Final Four: ALCS/NLCS Preview

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Final Four: ALCS/NLCS Preview

Photo courtesy of AP

Photo courtesy of AP

Photo courtesy of AP

Photo courtesy of AP

Joe Thomas

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And then there were four. The first of two MLB League Championship Series begins Friday night between the Toronto Blue Jays and the Cleveland Indians. On Saturday night, the highly anticipated matchup between the Cubs and the Dodgers begins at 7:00 at Wrigley Field in Chicago. These two series feature four teams that aren’t regulars mainstays in making it this far into the postseason, thus making the matchups far more interesting than expected. This year there is no San Francisco, Boston, Kansas City, Saint Louis or New York; this year, we start from scratch, as the Cubs and Blue Jays were the only teams to advance past the divisional series a year ago.

ALCS Game 1: Toronto Blue Jays vs. Cleveland Indians 7:00 on TBS

At the beginning of the year if someone was to tell me that the Cleveland Indians (or “Win-dians, as they are now affectionately referred to as) would make the ALCS as a 2 seed, I would have told them that they are out of there mind. To me, I see the Cleveland Indians as the Donald Trump of baseball: how did they get to the stage where they are at now? When you analyze their roster deeper, however, it is easy to see. With strong pitching throughout the regular season–and now the postseason–from Trevor Bauer, Corey Kluber, Josh Tomlin and Andrew Miller, the Indians mostly kept the opposing team’s bats at bay. On the offensive side, the Indians have been racking up hits from players such as Jason Kipnis, Mike Napoli, Francisco Lindor and Lonnie Chisenhall.

As you can tell, the Indians didn’t need to be lucky in order to be at the spot they received. They proved in the regular season and the ALDS that they are serious contenders. They ran away with the AL Central title beating out the second place Tigers by eight games and were the number two seed in the AL behind the Texas Rangers. In the ALDS they made a statement to the Red Sox, beating them three games to none. Now they are four games away from calling themselves AL champions and having a ticket to the World Series. Terry Francona, manager of the Indians has had some experience in the playoffs with the Boston Red Sox and now he needs to shed some light on this young team if they want a shot beating the red-hot Toronto Blue Jays. Perhaps this is finally the year for Cleveland…in more ways than one. 

Out of the four teams to make it to the league championship series, the Toronto Blue Jays were one of the two teams that was able to repeat their appearance. They faced up against the Kansas City Royals last year only to lose that series in six games. They are hungry for a title and they are hotter than they have ever been as a team. After a thrilling walk-off win in the Wild Card game over the Orioles in extra innings, the Blue Jays had to face the daunting task of playing the number one seed in the AL, the Texas Rangers. Last year the two teams faced off against each other in the NDLS. It is safe to say that after the Jays concluded the series with a win that they would become instant rivals.

In their first regular season matchup of the season Jose Bautista, who had an epic bat-flip that sparked a conflict in the NLDS series last year, slid into second base trying to take out the second basemen Rougned Odor to break up a double play. Odor took this action as a threat by Bautista. When Bautista got up, Rougned Odor delivered a huge punch to him in the face resulting in the benches clearing from both sidesA close up of a baseball player holding a bat. The positive out of the situation was one of the best pictures in sports of 2016. In the present, these two teams hate–and will continue to hate–each other’s guts. No punches were thrown in this series, but the Jays did beat up the Rangers the best way they could. In the first game in Texas, the Jays won a dominant blowout with the final score being 10-1. The following day they won 5-3, then completed the sweep at home with a walk off win. They made the number one seed Texas Rangers look like a lowly competitor. The Jays have their eyes set on making their next victim the Cleveland Indians. Toronto’s regular season was not necessarily an improvement from last year when they won the division. They had there ups and downs and clinched a Wild Card berth on the final day of the MLB regular season. With a similar roster from last year’s, the Jays bats definitely define their team. Up and down their lineup you will find power hitters who specialize in the deep ball: Josh Donaldson, Jose Bautista, Troy Tulowitzki and Edwin Encarnacion are all pitcher’s nightmares. Three of those five players have a batting average over .400 in the postseason.

On the defensive end, the Jays have ace pitchers such as Marco Estrada, Marcus Stroman and Aaron Sanchez. With a strong defense behind the Jays, opposing teams may find it hard to score against them. One other thing, the Jays may have the best fans in baseball, or at least the best fans of the remaining teams in baseball. Never have I heard louder fans during a postseason game telecast. The Rogers Centre is a large stadium that is also used for Toronto’s Canadian football team so it can seat many fans. One fan went so far once that he threw his beer onto the field when a player from the Orioles was trying to make a catch during the Wild Card game. It’s safe to say that the Indians will need to win the majority of their home games in this series if they want to head to the world series.

Both teams are 3-0 in the playoffs squaring off for the first time since August 21. Cleveland has won four games against the Jays this year opposed to the Jays who have only won 3 against the Indians. Neither team will blow out the other in this potential seven game series. I believe that by the end of the series the Toronto Blue Jays will be popping champagne in celebrating their first World Series berth since the early 90’s. I think their lineup is stronger than the Indians in most spots and the experience factor from last year will come into play as well. The series will go six games, most of them nail-biters.

Verdict: Blue Jays in 6

 

NLCS Game 1: Los Angeles Dodgers vs. Chicago Cubs 7:00 on FS1

Last years NLCS was a nightmare for Cubs’ fans. Similar to the previous MLB season, fans were getting their hopes up about a World Series title. The Mets got the best of them in every single game, eventually winning the series 4-0. Now the Cubs have a chance to turn the tables on the Los Angeles Dodgers to try and get back to the World Series for the first time since 1945. This isn’t just about the Cubs, though. The Dodgers haven’t made it back or won the Fall Classic since 1988. Regardless of the outcome, history will be made.

The Cubs are officially back in the NLCS, this time against a new opponent. Last year was a mess. I had never seen such high hopes crash and burn like they did last year. Now, the Cubs have experience and know what it feels like to get beat. They hope not to make the same mistake they made last year. What’s different, however, is that the Cubs are coming off one of their best seasons ever as a franchise at 103-58. The Cubs have been strong all around the field and have a better resume than any other team that is competing for the commissioner’s trophy. They have it all; offensively they have power blended with players who have no trouble getting base-knocks. Their strength as an offense is not just centered around Kris Bryant and Anthony Rizzo, but rather the Cubs have stars this year that have been continually getting on base along with delivering in the clutch. One of these aforementioned blossoming stars is Javier Baez. Baez’s swing is a thing of beauty and power. If he got a pitch that he liked in the regular season, he would take a massive hack on the ball. If he got all of it, chances are that you would be searching for his ball out on Waveland Ave. Baez also hit the lone home run of Game 1 of the NLDS, giving the Cubs a 1-0 victory. Players like Ben Zobrist, Wilson Contreras, Addison Russell and others have also been consistent hitters throughout the course of the season. Also a unique feature to the Cubs is the fact that they have pitchers who can rake. The pitchers alone have had a total of six RBI’s in the NLDS. Who knows, maybe even Jon Lester will get in on some of the offensive action on Saturday night. The Cubs’ defense has also been hot, especially in the infield. All four infielders (Rizzo, Zobrist, Russell, Bryant) were starters in the MLB All Star Game. In addition, when ether Russell or Zobrist aren’t playing, Javier Baez gets some action at shortstop, his natural position. Baez has been heating up defensively as well, making some slick tags at second when a runner attempts to steal while also making plays that seemed impossible from the 2nd base position. He is making out to be the star of the playoffs for the Cubs.

Joe Maddon could not have asked for better pitchers in his pitching staff. The top tier starters consist of Kyle Hendricks and Jon Lester who had the first and second lowest ERAs this regular season. Following those two pitchers in Maddon’s typical rotation comes last year’s Cy Young Award winner, Jake Arrieta. Behind Arrieta is John Lackey, who has the most postseason experience out of any active starter in the majors. The Cubs’ bullpen isn’t half bad either. Travis Wood has proven to be a reliable go-to source along with Justin Grimm and, of course, Aroldis Chapman, who averages a 100 mph pitch, is a good door slammer in the 9th. The Cubs have all around talent giving them a high probability of continuing to roll in this MLB postseason. Also, did I forget to mention that the two NL MVP frontrunners are Kris Bryant and Anthony Rizzo? It’s just that type of year for the Cubs.

As easy as it can be to get ahead of ourselves, the Dodgers will be no cakewalk. Just like the Cubs, there is a credible reason why the Dodgers made it to the point where they are at today. The Dodgers won the NL West over the Giants by four games and entered the playoffs as the number three seed. The Dodgers had to get through the Nationals to earn their spot in the NLDS after trailing in the series 2-1. In that series, they went home to Dodger Stadium and beat the Nationals late in the game to force a pivotal game five in our nation’s capital. After trailing early, the Dodgers’ bats began to click. Joc Pederson homered in the seventh was followed by a Carlos Ruiz single to score Austin Barnes, then Justin Turner doubled to score two more. In the ninth, Dodgers manager Dave Roberts decided to have his ace starting pitcher, Clayton Kershaw, close for first time in his professional career. The plan was a success and the Dodgers moved on to the NLCS with some momentum. The Dodgers rotation isn’t as solid as the Cubs rotation is. Their two best pitchers are ex-Cub Rich Hill and Clayton Kershaw. Their bullpen consists of some younger guys who have had an up and down season like. Guys like Joe Blanton and Grant Dayton. Their closer, Kenley Jansen, is a decent closer although not a big name in the league just yet. He had 47 saves on the season with a 1.83 ERA, proving his worth late in the ball game. Offensively, players like Adrian Gonzalez, Carlos Ruiz, Justin Turner, Joc Pederson, Chase Utley and potential NL Rookie of the Year Corey Seager come to mind. Pederson has a lot of experience with the long ball and has delivered some clutch hits over the course of the 2016 regular and postseason. Corey Seager has had a fantastic rookie year and has owned one of the highest averages on the team and will be a threat to the Cubs. Seager also has a terrific glove at shortstop. The Dodgers have the potential to upset the Cubs, but they will need every single player to step up and have a fantastic NLCS.

This series I am not expecting to go long. I am predicting the Cubs to win the series in five games. In comparing the teams, it is tough to see the Dodgers’ level of skill equaling the level of talent the Cubs boast. It won’t be necessarily easy for the Cubs to beat the Dodgers, but I do believe that they will have some extra resting time before the beginning of the World Series.

Verdict: Cubs in 5

Four teams are now remaining for a chance to win the world series, one of which is from our city. The league championship series hype will be real. All four of the teams haven’t seen the World Series in quite some time and now one of them will have a chance to raise the trophy. This will be one of the most unique, competitive league championship series from recent memory. The time is now. Who will be moving on? We will be learning that quite shortly.