Here's what to watch in the League Championship Series -- Yankees vs. Astros, Cubs vs. Dodgers.
1. The Cubs vs. the tatters of their bullpen
Sometime earlier Friday, Joe Maddon probably awoke with a smile, the memories of the crazy Game 5 victory over the Nationals still mixed with remnants of the celebration. But the lingering euphoria will disappear quickly, as Maddon and the rest of the Cubs' staff is left to try to stitch their relief corps back together for the long series against the Dodgers.
Wade Davis, their closer, will be limited in what he can provide in Game 1 -- if he can pitch at all -- after his seven-out save against Washington. Carl Edwards Jr., once the primary set-up man, is a complete mystery after allowing four walks and six earned runs in 2 1/3 innings against Washington, and now Maddon has to figure out what role he might consider using him for against the Dodgers. Will Maddon try Edwards one more time in a big spot? Will he elevate Pedro Strop into a more lofty role? Will he try Justin Wilson, who has only one appearance this October? Will he shift one of his five veteran starters into an emergency relief role?
The Dodgers' rotation is rested and lined up and ready to go, headed by arguably the greatest pitcher of all time, Clayton Kershaw. The Cubs, on the other hand, are expected to start Jose Quintana just two days after he was needed in relief against the Nationals.
But Maddon knows this as well: If the Cubs manage to steal one of the first two games of this series in L.A., Chicago's pitching issues won’t seem nearly as dire.
This situation worked for the Dodgers in the Division Series. Because Arizona had to survive an all-hands-on-deck situation in the wild-card game, the Diamondbacks’ pitching was way out of alignment, and the Dodgers crushed them. That might happen in this series unless the Cubs can find some pitching equilibrium quickly.
2. Aaron Judge vs. his slump
The Yankees’ slugger carried the team in the first half of the season, and again through a lot of September. But he has been an offensive performer of extremes in his short MLB career, and as the Yankees prevailed over the Indians, Judge was mired in perhaps his deepest slump of the year. In 20 at-bats against Cleveland, Judge had one hit and a record-setting 16 strikeouts. The Indians crushed him with offspeed stuff off the outside corner, and presumably, the Astros will attack in the same way.
One of Judge’s strengths is the consistency of his personality, his ability to maintain an even temperament, and his handling of his long post-All-Star break slump demonstrated that even in the worst of times, Judge will stick with his plan at the plate. But the Yankees desperately need him to break out, and even at his worst, Judge is a threat, because of his unique power. "For people to say he was exposed or whatnot, I don’t believe in that," said Dallas Keuchel, who starts Game 1 for the Astros. "I think he’s a tremendous talent, and one swing can change the course of the game. But I don’t really feel like there’s one game plan going in. As a pitcher for myself, I like to establish my strengths first, to see if I can ride that."
3. Yankees’ pitchers vs. the table-setters in front of Jose Altuve
Jose Altuve led the AL in hits this year. He led the league in hits last year, and the year before that, and the year before that. He went 8-for-15 against the Red Sox in the Division Series. During the course of the regular season, he had more games with multiple hits than he did going hitless. So the Yankees know this -- Jose Altuve is going to get his hits.
Which is why it will be absolutely essential for the Yankees to keep the bases clear in front of him, and to shut down George Springer and whoever hits in the No. 2 spot, whether it’s Alex Bregman or Josh Reddick. But that won’t be easy. Springer went 7-for-17 against the Red Sox, Bregman had a double and two homers, and Reddick went 6-for-16.
The best lineup protection comes from the front, to back a pitcher into a corner, and if the Yankees’ pitchers are constantly facing Altuve and Carlos Correa with a couple of runners on base, bad stuff will happen.
4. Right-handed hitters vs. Kenta Maeda, relief monster
As the Dodgers’ descended into their slump during the regular season, one of the biggest concerns was about the seventh and eighth innings: Who would get the ball in those spots? Three or four different guys were given the opportunity to seize a set-up role, and were unable. But right at the very end of the regular season, the Dodgers tried Maeda, a veteran starting pitcher with generally average stuff, at the end of what had been a mediocre season for the right-hander. Maeda looked tremendous against the Diamondbacks, his fastball velocity reaching as high as 96 mph. “I’m thinking I’m going to pitch only one inning, so I’m exerting more effort,” Maeda told Dylan Hernandez of the Los Angeles Times. Said Justin Turner: “I don’t think anyone in this room would’ve thought that Kenta Maeda would’ve got the ball in the eighth-inning of a two-run game to pass the ball over to Kenley.”
Presumably, Maeda will face the best of the Cubs’ right-handed hitters in crucial spots, including Kris Bryant, who went 4-for-20 with 10 strikeouts against the Nationals.
5. Yu Darvish vs. some big anxiety
When he was with the Rangers, Darvish was known to put a lot of pressure on himself in big spots, and with the Dodgers, he’s had some bad days mixed in with his good days. Evaluators who saw L.A. in the last month felt he wasn’t completely comfortable. But he dominated in his last regular-season start against the Padres and threw great against the Diamondbacks through five innings. At the first sign of trouble in that start, when he hit a batter, Dave Roberts quickly pulled him, something that the manager will be prepared to do in the series against the Cubs.
6. Dallas Keuchel vs. a team he owns
Perhaps it’s because the Yankees have historically fielded lineups heavy with good left-handed hitters, or because they’ve had veteran sluggers, or because of the timing of when they saw him. Whatever the reason, the Astros' left-hander has dominated New York, including a wild-card game win two years ago in Yankee Stadium, in which he shut out the Yankees for six innings. In six regular-season starts, Keuchel has a 1.41 ERA, with 45 strikeouts and just six walks in 44 2/3 innings. Keuchel has thrown 50 2/3 innings (including playoffs) against New York and hasn’t allowed a home run.
7. Joe Girardi’s bullpen vs. the world
The Yankees have their issues, from Judge’s slump to the complete lack of production from the DH spot. But among the four teams remaining, Girardi has a marked advantage over all other clubs in the depth and quality of his bullpen. Before Game 5 of the Indians’ series against New York, Terry Francona said with some joking exasperation, “How the heck did they get Tommy Kahnle, too?” To go along with Chad Green. And David Robertson. And Aroldis Chapman.
As this series starts, it’s hard to know what role Dellin Betances will play, because he has been so inconsistent with his command. Girardi probably isn’t ready to wholly trust him with a one- or two-run lead in the seventh or eighth inning.
But Girardi has other bullpen weapons. Lots of them. And he’ll be prepared to use them as soon as the third or fourth inning in a big spot in this series.
8. The Cubs vs. an Austin Barnes solution
Navigating through the Dodgers’ lineup is tough enough with Corey Seager, Justin Turner and Cody Bellinger, and even Yasiel Puig looked locked in against the Diamondbacks. But there will be spots when the Cubs’ pitchers will be looking for a life raft in the midst of a rally and will come face-to-face with a hitter who has been one of the toughest outs in baseball over the past 2 ½ months -- catcher Austin Barnes.
Barnes started two of the three games in the series against the Diamondbacks and did what he’s been doing for a while, getting on base, working through tough at-bats. He’s got a .425 on-base percentage in his past 54 games, with as many walks (18) as strikeouts (18) in 134 plate appearances.
The Cubs’ staff -- especially Chicago’s erratic bullpen -- will be greatly challenged by the depth of the Dodgers’ lineup in this series.
9. The Dodgers vs. the pressure
The Nationals went into the Division Series underneath the weight of history, the repeated failures in recent postseasons, and in the end, it was the Cubs – playing pressure-free, after winning the World Series last fall -- who prevailed. Was this an intangible that turned into something tangible? Who knows.
But in this series, there is more pressure on the Dodgers, who will be the favorites after winning more games than any other team this season. L.A. is playing under a World Series-or-bust mandate from its fan base, which has not experienced a championship since 1988.
10. Ken Giles vs. the October ledge
Protecting leads throughout the regular season requires skill, for sure. But history is filled with closers who were defeated by the intensity of the postseason, from Calvin Schiraldi to Mark Wohlers to Dennis Eckersley. Even Mariano Rivera had a terrible walk-off moment, at the end of the 2001 World Series.
Giles has not experienced that sort of situation yet. But inevitably, he will be tested.