With less than a month’s worth of games left on the regular season schedule, there are sure to be some surprises and some no-brainers, some fireworks and some flameouts, and some memorable moments and some forgettable blunders. That’s just how baseball is. Been that way for over a hundred years and will continue being that way for the foreseeable future. As we close in on the postseason, let’s try to answer four key questions that could shape how the 2016 season ends.
Question 1: Can the Cubs be beaten?
This has been a magical regular season for the Northsiders in 2016. A perfect blend of youth and veteran leadership mixed with a manager, who knows what buttons to push and when, has the Cubs in prime position for a World Series run. No team can boast the starting pitching, one through five, that the Cubs can. Jake Arrieta has regained Cy Young form from last season, John Lester looks every bit as dominant as General Manager Theo Epstein thought he would be when he was signed, and Kyle Hendricks has quietly moved to the front of the class as far as this season’s Cy Young award goes. Riding their starting arms deep into October will make it very difficult on opposing lineups, as rest gets shortened in the postseason.
No team in either the American or National League is winning at a .640 clip like the Cubs are and no team is on pace or has a real shot at winning 105 games. But how will this sensational regular season translate when the whether cools off and the games transition from “regular season baseball” to “postseason baseball”? One has to imagine that the Cubs should be just fine.
One reason for the confidence would be manager Joe Maddon. He has been there before — with less talented teams. He knows how to keep a team loose, but focused and ready to play at the highest level. Secondly, the starting pitching that we already mentioned has the potential to make a 7 game series feel like a best 2 out of 3. None of the five starters are pushovers and with one likely going to the bullpen, it will only serve to add strength to that area. Lastly, we haven’t even discussed the Cubs offense and their two MVP candidates, Kris Bryant and Anthony Rizzo. But we don’t even have to. If the pitching dominates like it’s done most of the year and Bryant and Rizzo play even somewhat close to how they have performed all season, the answer is no — no one will beat the Cubs. And the curse will be over.
Question 2: Dodgers or Giants in the NL West?
Perhaps this was a tougher question to answer a week or two ago. Now, however, it seems as elementary as they come. L.A. is trending way up, having won 7 of 10 and building on a 5-game lead over the second place Giants. To make matters worse for Bay Area fans, Clayton Kershaw is returning today after missing all summer to a back injury. The lefty menace takes the hill against the Marlins after opening the year 11-2 with an ERA of 1.79 and on, what was, a blistering pace to set some all-time pitching records. What’s even scarier than Kershaw’s return is that the Dodgers have played such great baseball without their stud left-hander — 38-24 since he went down on June 26.
On the opposite end of the spectrum, the Giants have faded after leading the West at the All Star Break and listening to everyone in the media talk about how the Giants, as they always do in even numbered years as of late, were destined for another long run in October. But then a horrendous stretch that saw the Giants go 17-32 and free fall from their perch in the NL West occurred and gave life to their hated rivals in L.A. Although, all hope should not be lost in San Francisco. A team that can throw Madison Bumgarner out to the bump every few days in the postseason should never be counted out. Add the NL starting pitcher from July’s All Star Game, Johnny Cueto, and the Giants actually seem like team that has a lot going their way. And if the lineup starts hitting, they will. But the bigger question right now will be “Can the Giants make the postseason?”. If they do, watch out. But they have not made the row an ease one to hoe.
Question 3: Is this the Nationals year?
Just when after years of underachieving and failure to reach expectations you think it might be the Nationals’ year, Stephen Strasburg gets injured. Again.
The Washington ace, who’s health always seems to fail him and the team, suffered a strained muscle flexor mass in his right elbow, possibly derailing championship hopes that the D.C. fan base had. A timetable for Strasburg’s return is unclear right now — some have speculated he will be back for the postseason, others fear his season is over.
Of course, this injury hurts the Nationals’ World Series chances; but if we’re looking for reasons to still believe in this team, focus your eyes on Max Scherzer. The perennial Cy Young candidate has earned every dollar of his $210 million contract with numbers that put him at the top of all the major statistical pitching categories: first in IP (197), WHIP (0.92), and strikeouts (243); tied for first in wins (16); second in K/9 (11.27) and batting average against (.190); and sixth in ERA (2.88).
With Scherzer carrying the load, right-hander Tanner Roark can step into the number 2 role. His ERA and IP rank in the top-10 in the NL and he’s proven to be a solid arm in the rotation. Lefty hurler Gio Gonzalez has had a down year, but he is more than capable of eating up innings and giving batters’ fits; but is this rotation now without Strasburg good enough to compete with the league’s other contenders and remain a World Series threat? Tough call.
If Washington’s bats can continue producing — top-5 in total bases, slugging, and OPS, that should relieve some of the pressure placed on the starting staff. But this latest Strasburg injury certainly has the “same old Nationals” feel to it. High expectations, talent all over the field, and lots of regular season wins, but nothing to show for it except an early exit from the playoffs.
Question 4: Who in the American League is “for real”?
The closer we get to the postseason, the clearer picture we get of what the American League can offer. What I mean is this whole season seems like either a coronation of the Cubs or a “this is our year” for the Nationals or another even-numbered year World Series for the Giants. All National League stories. But now, there seems to be some noise coming out of the AL. The Texas Rangers have separated themselves in their division and have a game lead for the best record in the AL. However, Cleveland’s balance of great starting pitching and good hitting has the Indians looking, statistically, like the most well-put together team in American League; and they, like the Rangers, have built a nice buffer in their division between themselves and the Detroit Tigers — who are playing their most consistent baseball of the season. If the starting pitching stays hot and Justin Upton’s bat does the same, the Tigers might have a say-so in the Wild Card race.
What will be interesting will be watching how the AL East sorts itself out. With three teams all bunched together within 2 games of first (heck, throw the Yankees in their too — they’re only 4 out), the East promises to entertain us as the race for the division climaxes to a boil. Whoever manages to separate themselves from the pack may be the team to watch as far as representing the AL in the World Series. All three teams — Toronto, Boston, and Baltimore — rank at or near the top in most offensive statistical categories; and all three pitch at a high level, with the exception of maybe the Orioles, who fall outside the top-10 in most pitching stats.
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