No stranger to October’s postseason pageantry and peril, Terry Francona feels the same heading into his 72nd playoff game as he did before his first 18 years ago with the Red Sox.
“I’ll be scared to death,” Cleveland’s manager said Thursday, only half-joking. “That’ll never change.”
He’s counting on fearlessness from his Guardians.
Baseball’s youngest team, which used a base-to-base approach to overtake Minnesota and Chicago to win the AL Central running away, gets its first taste of the playoffs Friday when the Guardians open the best-of-three wild-card round against the Tampa Bay Rays.
This is unfamiliar territory for many of Cleveland’s players, most of whom were in the minor leagues during the strange 2020 season when the team, then known as the Indians, was eliminated in the first round by the Yankees.
Nothing has fazed the Guardians this season, and Game 1 starter Shane Bieber, who will oppose Tampa Bay ace Shane McClanahan, doesn’t expect his teammates to be rattled while stepping onto a larger stage.
“It seems that nothing has been too big or too small for us this year,” he said. “I really don’t expect too much of a change within the clubhouse or on the field.”
Cleveland and Tampa Bay played six times during the regular season, with the Guardians going 4-2. Last week, the teams met in a three-game series that were all decided by one run, with two games going to extra innings.
For the Rays, the postseason has become almost secondhand. Tampa Bay is making its fourth consecutive appearance, and those experiences can only help when every ball, strike, and out becomes magnified.
Manager Kevin Cash, one of Francona’s closest friends, isn’t convinced his team’s familiarity playing fall ball gives his team a distinct advantage.
“Their guy has a lot more postseason experience than me,” Cash said with one of his many playful digs at Francona. “I think the culture Tito creates over there, whatever lack of experience they have, his players are going into this situation with a confident mindset.”
The Guardians’ offensive style goes against the grain of today’s game. It’s old-school by necessity with a premium on quality at-bats, making contact, advancing runners, or stealing. It’s worked and the Guardians, who went an MLB-best 24-6 after Sept. 4, plan to stick with it.
“When guys are constantly putting pressure on you by putting the ball in play, it presents challenges,” Cash said. “You’ve got to play really clean defensively when you’re not picking up strikeouts.”
Jays turn to brash Alek Manoah to kick off series with Seattle
There’s a whole lot riding on Alek Manoah’s first career playoff start, but the Toronto Blue Jays All-Star righthander isn’t the least bit fazed about facing the Seattle Mariners in Friday’s wild-card opener.
“My high school coach used to say pressure is something you put in your tires,” Manoah joked. “This is just baseball. It’s just a game. Just got to go out there, have some fun, and leave the pressure for your tires.”
Luis Castillo starts Game 1 for Seattle, making its first postseason appearance since 2001. The Mariners went 5-2 against Toronto this season.
Manoah was 16-7 with a 2.44 ERA in his second big league season, anchoring a rotation that also includes two righties with $100 million-plus contracts, Kevin Gausman and José Berríos.
Still, with his combination of performance and big game poise, Manoah was Toronto’s clear-cut choice to take the ball in the opener.
“It feels like he’s been ready for this moment since he signed,” interim Blue Jays manager John Schneider said of Manoah. “He lives for moments like this and embraces everything that comes with it, but still keeps the task at hand in the forefront. We’re excited for him to get us going.”
Gausman left his final start of the regular season because of a cut on his right index finger but threw a bullpen session Thursday.
“He’s doing great,” Blue Jays general manager Ross Atkins said. “We don’t expect it to limit him. We’re really encouraged by the recovery.”
Likewise, Mariners manager Scott Servais has reason to feel good about Castillo, who went 4-2 with a 3.17 ERA in 11 starts for Seattle after being acquired from Cincinnati at the trade deadline.
“I couldn’t be any more confident in sending anybody out there,” Servais said. “When you have a high-end guy like that, the fact that we traded for him, we just signed him to a long-term deal, it’s perfect timing.”
Short series looms for star-studded Padres, Mets
For two teams that finished second fiddle in their divisions, the Padres and Mets bring an awful lot of star power into the playoffs.
Manny Machado, Juan Soto, and Yu Darvish on the San Diego side. Max Scherzer, Jacob deGrom, and Francisco Lindor for New York — just to name a few.
A couple of baseball’s biggest spenders, one from each coast, primed to square off in a best-of-three National League wild-card series at Citi Field. Two wins earns a Division Series date with the powerhouse Dodgers.
“This is not playing the long game here. This is the short game,” Mets manager Buck Showalter said Thursday. “It’s a different time of the year.”
No doubt, both clubs feel the pressure and urgency that comes with knowing one bad weekend means the sudden end of a promising season filled with big expectations.
San Diego entered with eyes on winning the NL West and — even though Los Angeles ran away with the division title — the Padres stamped themselves World Series contenders by acquiring Soto and All-Star closer Josh Hader in a huge splash at the Aug. 2 trade deadline.
They didn’t take off on the tear some anticipated, but the Padres (89-73) won enough to earn the second NL wild card despite finishing 22 games behind the Dodgers.
Powered by Pete Alonso and big league batting champion Jeff McNeil at the plate, New York (101-61) sat atop the NL East for all but six days this season.
But even after leading by 10½ games on June 1 and seven on Aug. 10, the Mets were unable to hold off the Braves. The defending World Series champions snatched away their fifth straight division crown and a first-round playoff bye on the strength of a head-to-head sweep in Atlanta last weekend.
New York must shake off that major disappointment — fast.
“Yesterday’s news,” said Lindor, who set a career high with 107 RBIs as the Mets won the second-most games in franchise history. “We’ve got to focus on what’s in front of our feet.”
With a wide array of dancing pitches, Darvish (16-8, 3.10 ERA) has dominated the Mets and will start Game 1 against Scherzer (11-5, 2.29) in a marquee matchup.
More than a decade later, it’s Cardinals’ stars standing in Phillies way
The talented triumvirate of Albert Pujols, Yadier Molina, and Adam Wainwright helped power the St. Louis Cardinals past the Philadelphia Phillies in the divisional round of the playoffs, and ultimately to a World Series title.
A lot has happened since 2011, and not a lot of it good around Philadelphia, where the Phillies have had more losing seasons than winning ones and secured a wild-card spot earlier this week for their first return to the postseason.
The two clubs will meet again, 11 years after their last thrilling playoff showdown, set to play a best-of-three National League wild-card series at Busch Stadium. And wouldn’t you know it? Pujols, Molina, and Wainwright are still around, and each could have a starring role.
The team they’re taking into this postseason might be the best one yet: Nolan Arenado and Paul Goldschmidt will be getting plenty of MVP votes. The starting rotation, buoyed by the trade-deadline arrival of Game 1 starter Jose Quintana, has been solid. And the bullpen has been among the best in baseball.
“We’ve had a lot of different contributors throughout the year,” first-year manager Oliver Marmol said. “What our corner guys have done in Nolan and Goldy is unbelievable. They answer the bell every day, and without them we’re not here. You can go down the list. But what Albert has done has been remarkable.”
The Phillies are pretty remarkable, too. They were going nowhere when team president Dave Dombrowski fired manager Joe Girardi in June, replacing him with Rob Thomson. They were 23-29 and 5½ games out of the playoffs, despite a payroll pushing $237 million.
But with Bryce Harper, Kyle Schwarber, and JT Realmuto leading the offense, and a rotation featuring Aaron Nola and Game 1 starter Zack Wheeler shutting down hitters, only the Dodgers and Braves have better records in the NL since the soft-spoken Thomson took over.
“I feel a sense of pride for these players,” Thomson said. “We’re glad to be here but we’ve got more to go.”
Game times already down as MLB departs clock-less era
The average time of a nine-inning major league game dropped for the first time since 2018, likely helped by the introduction of the PitchCom electronic device to signal pitches. The average this season was 3 hours, 3 minutes, 44 seconds, down from a record 3:10:07 last year. MLB’s average was 2:46 in 2005 and 2:33 in 1981 . . . Higher velocity and increased shifts led to the major league batting average dropping to .243, its lowest since 1968. Defensive shifts and 100 mile-per-hour pitches set records this season, contributing to the worrisome offensive decline Major League Baseball is trying to address with the first restriction on shifts next year. The only seasons with lower averages than this year were the record low of .237 in 1968, along with 1967 and the deal-ball era seasons of 1884, 1888, and 1908. Luis Arraez’s .316 average for Minnesota was the lowest by an American League batting champion since Carl Yastrzemski hit .301 in 1968 . . . The 30 MLB teams drew nearly 64.6 million fans for the regular season that ended Wednesday, which is up from the 45.3 million who attended games in 2021, according to Baseball Reference. MLB attendance had been declining slowly for years — even before the pandemic — after hitting its high mark of 79.4 million in 2007. This year’s total is the fewest in a non-COVID-19 season since the sport expanded to 30 teams in 1998 . . . Use of Major League Baseball’s injured list declined by 13 percent this season and time lost fell by 4 percent . . . Just over half of the 1,261 video review challenges made by teams in the major leagues were successful this season. Major League Baseball said Monday that 633 calls challenged by clubs were overturned, which comes to 50.2 percent. There were 240 calls confirmed and 388 allowed to stand — where there was not enough evidence to confirm or overturn.