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MLB Handicapping: Divisional Series Update

MLB

Today and tomorrow feature a Game 4 and two series-deciding Game 5 battles in the three series that remain in the MLB divisional round. The Yankees pummeled the Twins to gain a berth in the ALCS, and they await the winner of the Houston-Tampa Bay contest. Let’s take a look at the remaining series so far, and what lies ahead over the next two days.

Game 4: Houston Astros at Tampa Bay Rays (+213)

Over the first two games of this series, things went pretty well according to plan. The Astros eased through a pair of low-scoring games on the backs of pocket aces Justin Verlander and Gerrit Cole. The two Cy Young front-runners combined for 14.2 IP, 23 Ks, 5 hits, 4 walks, and a grand total of zero runs allowed. When the series switched over to Tropicana Field, a plucky Rays lineup pounced on Astros starter Zach Grienke and themselves coasted to a 10-3 victory.

Despite that, this series still seems completely lopsided. The simple fact is that Justin Verlander appears to be basically unhittable, and even a solid performance from the bevy of bullpen arms the Rays plan to use tonight will almost certainly not be enough. Even if they somehow force a Game 5, Gerrit Cole as a firewall makes the situation dire for Tampa Bay. If there’s any solace for the Rays, it’s to be found in the mediocre offensive performance put forward by the Astros to this point. They’re averaging four runs a game, more than run and a half lower than their 5.67 per game regular season average. If they can stick around until Verlander exits the game, we could see a third Game 5 from the first four playoff series.

Game 5: St. Louis Cardinals at Atlanta Braves (-113)

On paper, this series was the most evenly matched of the four divisional round pairings, and it’s lived up to the billing. Two one-run wins for the Cardinals with a couple of close victories for the Braves sandwiched in between have led to Wednesday evening’s rubber match. Atlanta has outscored St. Louis in the first four games by a 16-13 count.

While the sample size is tiny, the common factor so far has been the length which the two club’s starters have managed to go. In the two Cardinals’ wins, no starter for either team made it past the fifth inning. Conversely, the Braves’ victories came when the bullpens were shortened, with each starter making it through at least seven. However, we’re in all-hands-on-deck territory now, so it’s anyone’s guess as to how long a leash projected starters Jack Flaherty and Mike Foltynewicz are given. If the bullpens do manage to play a significant role, the edge tilts slightly to the Cardinals. Their relievers have been spectacular with one obvious exception. Closer Carlos Martinez has been lit up by the Braves, surrendering 6 earned runs in only 3.1 innings pitched. He did appear to steady the ship somewhat last time out however, pitching a scoreless ninth.

Game 5: Washington Nationals at Los Angeles Dodgers (-151)

With all due respect to the slightly favored Atlanta Braves, it just feels like there’s so much more at stake for the powerhouse L.A. Dodgers in Wednesday’s second Game 5. While few in MLB will have sympathy for a Dodgers team that carries the league’s fourth-highest payroll, this is a massive spot for them. Los Angeles has won seven straight NL West titles and have been rewarded with precisely zero championship rings. They’ve lost back-to-back World Series. Despite it all, this is the best team they’ve fielded during this run. At the beginning of this series, I suggested that the Dodgers would have a high level of motivation to get the title they clearly feel they deserve. But, when we get to a deciding game, the positive force of motivation can easily morph into the negative pressure of expectation. Even knowing they were going to face Max Scherzer twice, it’s hard to imagine the Dodgers thought it would come to this.

What’s worse is they’re running into Stephen Strasburg. He’s been phenomenal in the postseason so far, both by providing the key outs that allowed the Nats back into their Wild Card matchup with the Milwaukee Brewers, and throwing six strong innings at Dodger Stadium to help prevent his team from going down 2-0 earlier in the series. Fortunately for Los Angeles, they are able to counter with Walker Buehler, who spun a gem himself in Game One (6 IP, 1 hit, 8 Ks). Still, this pretty well all comes down to what Strasburg can give Washington. The Nats’ bullpen has been poor, surrendering 14 of the 18 earned runs the Dodgers have scored over the first four games. Strasburg will have to out duel and outlast Buehler for the Nationals to have a shot at making the NLCS. If it goes down, there will be a plethora of questions to be faced by the entire Dodgers organization. This is one to watch.