Four teams are one step closer to October glory. Four teams are already heading home. After each Wild Card series ended in a sweep, we can gather some conclusions about these teams. There’s nothing like playoff baseball and it’s just getting started.
Five Notes from the Wild Card Round
Twins’ Historic Victory
The Minnesota Twins were mired in a historic playoff losing streak. Just a few short days ago, it was not even a guarantee that Royce Lewis or Carlos Correa would be healthy to start Game 1. Nevertheless, they ended up being pivotal parts of the Twins first playoff win in eighteen tries. Beyond the stats and key highlights, it was a fascinating atmosphere to hear the Minnesota faithful erupt in cheers and chant the players’ names.
The Twins’ pitching and defense was excellent in this series. In Game 1, Pablo Lopez went 5 2/3 innings while allowing one run. It was not his most dominant start, with two walks and three strikeouts, but it was good enough to win a playoff game. The Toronto Blue Jays would strand nine runners, largely thanks to a solid bullpen contribution, as well.
In Game 2, Sonny Gray excelled in his first playoff start since 2017. It was another hallmark moment. A franchise searching for playoff success. A player with a good career who had gone far too long without the opportunity to prove himself in the postseason. Gray relies heavily on his breaking ball offerings and he worked five excellent, shutout innings. He only allowed two hard-hit balls all night while racking up six strikeouts. The Blue Jays showcased good patience on his breaking balls throughout the game, but Gray was able to bait just enough swing-and-misses and found well-placed strikes to triumph over Toronto.
There were several marquee moments that will forever live in Twins’ lore. In Game 1, the red-hot rookie Royce Lewis continued his memorable season with two home runs… in his first two career postseason at-bats. After such a long journey to the majors, Lewis is thriving as one of the best hitters on the roster. The closing game saw their major free agent acquisition, Carlos Correa, perform in the playoffs, just like they drew it up when they brought him in. Correa drove in the first run in Game 2 and combined with Gray for an exceptional pickoff play to escape a dangerous situation.
The bullpen deserves plenty of credit, too. Louie Varland, Caleb Thielbar, Griffin Jax, and Jhoan Duran appeared in both games, combining for 6 1/3 shutout innings. The Twins’ offense only scored five runs in the series, but that’s all you need when your pitching is clicking like this.
Where Do the Blue Jays Go?
Toronto’s season felt like a disappointment for much of the year. An offense with plenty of firepower felt more like it had to scrape across runs. The Blue Jays’ pitching needed to be perfect to pull out a win. It was not.
In Game 2, the only Twins’ runs came off an awkward situation when the Blue Jays decided to pull Jose Berrios for Yusei Kikuchi, despite Berrios only sitting at 47 pitches. Berrios had walked the leadoff batter, Royce Lewis, but apparently, that was enough. Whatever matchups the Blue Jays had planned out, it was obviously a decision that would receive heavy scrutiny if it backfired. Oh, boy…
Kikuchi allowed a single, walk, and single to allow the first run. A double play got the second run across the plate. And for a flailing Toronto offense, the deficit was too much. The story wasn’t much better in Game 1. Kevin Gausman, their ace, struggled through four innings while allowing three runs, including three walks and two home runs.
The Blue Jays’ woes with runners on base endured. They went 2-9 with runners in scoring position in Game 1, leaving nine runners on base. In Game 2, they went 1-5 with RISP and stranded nine runners. This lineup might look drastically different next year. Brandon Belt might not return. Kevin Kiermaier and Matt Chapman are free agents. Whit Merrifield has a mutual option for 2024. For a lineup with so much potential, it was never realized in 2023.
Phillies are Firing
The reigning National League champions are on to Atlanta. The Philadelphia Phillies dominated the Miami Marlins with a complete team performance. Their 1-2 combo of Aaron Nola and Zach Wheeler looked like a lethal combination that should scare any team that, at points this season, didn’t seem to be the case.
In Game 1, Zach Wheeler finished with a line of 6 2/3 innings, only allowing one run on five hits. He was mowing down the Marlins lineup with eight strikeouts as he generated 18 swing-and-misses. Wheeler had a 35% called strikes plus whiff rate. The Marlins struggled to get a read on his sweeper, missing on two-thirds of the time they swung at the pitch.
Aaron Nola enjoyed a sterling start of his own. Over seven shutout innings, Nola relied on his knuckle curve to work through Miami’s lineup. He threw the pitch 35 times in 88 total pitches, inducing an average exit velocity of 83.4 MPH. Just a quick question, when are we allowed to throw out the regular season? Nola had a 4.46 ERA in the regular season. His final few starts were much more promising. Atlanta is a dangerous roster, but the Phillies’ path back to a postseason looks a lot easier with Wheeler and Nola dealing like this.
The lineup received contributions seemingly from everyone on offense. Trea Turner continued his late-season renaissance with a vintage performance in Game 1. He finished 2-for-3 in the game with a walk, including a double and two stolen bases. Turner went 2-for-4 in the series finale with another double.
Nick Castellanos hit two doubles in the first game as Philadelphia had a total of 11 hits. Bryson Stott had a signature moment with a grand slam to put Game 2 out of reach. Stott had an incredible season and is poised for even more. The Braves will be a tougher test than Miami. But if you ask the Phillies? They’ll be feeling pretty good about their chances.
Are the Diamondbacks Legit Contenders?
Two comeback victories and one resounding sweep over the Milwaukee Brewers. Are the Arizona Diamondbacks a threat in the National League, right now? They are a team on the rise, but it’s fair to wonder how far they can push this season.
The Brewers were missing Brandon Woodruff, but they still rolled out Corbin Burnes and Freddy Peralta. That’s a daunting combo for any team, especially one like Arizona that stumbled on offense for, oh, three months or so. But the D-Backs launched three home runs off Burnes, including Corbin Carroll‘s first career postseason hit. Peralta only allowed three hard-hits in his start, but Arizona rallied in the sixth inning with a walk, double, and a single to knock Peralta from the game. Reliever Abner Uribe couldn’t limit the damage as the Diamondbacks jumped to a 5-2 lead.
The most pressing concern for Arizona is their pitching. They pulled off a highwire act in Game 1 with Brandon Pfaadt on the mound since Zac Gallen and Merrill Kelly were needed to even qualify for the postseason. Now, Pfaadt is an interesting young pitcher who could blossom in the future. But a 5.72 ERA is not very flattering for your Game 1 starter in the playoffs. Pfaadt allowed three runs in 2 2/3 innings before being pulled.
The Brewers’ offense has its own struggles, though, and Arizona’s bullpen finished the rest of the game without allowing a single run. With that miraculous victory, the Diamondbacks were able to bring out their own Cy Young-caliber pitcher.
Gallen received the start for the potential clincher, and that he did. The Brewers taxed Gallen early with small ball and tough at-bats. In the first inning, the Brewers had three singles, a stolen base, and a sacrifice fly to take a 2-0 lead over Arizona. Gallen had 32 pitches after just that one inning. The rest of Gallen’s start was much more reminiscent of what he had seen in the regular season. He did not have his best swing-and-miss stuff, but he forced several key double plays and only allowed one runner in scoring position after that first inning.
The Diamondbacks will need more than just Gallen and Kelly to win this postseason. It seems wild to just say they will have more of those stunning bullpen games, even after Arizona relievers had a 2.31 ERA in September (their FIP was 3.66). The offense showcased the ability to jump on another team’s top pitchers. If Gallen and Kelly are up to the task, is it possible they could go on a run?
Wild, Wild West
The Texas Rangers simply outclassed the Tampa Bay Rays in an easy sweep. The Rangers outscored Tampa Bay 11-1 over the series. There were plenty of offensive heroes, but that should be expected for this lineup. The pitching performance was the most encouraging breakthrough in this series.
Jordan Montgomery was stellar in Game 1 with seven shutout innings, proving he is very much a playoff-caliber pitcher. In the series-winning game, Nate Eovaldi showcased the most promising stuff we had seen in weeks. Eovaldi allowed one run over 6 2/3 innings, but he was decimating the Rays’ lineup with his splitter and curveball. He had a 32% called strike plus whiff rate and his velocity was better than in recent starts. His fastball was averaging 93.6 and 92.9 MPH on September 19 and 24, respectively. In his final regular season start and this postseason start, it averaged 94.9 MPH. Eovaldi was an outstanding pitcher for much of the season, so this recent bounce back is encouraging as the Rangers look to Eovaldi for what hopes to be many more starts this October.
The offense was mesmerizing in their own right. Corey Seager, the keystone and face of this Rangers’ turnaround, went 4-for-8 with two walks. The rookies Josh Jung and Evan Carter displayed their growth with Carter even mashing his first postseason home run to put the Rangers up by four runs early in Game 2.
This is a momentous opportunity for a franchise that went all-in on breaking out of a rebuild and becoming a competitor. They are receiving massive contributions from their star free agents and their Amazon Prime’d rotation. Several rookies are coming into their own as the Rangers now head to Baltimore for what will surely be a thrilling Division Series between two teams that have changed the direction of their franchises.
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