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As the calendar approaches September, the Major League Baseball playoff picture is starting to take shape. A nightmare season for Red Sox fans has been a sweet dream for fans of low-payroll teams like the Royals and Brewers. Here’s one fan’s view of how the rest of the season will shake out.
Only the East divisions seem locked up. The Nationals will hold the Braves off without breaking a sweat and the Orioles, despite a rough weekend, should be in the clear. Manny Machado’s season-ending injury won’t do Baltimore any favors, but the mediocrity of the teams chasing them will. The Rays might be the best team in the division, but they won’t make up 10 games with 30 to play.
The Central divisions are both up for grabs. Kansas City has used the league’s best defense and a great bullpen to build a small lead over Detroit. It’s been a fun summer for fans of the Royals and opponents of the hegemony that’s ruled baseball for so many years, but I think Detroit’s rotation, especially with David Price on board, is too good to lose the division, despite the leaky bullpen.
The National League Central is likely to see a change at the top as well, with the Cardinals finally kicking into gear and perhaps ready to put the Brewers in their dust. Milwaukee has surprised me by sticking around all season and their lineup is for real, but with starters Kyle Lohse and Matt Garza nursing injuries, it may be time for a minor fade. John Lackey and Justin Masterson have struggled since their acquisition, but should strengthen the Cardinals’ pitching down the stretch.
The National League West is only interesting when the Giants are streaking, which they’ve done on several occasions this year despite falling far short of the Dodgers in payroll and talent. Clayton Kershaw aside, Los Angeles' pitching has fallen flat recently, giving the Giants a bit of an opening, but I see the Southern California nine pulling away again soon.
By run differential, the American League West is home to three of the four best teams in all of baseball. The race between the Angels and A’s will be baseball’s best story in September, and the Mariners won’t let either team forget about them. In the end, pitching will be the difference, as the A’s will take advantage of July acquisitions Jeff Samardzija and Jon Lester, while the Angels will miss their fallen ace, Garrett Richards.
The Wild Card may be an unwanted consolation prize for the Angels, who could win 95 games and still have to face Felix Hernandez in one game to determine their 2014 fate. For the Mariners, that would be a dream scenario, as it means they’ll have held off the Royals and several lesser contenders for the last playoff spot, their first in over a decade. Any one baseball game is a toss-up, but I see the Angels overcoming King Felix and advancing to the Divisional Round.
One National League Wild Card spot seems ticketed for whoever finishes second in the Central division. I’m guessing that’s the Brewers, and that they’ll draw the Giants in the play-in game. The Braves and Pirates seem evenly matched with the Giants, so San Francisco’s slight lead at the moment is enough for me to guess they’ll survive. I also see the Giants beating the Brewers, mostly because they’ve had a knack for knocking off stronger teams in big games this decade and San Francisco has Madison Bumgarner, the best pitcher on either team.
In his worst season as a professional, Mike Trout still seems like a lock to win the AL MVP. Oakland’s Josh Donaldson and Kansas City’s Alex Gordon have reasonably strong cases, but Trout has solidified his reputation as the game’s best player and Miguel Cabrera hasn’t put up any shiny round numbers this year to distract the voters. Hernandez will stroll to the Cy Young Award, holding off Jon Lester, Chicago’s Chris Sale, and Cleveland’s Corey Kluber.
Clayton Kershaw will be a unanimous Cy Young winner in the National League, where the MVP race will go down to the wire, with Kershaw making a compelling case for voters who like to give both major awards to pitchers. Giancarlo Stanton has practically kept the Marlins on the fringe of the playoff hunt by himself, Andrew McCutchen continues to keep the Pirates relevant and Yasiel Puig is a walking highlight reel in Chavez Ravine. My pick for NL MVP would almost certainly be a Brewer, with catcher Jonathan Lucroy nosing out centerfielder Carlos Gomez, but I’m guessing the voters prefer Stanton, particularly if he tops 40 home runs.
It’s a fool’s errand to predict best-of-five and best-of-seven playoff series, but I rarely claim not to be a fool. The A’s and Angels will go the distance in a rivalry-defining series and Oakland will finally come out on top of a close playoff series, clubbing Angels pitching while their deep rotation keeps them in games. Detroit, meanwhile, will take advantage of Baltimore’s good-enough-for-the-regular-season rotation in a five-game dismantling.
In the National League, the Nationals will finally end San Francisco’s streak of winning every playoff series since Barry Bonds retired, outpitching the Giants over six games. St. Louis will upset the Dodgers in six games, both because the Dodgers are still waiting to become the dominant team it seems they should be and because that’s what the Cardinals do.
The American League Championship Series will be just the one fans have been clamoring for since both teams fortified their pitching at the trade deadline, and it won’t disappoint. Lester, Samardzija, Sonny Gray, and Scott Kazmir will hold off Price, Max Scherzer, Anibal Sanchez, and Rick Porcello in seven games, more than one of which will be decided by Detroit’s bullpen, which even the (formerly) great Justin Verlander can’t save.
The National League Championship Series will be less dramatic and more of a coming-out party for the NL’s best team, the Washington Nationals. Stephen Strasburg, Doug Fister, Jordan Zimmermann, and Gio Gonzalez or Tanner Roark will mow down Cardinals hitters much like Red Sox pitching did last fall, clinching a spot in their first World Series by Game Five.
The American League playoffs will be accompanied by much fanfare this October, with Oakland sweating out classic series against rivals new and kind-of new. Whoever emerges will be considered at least a slight favorite against the senior circuit’s entry. But as we’ve seen in recent years, being the favorite doesn’t mean much in a short baseball series and a look at the Nationals’ roster doesn’t exactly scream “underdog,” even if they do play in the lesser league. Bryce Harper and Anthony Rendon will hit enough to back their excellent rotation, and the Nats will follow the franchise’s first playoff series win with the city’s first baseball parade since 1924, when Walter Johnson and the Senators won their only title.
Bryan O’Connor lives with his wife and two baseball-loving kids in Cumberland. It’s been his pleasure complaining about the Red Sox in this forum all summer. Follow him on Twitter @replevel.