MLB Playoff Picture 2021: How Each Wild-Card Team Can Win World Series
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Ashley Landis/Associated Press
Winning a division creates an advantage in the MLB playoffs, but this year’s collection of wild-card teams can be dangerous in the postseason.
The reigning World Series champion Los Angeles Dodgers will face the red-hot St. Louis Cardinals in the National League Wild Card Game on Wednesday, with the winner taking on the San Francisco Giants in a NL Division Series. In the American League Wild Card Game, the New York Yankees and Boston Red Sox will have their rivalry battle Tuesday, with the winner facing the Tampa Bay Rays in an AL Division Series.
It certainly isn’t an easy path for any of the teams, especially since one loss can end their season. But wild-card clubs have still accomplished great things.
The Washington Nationals won the World Series in 2019, while the 2014 World Series featured two wild-card squads in the Giants and Kansas City Royals.
Each of the four teams in this year’s group can repeat that success, but they will need a lot to go right to finish on top. Here is how each of the squads can bring home the Commissioner’s Trophy in 2021.
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Frank Franklin II/Associated Press
When the Yankees lose in the playoffs, it’s not their pitching that betrays them, it’s their offense.
New York has made the postseason in five of the last six years. Its run totals in the five games it was eliminated: zero, zero, three, four and one.
Many of those results came with offenses that ranked among the best in the majors, but this year’s squad finished just 19th in runs and tallied only six runs in its final three-game series, which was against the Rays.
The team is still not short on talent, with 10 different players having hit at least 10 home runs, led by Aaron Judge (39) and Giancarlo Stanton (35). The lineup has also thrived at different times this year, including during a 13-game winning streak in August and a seven-game winning streak in September.
With Gerrit Cole leading a rotation that can provide quality starts and an elite bullpen, the Yankees should keep every game close. It will be up to the hitters to do their jobs. Judge and Stanton can come through with game-changing home runs, and Anthony Rizzo, Gleyber Torres and Gary Sanchez have shown they can boost the lineup with their hot streaks.
There would be a lot of familiarity with a playoff run through the Red Sox, Rays and Houston Astros, but the Bronx Bombers have the ability to find more success this time around.
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Julio Cortez/Associated Press
If there is one thing we are sure about with the Red Sox, it’s the lineup. Boston has arguably the deepest lineup in the playoffs, led by Rafael Devers and Xander Bogaerts. Kyle Schwarber has also been outstanding since joining the team before the trade deadline, providing even more balance.
Even with J.D. Martinez out because of an ankle injury, these players can keep the Red Sox in any game. They proved that in Sunday’s come-from-behind victory over the Washington Nationals. Boston trailed 5-1 but won 7-5 to seal home-field advantage in the Wild Card Game.
The question is whether the pitching staff will do its part. Nathan Eovaldi will get the ball against the Yankees, and Chris Sale has made nine starts since returning following Tommy John surgery, but they can’t pitch every game.
If this squad makes a deep run, you can expect manager Alex Cora to get creative. If there are short starts, it will put a lot of pressure on the bullpen—which posted a 3.57 ERA (ninth in MLB) before the All-Star break but a 4.49 ERA (21st) after it.
The staff won’t need to be perfect, but it has to come together to keep games close. If it does that, the Sox have enough offense to win it all.
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Jeffrey Phelps/Associated Press
No team had a more surprising run to the playoffs this year than the Cardinals. Sitting at 71-69 on Sept. 10, they won their next 17 games to clinch a postseason berth with room to spare.
As star pitcher Adam Wainwright said, the team was fueled by negative press.
“FanGraphs had us at like a negative-400 percent chance to make the playoffs, and we just proved everyone wrong,” Wainwright said last week. “We’re going to try to keep doing that.”
The good news for St. Louis is it can keep this mindset. FanGraphs now gives the Cards a 1.3 percent chance to win the World Series, easily the lowest of the 10 teams remaining.
There are leaders in the clubhouse who have done this before, namely Wainwright and Yadier Molina. They can prepare their teammates for the task at hand, which starts with an uphill battle at Dodger Stadium. It will only get tougher with a potential NLDS battle against the 107-win Giants.
An “us against the world” mentality may only help the Cardinals as they hope to take advantage of a talented, if mostly unproven, pitching staff behind Wainwright. Veterans Paul Goldschmidt, Nolan Arenado and Tyler O’Neill will also try to show their worth in the postseason after strong regular-season showings.
It could be enough for this franchise to win its third championship since 2006.
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Ashley Landis/Associated Press
The path to repeating as World Series champions will be difficult for the Dodgers.
They have a must-win game against Adam Wainwright, a proven postseason star in the midst of one of the best seasons of his career. If they advance, the Giants loom in a five-game series with home-field advantage. It would then take two more series victories.
On the other hand, no team is more capable of running this gauntlet than Los Angeles.
The Dodgers had the second-best record in the majors this year (106-56) and led baseball with a 3.01 ERA. Just for good measure, the offense ranks fourth in runs.
A year ago, Los Angeles dominated the regular season on the way to its first World Series since 1988. The team is somehow even better this year thanks to the midseason additions of Max Scherzer and Trea Turner, both of whom are NL MVP candidates.
Scherzer is 7-0 with a 1.98 ERA in 11 starts since joining L.A., while Turner has a .338 batting average with 10 home runs and 11 stolen bases in 52 games. They were instrumental in helping the Nationals win the 2019 World Series and improved a squad that already knows what it takes to win.
And we have not even mentioned star hitters Mookie Betts, Max Muncy and Corey Seager or pitching standouts Walker Buehler, Julio Urias and Kenley Jansen.
The postseason bracket poses a challenge, but the Dodgers have everything it takes to defend their title.
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