanton’s playoff/high-leverage home runs in 2020 and into 2021. People generally like to believe that every star is an Alex-Rodriguez-in-the-playoffs in waiting, but shattering that narrative after a middling (by a star’s standards) season I think changes the whole complexion of the year, win or lose.
Yet another strength was none other than Nestor Cortes. I’m straining to remember a pitcher who was such a fan favorite that, even more so than actual-ace Cole, the average fan would want to have the ball in an important game. Maybe Masahiro Tanaka? It’s simply remarkable that it is almost two years to the day that the Mariners released him, and here he is in an playoff series pitching to a 2.70 ERA over 10 innings, the back-half of which came in an elimination game on short rest.
There were also the home runs. It wasn’t a shock that the broadcast (cough cough Bob Costas, but really anyone) focused the narrative so heavily on the disparity between the contact-based Guardians and the power-dependent Yankees. It doesn’t really mean anything for the greater universe, but this series was a good example of how the latter sometimes beats the former. The Yankees scored 16 runs via the home run, and the Guardians had ... three. It’s a lot easier for Stanton to run into a three-run home run than it is to get seven hits in an inning.
Alright, let’s get on to the negatives. The defense, while advanced-analytically-speaking is a vastly improved group, had the issues that actually do come back to bite you in the postseason: small miscues that can spiral an inning out of control. In particular, Isiah Kiner-Falefa was so poor that he finally, after all those many months of questions about Oswaldo Cabrera and Oswald Peraza nipping at his heels, was benched for Cabrera after a routine drop in Game 1, missing a play in the first inning of Game 3 that cost the team a run, and misplaying one of the many bloops in the ninth that ultimately cost them the game.
The bloops were a factor all series, as the choppy Guardians slapped three different balls into the Bermuda Triangle in left field, causing so much confusion that it caused a collision in Game 5 that ended Aaron Hicks’ season. That’s the stuff you can’t predict.
The offense, as well as the bullpen, were somewhere in the middle. I mentioned the home runs, which essentially buoyed them to victory above the starting pitching, but they had major issues with contact against what we knew would be an excellent Guardians staff, hitting just .182 in the series. What really saved the team was Terry Francona’s decision to have Aaron Civale and Sam Hentges as the first two arms out in Game 5, giving them just enough breathing room to hit and gain the lead. By the time Emmanuel Clase entered Game 5, the series was essentially over. Aaron Judge uncharacteristically struck out 11 times, despite hitting two important home runs. Stanton, who also had a couple timely dingers, hit .125.
The bullpen pitched to a 2.70 ERA (but a 3.55 ERA entering Game 5), and they provided some beacons of hope moving forward. Clay Holmes, despite the Game 3 fiasco where he was left on the bench for supposedly health-related reasons, looked much more like the Holmes of the first half than the second. The same could be said for Jonathan Loáisiga and Wandy Peralta; the latter pitched in every game in the series, the first player to ever do that in a Division Series.
Once again, that offers a light at the end of the tunnel with a lead in the seventh against Houston. For the rest, though, there isn’t much to be said. Clarke Schmidt is just on the outside looking in on the circle of trust, and the likes of Lucas Luetge* or Miguel Castro weren’t even touched. Lou Trivino will likely be used in medium-leverage spots. It’s pretty much assumed that they’ll need to rely on those top three down the stretch, particularly with Ron Marinaccio still on the shelf.
*Luetge was actually dropped off the ALCS roster in favor of both rookie Greg Weissert and the previously injured and ineffective starter Frankie Montas.
As I said before this series started, you can’t really look at any month other than September as a comparison for how they would look in this series. They were no August chumps, but they absolutely did not roll over Cleveland, either. The Guardians had 100 percent of the momentum after Game 3, but overcoming that adversity gave me the feel of the 2017 ALDS. What also has a 2017 feel is that they will have to face the team that has bedeviled them since that ALCS, and you couldn’t write that narrative any better despite my initial disgust.
We all knew that this team would need to beat the Astros to win the World Series, and we all knew that in our bones back in late-June. Merely overcoming your weaknesses won’t be enough, either. They will need to be simply sparkling against Houston; you can’t get gunned down on the basepaths, and you need to play odd defensive plays with perfect instinct. They will need to hit for some average, and there will need to be contributions from the bottom of the order outside of Harrison Bader. The pitching formula is set up, though, and they’ll just need to hope that it can keep Jose Altuve, Kyle Tucker, and Yordan Alvarez at bay. They’ll also need to do something they have struggled to do, which is steal a game against Justin Verlander on the road. Buckle up.