The mad rush of the division series is over and we have four great teams left, all with enticing storylines: the Astros trying to win their first World Series in franchise history, with an imposing lineup of enjoyable starts; the upstart, underdog Yankees with their rookie phenom, a bullpen that breathes fire and a rebuild suddenly complete a year sooner than expected; the Cubs, curse over and now going for a repeat; and the Dodgers with their own rookie phenom, the best pitcher of this generation and the pressure that it's a World Series title or bust after a 104-win season and the league's highest payroll.
ALCS Game 2: Yankees at Astros (Astros lead series 1-0)
The most important thing of the day: The Astros want to protect home-field advantage, because going to play three games in the Bronx without guys named Dallas Keuchel or Justin Verlander starting in at least the first couple games is not great without some cushion. The Yankees' luxurious home in the Bronx is suddenly an intimidating place to play again. Just ask Jay Bruce, who was serenaded throughout the division series with "Jay Bruce sucks" chants. It is no sure bet how Astros Game 3 starter Charlie Morton will hold up. That said, Houston has had little trouble playing away from home this year. In fact, the Astros have been better on the road (54-29) than at home (51-33).
The stakes: The Astros can take the upper hand in this series before it heads to New York. The Yankees would love to turn this into a best-of-five series with three games at home by deadlocking the series at one. But Houston wants to make sure, at the very least, they have a chance to come back to Minute Maid Park for Games 6 and 7.
If the Yankees win: The Yankees will take home field back to the Bronx for three games. They would feel very good about their chances.
If the Astros win: The Astros would be in control of this series, but they wouldn't be able to feel too comfortable. The Yankees lost the first two games of the ALDS to the Indians, and we all know how that turned out.
One key stat to know: The key to pitching in the postseason is being the same guy you are in the regular season. For Justin Verlander's career, he has a 3.46 ERA. In 19 playoff games (18 starts), his ERA is 3.36. He is the same guy.
The matchup that matters most: When asked which of Astros are the most difficult for him to face, Luis Severino said that Carlos Correa is one and the other is the right fielder. It took Severino a minute, and a little help, to remember Josh Reddick's name, but there is a reason that he picked those two guys. Correa has three hits in four at-bats versus Severino, including two doubles, while Reddick is 3-for-7 with two doubles. It is not a large sample size, but it has left an impression on Severino. How Severino does against those two guys could very well determine what type of day he has.
The prediction: The Yankees will win this game because, for most of the season, Severino has been a better starter than Verlander. On top of that, the Yankees will have their full complement of bullpen arms with David Robertson and Aroldis Chapman expected to be ready again. You add those two things together and the Yankees win.
NLCS Game 1: Cubs at Dodgers (series tied 0-0)
The defending champs versus the team with baseball's best record. The media tried to make something of Joe Maddon's comments from August when he said he thought the Cubs matched up well with the Dodgers. Dave Roberts did not smile when asked about that, but said it wasn't bulletin-board material, although his face suggested otherwise. "Didn't think about it after the moment," he said. "Heard it. He has a lot of confidence in his guys, as much as I have in our guys."
The most important thing of the day: It's a Clayton Kershaw day, and that's always reason to tune in. Plus, he's one of the few aces left standing. Corey Kluber, Chris Sale, Max Scherzer and Stephen Strasburg were all eliminated, with all but Strasburg failing at crucial moments. Last year, Kershaw entered the NLCS having started Games 1 and 4 of the division series and then getting the final two outs in Game 5. This time, he'll be starting on seven days of rest.
He threw an extra bullpen to prepare and said he'll rewatch video of last year's two playoff starts. He was in a good mood in his pregame news conference on Friday, even joking that he'll be sure to rewatch the video before Saturday's game and not after. "As far as being overworked, underworked, I don't think anybody's at a perfect spot during the postseason, so I'll be ready to go tomorrow."
The stakes: It's hard to beat the glamour of this NLCS: The defending champs against the team with baseball's best record. Plus, it's a rematch of last year, when the Cubs eliminated the Dodgers in six games, winning the final three games of the series. The Cubs had the pressure last year to end the franchise's World Series drought. Now the pressure is on the Dodgers to advance to the World Series for the first time since 1988.
If the Dodgers win: They did what they had to do, winning the Kershaw start and taking advantage of cleaning up the Arizona series in three games. Rich Hill goes in Game 2, and he was very good at Dodger Stadium, posting a 2.77 ERA with an OPS 161 points lower than on the road.
If the Cubs win: The Dodgers will be heavy favorites in the opener, not only with Kershaw going, but because the Cubs entered after a grueling Game 5, in which Joe Maddon emptied his pitching staff. Four starters pitched in the final two games of the series, and closer Wade Davis threw 44 pitches and may not be available except for a short stint. On top of that, the team had a long flight from Washington, D.C., that included an unexpected layover in Albuquerque after a family member on the flight became ill. If the Cubs can steal the opener, it has to be viewed as a huge emotional lift, especially with Jon Lester the likely Game 2 starter.
One key stat to know: Corey Seager has just four home runs in 191 at-bats since the beginning of August, hitting .277/.343/.382, including going 3-for-11 against the Diamondbacks. He played through a sore elbow and missed a few games in early September, but now he's battling a sore back as well. The Dodgers kept him off the field in Friday's workouts, and ultimately decided not to put him on the NLCS roster.
Although he was still giving good at-bats, it's clear he was not at optimal health. The Dodgers seemed locked in at the plate against Arizona, showing why they had the lowest chase rate of any team in the majors. They drew 16 walks in those three games, showing they can win, even if Seager isn't in the lineup hitting home runs.
The matchup that matters most: Cubs hitters versus fastballs up in the zone. That has been part of the Dodgers' game plan against the Cubs in the past, and Maddon says it's a good one, pointing out that when he was in Tampa, getting pitchers who can pitch up in the zone was always part of their strategy. Anyway, some stats on Cubs versus fastballs:
All fastballs: .277/.370/.479, .375 wOBA (ninth in majors)
Fastballs in upper third of zone: .233/.342/.418, .341 wOBA (14th in majors)
Fastballs in lower third of zone: .288/.460/.491, .423 wOBA (first in majors)
So there you go. That's why the Dodgers will attack them up in the zone. How do the Cubs respond?
"The counterattack is to not swing or to try to force them down into your lanes," Maddon said. In other words, you have to be disciplined. The Cubs hit .180 in the series against the Nationals and, while Maddon thought they were expanding the zone a little bit, he pointed out, "We faced three world-class pitchers -- Stephen Strasburg twice and Max Scherzer once. That's where the offense went, quite frankly."
Of course, some pitchers naturally pitch down in the zone. As a team, the Dodgers ranked sixth in the majors in percentage of fastballs in the upper half of the strike zone, although Hill is the only starter who lives up there:
Hill: 64.1 percent of fastball in upper half
Yu Darvish: 45.6 percent
Alex Wood: 43.1 percent
Kershaw: 40.5 percent
The prediction: A rested Kershaw means a better Kershaw. He delivers six innings of one-run baseball -- no seventh inning this time! -- and the bullpen finishes it off. Dodgers take it 4-1.