The 2021 Major League Baseball playoff field is set, with the Wild Card round to be played Tuesday (AL) & Wednesday (NL), as the format reverts to where it was in 2019, pre-COVID.
American League Wild Card: Yankees @ Boston:
ESPN-Disney suits couldn't be happier with this match-up, as the ancient rivals will hook it up one final time in 2021. Boston had the upper hand earlier in the year, but momentum is on the side of the Bronx Bombers. Boston could be without outfielder-DH (and ex-Tri-City Valleycat) J. D. Martinez, due to an injury sustained over the weekend.
The downside is that the winner will have to play division rival Tampa Bay, the defending AL champion & top seed. While Toronto was the sexy pick this season, they faded down the stretch as the Yanks & Rays enjoyed a second half resurgence. Weather will also be a factor, because rain may well be in the forecast across New York for most of the week. At least it won't be snow.
Don't be surprised, then, if this game doesn't end until sometime after midnight (ET), because these two teams have the pacing of racing icebergs.
National League Wild Card: St. Louis @ Los Angeles.
The Dodgers' run of NL West titles was stopped by San Francisco, which hasn't won a World Series in 7 years. The defending World champs would get one more go with the Giants if they get past St. Louis, which is experiencing a resurgence of its own.
Headlines this morning noted injuries to two key Dodgers, particularly ace pitcher and Hankook Tire pitchman Clayton Kershaw, and infielder Max Muncy. Muncy has been playing first base most of the season, and his injury opens the door for ex-Cardinal & Angel Albert Pujols to try to knock his original club out of the playoffs, with a goal of winning one more title before retiring. Kershaw has had some injury issues this season, and then, you factor in the controversy surrounding Trevor Bauer, which ended his season prematurely, and likely terminated his Dodger career.
This is exactly why Nolan Arenado landed in St. Louis as a free agent, after spending his career in Colorado prior to this season. With Arenado & Paul Goldschmidt bookending the infield, the Cardinals could end the Dodgers' latest dynasty. Uh, no.
Pick: Los Angeles.
American League Division Series (starts Thursday):
Chicago @ Houston:
In 2005, the White Sox defeated the Astros to win the World Series. Of course, back then, the Astros were in the NL, but that all changed a few years later.
The key storyline for Chicago is whether or not the old master, Tony LaRussa, can take the ChiSox back to the promised land 16 years after that title run. Houston has more than recovered from the cheating scandal that tarnished their title run four years ago, but the albatross is in their dugout. Dusty Baker's teams haven't gotten out of the first round in seemingly forever (Cubs, Reds).
Pick: Chicago in 5.
Yankees @ Tampa Bay:
The other AL East war of attrition continues, and along with it, the bad blood spilling over from past hostilities between the two teams. Granted, we can say the same thing if it's Boston @ Tampa.
But, the Tampa Bay-St. Petersburg area has been a hotbed of champions lately. The Rays nearly won their first World Series last year, but for the Dodgers. After that, the Bucs (Super Bowl) and Lightning (Stanley Cup) won titles, so now, it's on Kevin Cash to take the Rays back to the World Series for the 2nd straight year. Keep in mind, this is a team that let their best pitcher in 2020 walk (Blake Snell to San Diego), and one of their best hitters, Hunter Renfroe, went to Boston. Those key personnel changes were why the Rays were picked to miss the playoffs this year by this desk seven months ago.
Pick: Yankees in 5.
National League Division Series (starts Friday):
Atlanta @ Milwaukee:
You can call this the Hank Aaron Memorial Series, considering what the Hall of Famer did for both cities during his career (finished with the Brewers).
The Brewers need Christian Yelich's bat to finally wake up. Hasn't fully recovered from an injury plagued 2020 season. The Braves now have a fan club chapter in the 518 with pitcher Ian Anderson (Shenendehowa) finding his groove just in time for the playoffs. A starting staff of Anderson, Charlie Morton, Hruscar Ynoa, and Drew "Guy" Smyly may be just enough for Atlanta.
Pick: Braves in 4.
Los Angeles @ San Francisco:
Another ancient rivalry, one whose roots are in NYC, could resume, and it'll go the distance. Dave Roberts has to hope he can have Muncy & Kershaw back for this series. Otherwise, we'll see a new champion crowned at the end of the month.
After being pedestrian in Baltimore and Atlanta, Kevin Gausman became the Giants' ace this season, coming out of nowhere. Gabe Kapler, in his 2nd season in San Francisco, is making Philadelphia look like chumps for dumping him two years ago. It'll be even worse if he goes all the way.
Pick: San Francisco in 5.
Of course, I could be wrong.