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Thursday, June 20, 2024
The Observer

MLB Wild Card Weekend Preview

They’re all in line, we’re ready for the start. A dozen teams are set to compete for a World Series title, bringing the 2022 MLB season to a dramatic close. It all begins this weekend with eight Wild Card teams playing as many as twelve games in three days. These best-of-three series will set the stage for the division series round, as the top two teams in each league await, enjoying a first-round bye. Here’s the tale of the tape for the postseason’s first four matchups.

American League

No. 6 Tampa Bay Rays at No. 3 Cleveland Guardians

Without question, Tampa and Cleveland are the most overlooked playoff teams in the league. The Rays have weathered an AL East with four 83-plus-win teams, securing a fourth consecutive playoff berth. With outfielder Randy Arozarena being the only player with at least 60 RBI (89), Tampa’s offense employs a next-man-up mentality that is well-suited for the postseason. On the mound, the sixth seed is led by All-Star starting pitcher Shane McClanahan, who pitched to a 2.54 ERA overall but an alarming 7.07 ERA in his last three starts. His performance and the effort of his fellow rotation pieces will be a difference-maker for the series.

Cleveland is back in the postseason for the fifth time in seven years. The AL Central champions boast a roster with minimal playoff experience, yet their 22-5 record to end the season indicates a readiness for the big moment. Third baseman Jose Ramírez (126 RBI) leads an offense that won’t hit many home runs but will attack with a barrage of walks, singles and doubles. The Guardians have a strikingly high ceiling due to their pitching staff. Shane Bieber, Triston McKenzie and Cal Quantrill, who will start the Wild Card series, each has an ERA below 3.40. Behind them, Emmanuel Clase has been the best closer in baseball, recording a major league-best 42 saves. Cleveland went 4-2 against the Rays in the regular season.

No. 5 Seattle Mariners at No. 4 Toronto Blue Jays

In 2021, Seattle and Toronto were each eliminated from playoff contention on the season’s final day. In 2022, they meet as two of the hungriest postseason teams imaginable. The Mariner offense has leveled up thanks to slugging infielders Ty France and Eugenio Suárez (171 combined RBI), star rookie outfielder Julio Rodriguez (28 HR, 25 SB) and surprise power-hitting catcher Cal Raleigh (27 HR). The bats have struggled to uphold consistency, however, and the same can be said for the pitching staff. Seattle has owned the Jays this year, taking five out of seven regular season matchups, including a four-game sweep in mid-July.

Toronto has enjoyed plentiful success down the stretch, amassing four different three-game win streaks since the dawning of September. The Blue Jays, yielding one of the league’s most fearsome lineups, lead MLB with a .264 team batting average. Six of Toronto’s seven double-digit home run-hitters have a batting average of .260 or higher, helping the Jays to a multi-dimensional attack. The question mark lies within their league-average pitching staff. Number one starting pitcher Alek Manoah is as reliable as anyone, but the arms surrounding him must step up to take pressure off the hitters.

National League

No. 6 Philadelphia Phillies at No. 3 St. Louis Cardinals

For Phillies fans, the eleven-year wait between playoff appearances is over. The Phils walked anything but a straight path in the second half, but they found their way to October. Outfielder Kyle Schwarber has cranked 46 long balls to pace a powerful group of hitters, but pitching depth is a clear concern. The Phillies have carved out three surefire starters in Aaron Nola, Zack Wheeler and Ranger Suárez, yet there isn’t much to back them up. The bullpen is especially suspect, as Philly has by far the worst relief ERA among postseason qualifiers. Philadelphia went 4-3 against St. Louis this year, with five of the matchups being decided by two runs or less.

The storybook season has reached its final chapter in St. Louis. Over the last six months, the Cardinals have celebrated the 18-year career of starting pitcher Adam Wainwright, enjoyed the final season of legendary catcher Yadier Molina and watched future Hall-of-Famer Albert Pujols belt his 700th home run. They also have the likely NL MVP in first baseman Paul Goldschmidt. St. Louis has been arguably the most consistent of the Wild Card teams, with a fundamentally sound offense and reliable pitching staff. Their playoff success will likely depend on their ability to match other teams when they heat up. The Redbirds are looking to get over the hump in this era of contention, having gone 4-8 in the last three postseasons.

No. 5 San Diego Padres at No. 4 New York Mets

This time a year ago, San Diego was reeling from an epic second-half collapse. 2022 was kinder to the Friars, as they now head to the Big Apple with hopes for a massive upset. New York pitches incredibly well, but San Diego offers a worthy counterattack with proven veterans Yu Darvish, Blake Snell and Joe Musgrove filling out the rotation. To reach the Division Series for the second time in three years, the Padres will need trade deadline acquisitions Juan Soto and Josh Bell to return to superstar form. Third baseman Manny Machado (32 HR, 102 RBI) has carried the offense all year, but he can only bear the weight for so long without elite protection. San Diego handled the Mets comfortably in the regular season, taking four out of six head-to-head matchups.

New York is back in the dance for the first time since 2016, but not on the terms they were looking for. Atlanta made a late surge to capture the NL East, forcing the Mets into this weekend as the best Wild Card team record-wise. The Mets' three-man rotation of Max Scherzer, Jacob deGrom and Chris Bassitt instills fear unlike any other, yet each of them delivered subpar performances in their most crucial starts last weekend. New York’s offense, much like Toronto’s, is reliable and combines high levels of power, contact and discipline. Therefore, the outcome of the series lies in how much the Padres’ big bats and Mets’ big arms can tap back into their potential.