Why you should care

Baseball’s postseason has finally arrived. Who will make — or break — your team’s chances in October?

Can you feel it? That crisp fall breeze heralds the return of the MLB postseason. Does it get any better than this?

Yes, the MLB season is a grueling, 162-game exercise in attention span, but baseball’s postseason is quite the opposite. Come October, excess adrenaline drips off every pitch. The flaws of the regular season — the slow pace of play, one-on-one battles between the pitcher and batter — only amplify playoff tension. After the most exciting MLB regular season in recent memory, the 2018 postseason should be a thriller.

We’ve come a long way from the New York Mets’ torrid 11–1 start. And while the Metropolitans sank back to irrelevance, their neighbors in the Bronx rose to new heights. Not to be outdone by the Yankees, the Boston Red Sox controlled the American League East from start to finish. In fact, Boston won the most games of any team since 2001. Elsewhere, the Houston Astros look ready to defend their 2017 World Series title, Oakland caught fire out West, Atlanta reminded the Southeast what winning feels like and the National League Central was a fight from start to finish. With such a deep pool of contenders, this postseason looks up for grabs. Here’s what to watch for.

Underrated AL East Outfielders

Are Brett Gardner (Yankees) and Jackie Bradley Jr. (Red Sox) the best players on their clubs? Far from it. But each could provide a necessary spark for a World Series run. With the late-season addition of former MVP Andrew McCutchen to New York’s outfield, Gardner is no guarantee to even start in the AL Wild Card game. Regardless, the longest-tenured Yankee will make an impact as a pinch hitter and defensive replacement. Gardner may not have the same power as in years past, but he has manager Aaron Boone’s trust. In the postseason, that matters.

Meanwhile, betting against Boston is a fool’s errand. But, at some point, the Sox will run into trouble. Boston’s bats will go cold for a game or two. When that happens, the club will turn to Jackie Bradley Jr. on defense. No outfielder covers as much ground and defends as terrific a center field as Bradley. At Fenway Park, where the field dimensions terrorize outfielders, Bradley’s defense is the ace up Boston’s sleeve.

Starting Pitchers in Relief

In 2014, San Francisco Giants starter Madison Bumgarner redefined pitching heroics by coming on in relief to shut out Kansas City for five innings in Game 7 of the World Series. Today, starters–turned–postseason relievers are a regular occurrence.

Houston’s Charlie Morton dominated out of the pen in Game 7 last year. In 2016, the Chicago Cubs’ Jon Lester did the same. This year, don’t be surprised to see stars like Clayton Kershaw (Dodgers), Trevor Bauer (Indians) and Chris Sale (Red Sox) follow suit. With less room for error in the playoffs, starting pitchers are on a shorter leash. In fact, the overall percentage of relief innings last season rose from 39.1 in the regular season to 46.5 in the playoffs. In total, 25 starters worked in relief during last year’s playoffs. With the stakes high and more work for bullpens, managers will go with a trusted ace whenever possible. “[Starting pitcher] Lance McCullers will play a huge role for Houston out of the bullpen,” says former pitcher turned MLB on TBS analyst Ron Darling. Given the uncertainty of Chicago’s bullpen, so too could José Quintana, Cole Hamels and Lester. And keep an eye on Colorado’s Kyle Freeland. His 1.78 ERA through the first three innings is fourth in MLB.

Speaking of Bullpens …

The Astros only had the opportunity to turn the ball over to Morton in Game 7 because the rest of the bullpen took them there. As is the tradition in the postseason, bullpens will be paramount. Boston is loaded; best of luck to any lineup visiting Fenway Park in chilly October. Houston has a proven bullpen and replaced last year’s closer, Ken Giles, with the terrific, controversial Roberto Osuna. The Cubs’ bullpen is a scattered mess, and the Milwaukee Brewers … well, does Milwaukee even have a pitching staff?

But the most intriguing bullpen situation comes by way of the Bronx. Aroldis Chapman, the flamethrower who won a World Series with Chicago in 2016, still has to prove his reliability as New York’s closer this postseason. So where does Boone look instead? David Robertson, Dellin Betances and Zach Britton are all options. “That’s Boone’s biggest decision to make this week,” says Darling, noting the closer only matters if the rest of the pitching staff holds up. “[Yankees middle reliever] Jonathan Holder could be the most important pitcher if whoever Boone starts in the Wild Card game falters.”

The Breakout Brewers

The Cubs maintain the upper hand in this division rivalry until the Brewers best them in the playoffs, but this team is for real. Christian Yelich is a bona fide star who should win NL MVP, Jesus Aguilar is as dangerous a hitter as any in the National League, and Lorenzo Cain and Ryan Braun are experienced veterans leading the way. Oh, and they have Mike Moustakas.

Meanwhile, Kris Bryant, the Cubs’ 2016 World Series MVP, is nowhere near his healthy self, the bullpen can implode at any minute, and their shortstop is currently on leave from the club as MLB investigates allegations of domestic abuse against him. If that mixture equals postseason longevity, I’d be shocked.

Milwaukee is a real threat to win the NL pennant, but it needs a catalyst. “We know what Yelich can do,” says Mark DeRosa, former Big Leaguer–turned–MLB Network analyst. “But pennant winners need role players to step up. The postseason is the biggest stage to make a name for yourself.” Look for third baseman Travis Shaw, currently enjoying the best season of his life, to be that guy. Shaw will see pitches to hit in this lineup, and he has the power — 32 home runs, 86 RBI — to change a game.

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