Playing Pepper: 2019 League Championship Series

Playing Pepper is a feature on BtB where members of the staff provide quick hit insight on the postseason. We skipped the division series, and frankly, that was probably for the best. We’re back to take on the ALCS and NLCS.

What happened in the Divisional Series?

Dan Federico: Upsets on both sides in the National League. The Rays made it interesting but fate prevailed for the AL.

Jason Kates: Starting with the NLDS, we had Playoff Kershaw at it again, while the series between the Braves and Cardinals lasted about four games and a half an inning. On the other side, the Yankees beat up the Twins in the DS to absolutely no one’s surprise, and the Rays did their best “maybe we CAN pull this off” impression by taking their series with the Astros to five games but ultimately falling victim to Gerrit Cole.

Jonathan Powell: Everything as expected in the AL. The Yanks maintained, the Twins reeled, the Rays put on a show, and the Astros prevailed. In the NL, The Cardinals did Cardinal things, the Nationals decided they’re better off without Bryce Harper, the Dodgers crumbled, and at least the Braves put up a fight.

Khurram Kalim: The five-game series is meant to be chaotic. The most memorable example is probably in basketball (Dikembe Mutombo’s Nuggets upsetting the Sonics in ’94), but baseball is the last place it exists in major men’s sports, and the short series format did its best to mix it up. Also, not a statement on the quality (or lack thereof) of the teams that went five. Even the ones that lost.

Brent Sirvio: No comment.

Washington Nationals vs. St. Louis Cardinals

How did we end up with this matchup?

DF: The Nationals did their best to fire on all cylinders with a good amount of help from Dave Roberts. The Cardinals are playing a great brand of baseball when it counts the most.

JP: Black magic. I’m convinced. Outside of money, St. Louis has seemingly always been incredibly savvy, and it pains to me to say it. Their drafting, their trading, their signing. They’re never down for more than a couple years at most, then they reach bag into the bag, pull out the magic dust and storm back into prominence. Washington is clearly trying to break the trend they’ve set of getting bumped in the playoffs, but whether it actually happens or ends up as prolonged masochism, they do look like they deserve to be here now, even if they didn’t earlier this year.

KK: The Braves lost Chris Martin in game 1 and that was the series, with Atlanta unable to hold leads in the 8th inning twice in a best-of-five. To their credit, the Cardinals did well to never die. Paul Goldschmidt and Marcell Ozuna were brilliant, Yadi had himself a resume-stuffer in game 4, and game 5 was over with 17 half-innings to go.

Credit the Nationals, too. I had resigned to the fact that the Dodgers and Cardinals would again be in the NLCS—of the 38 NLCS participants in the 2000s (including this season), either Los Angeles or St. Louis has been one of the pennant contestants 16 times. The Nationals had never won a postseason series until this year, so they’re literally fresh blood. Ride your strengths, that’s what the Nats did, and they’re here.

BS: Dave Roberts Dave Roberts’d, Clayton Kershaw Kershaw’d, while the Braves decided that Game 5 was optional. The Cardinals are so good at peaking at the right time, while the Nationals are playing the role of the feelgood story of the fall (and exactly no one feels good about it.)

Are either of these teams really this good?

DF: I think I’m higher on the Nationals than most. Their bullpen is as suspect as they come but their lineup and three headed monster of a starting rotation rank up there with anyone. The Cardinals continue to find ways to win, which is really all that matters at this point of the season.

JP: If the Brewers made it within a game of the WS last year bullpenning, there’s no reason to think the reverse can’t be true of Washington’s top tier starters. A well-rounded team and good management have the potential to negate one of the three basic needs (offense, starters, bullpen), especially if the other two are sincerely satisfied—but that’s safer to say in five games than seven. I think both of these teams are good. This good? I can’t say I’m entirely convinced. I wouldn’t pick either against either of the AL contenders at this point, so I guess it’s all a bit relative.

KK: No? Is either better than the team they beat to get here? Not over 162 games. But they were three times in five games, and that’s all that matters.

I do think the Nationals are a very good team with a horrendous flaw—the bullpen—that’ll become tougher to hide over seven games. But if the question is if either team is really this good relative to the rest of the NL bracket? Only in October.

BS: I don’t believe the Nationals’ hype, at all. But they are where they are, getting hot at the right time, having the Brewers gift wrap October for them and whatnot. The Cardinals are probably overachieving at this point, but this is also what they do best. They also survived a brutal NL Central, so they probably underachieved this season while also being battle-tested for October ball.

What one X-factor will make the difference?

DF: Anthony Rendon will be paid handsomely this offseason, thanks in large part to his fantastic 2019. He was a monster in the Divisional Round and will be the driving force when the Nationals advance to the Fall Classic (sorry for the spoilers).

JP: The playoff baseball and the accompanying wind resistance. Did no one else see the  report? It may sound crazy, but whoever is able to not only figure out, but capitalize on that lone change, it could be a key advantage.

KK: The pitching will be so impressive in this series (starters, anyway), but I’d like to think that when we look back at the 2019 NLCS, we’ll be able to tell the winner by which lineup pair had a better series: Anthony Rendon-Juan Soto or Goldy-Ozuna?

BS: Juan Soto has a .930 OPS this postseason. If this is his coming out party, Childish Bambino at the tender age of 20 becomes the new face of the Nationals franchise and a dangerous weapon against a largely-October-untested Cardinals pitching staff.

Who ya got?

DF: The Nationals have finally gotten over the hump and made it out of the LDS. They’re hot at the right time which is as important as anything. It’s going to be tough against the battle-tested Cardinals but I think they finally make it to the Fall Classic. Nationals in 6.

JP: Not only do I think the Nationals will win, but I want them to. St. Louis has seen enough postseason success for multiple lifetimes and it can stay that way. I think experience plus starters finally prevail as the Cards young arms start feeling taxed as the series goes on.

KK: Rendon and Soto. And Stephen Strasburg, Max Scherzer, Patrick Corbin. What the Cardinals did late in games to eliminate the Braves doesn’t bode well for Washington, but they’ve never been here ever, and they’re here now with a veteran-laden team. If ever there was a time to go all-hands for all things, and the group that’s down to leave mind and body between foul poles, it’s now and it’s this group. Washington knows, personally and intimately, how hard it is just to be here. They will again plug holes with their top-tier starters and lean on showtime-ready bats to carry them to the World Series.

BS: This version of the Cardinals is both experienced and inexperienced: some of these guys have been here before, a lot have not. And that never seems to matter. Cardinals in six.

Houston Astros vs. New York Yankees

Is this simply an old school/new school matchup?

DF: Not at all. The Yankees aren’t the franchise that spends loads of money on veteran, over the hill stars anymore. They’re using a self-imposed cap and dominating the game in analytics as well as savvy trades and free agent signings. The Astros, meanwhile, are equally as impressive in the analytics department but have no issue dishing out the bucks when they need to.

JK: The only thing I’d call this matchup is a dream for fans. We get the stacked Yankees offense (an extremely expensive one, I may add) pitted against the three aces of Houston in Cole, Justin Verlander and Zach Greinke. Both teams have spent money in order to build a dynamic squad though, with the Astros front office clearly willing to make any moves in order to bolster their chances of winning a championship, as evident by the Greinke and Cole deals. In NY, Brian Cashman has conducted business to perfection, whether it’s trading for Edwin Encarnacion midseason or signing free agent DJ LeMahieu. Each team has shown a similar approach to building a team, now we’ll see who will represent the AL in the World Series.

JP: Whatever it is, it’s going to make for good watching. A fat stack of starters vs the classic offensive powerhouse. To answer more directly, I’d say no. Despite the massive Bronxian checkbook and it’s ability to sign vets AND churn prospects into trade chips perennially, Cashman has been pretty new-school savvy and Houston’s starting three weren’t exactly Moneyball Revisited.

KK: If by which you mean the Astros are old school and the Yankees are new school? This is the third straight year we’re seeing Houston in mid-October, and we know so many of these guys as if they were on our local team. Houston is also the team who have gone big game hunting (Gerrit Cole and Zack Greinke trades this year). The Yankees might be expensive, but they’re not built the way you remember the Yankees laying bricks. Next year, when they sign Cole? Then maybe.

BS: No, not by a longshot. The Yankees might be old money and a legacy franchise, but Brian Cashman has proven especially adept at recalibrating for the times, using the deepest pockets in baseball to get talent, while also drafting and developing players in house and finding diamonds in the rough. This isn’t Daddy Steinbrenner’s Cashman or Yankees franchise. Also, the Astros might be on the bleeding edge of technology and analytics, but they also go out and spend to win ($199MM payroll in 2019.) These two teams are more similar than you might expect.

Is there a vulnerability to these 100-win teams that can be exploited? Will it be?

DF: You can point to the Yankees’ depth in their starting rotation and overall erratic play from the position over the 2019 season. You can look at the Astros’ right and center field situation and see it as holes in their lineup. But let’s not fool ourselves: these two teams are the class of the 2019 season. Are there weak spots on both sides? Sure. But there are no better franchises than the Yankees and Astros that will mask their weaknesses.

JK: Simply put? You’ll need a magnifying class to discover any weaknesses with these teams. There’s a reason the Astros won 107 games and the Yankees won 103, and that reason is from top to bottom, the lineups both teams field are elite. They can hit, they have the pitching staffs to battle late in games, and they’re abilities to win close games should make this series a joy to watch.

JP: Sure. The Black Death 2.0 or Kryptonite. Take your pick.

KK: Possibly only when compared to one another. For example: the Astros 1-2 in the rotation are drought-inducing, wood-splitting, K-collecting fiends. But James Paxton, Masahiro Tanaka and two turns through of low-mileage Luis Severino? That’s not hot garbage.

Productive lineups, productive bullpens, can win in a bombs away slugfest or a phonebooth knife fight. I fully expect simply the better of these two teams to win over seven games.

BS: With two perfectly-matched teams in terms of pitching, hitting and defense, the weakness is going to be on the bases: the Yankees don’t run well (55 stolen bases in 2019 as a team. Somewhere, Rickey Henderson sees this and weeps in the third person.) The Astros just don’t run (67 in 2019.) While stolen bases aren’t in fashion anymore, if it comes down to needing to manufacture runs (and with a de-juiced ball, dingers aren’t a guarantee) who is going to be more effective going station to station?

What one X-factor will make the difference?

DF: Luis Severino. He was the Yankees’ ace a season ago and is one of the best pitchers in the game when he’s at his best. The righty has only made four starts (including the ALDS) this year. If he can get stretched out and find his groove, he matches up well against any of the big three that Houston has.

JK: The Yankees offense. In their three-game sweep of the Twins, NY scored 23 runs, 18 of which came in games one and two. Now, and I don’t mean any disrespect to the Minnesota pitchers, the Yankees’ plate appearances will get a tad tougher. If they can carry over this offensive production into this series, albeit a long shot, the Astros are in big trouble.

JP: I honestly can’t even pick one. There’s so much talent on the field it seems ludicrous to attempt to. And I don’t care if that’s a cop-out. It’s worse than trying to pick something to watch on Netflix.

KK: How many innings can you get out of Cole? Facing a power-driven lineup that has more run production diversity than the home run mileage might suggest, Cole needs to be on his strikeout best to keep the Yankees in check. We’re looking at two starts and a possible relief appearance, depending on series situation, especially if the Astros get skittish about three days’ rest (as they should be), for one of the best pitchers in baseball, the best pitcher so far in the playoffs. Let’s see what he does versus the best lineup so far in the playoffs.

And here’s the thing: while I wouldn’t count Greinke as a weakness that can be exploited, at least not in a vacuum, I suspect Cole and Verlander will have to make up for a tough Greinke start. Or two.

BS: Michael Brantley, whose OPS is 260 points fewer in October relative to his resurgent regular season. If Brantley can get going again, the Astros can go toe-to-toe with the Yankees at the plate at virtually every position.

Who ya got?

DF: The Yankees have overcome too much this year to call it a season in the ALCS. It’s going to be a battle (dare I say, the de facto World Series) – but the Bombers will prevail. Yankees in seven.

JK: Gimme the Astros in six. I have a feeling the Yankees steal one of the first two games, but Cole in G3 gives Houston the 2-1 lead, and they finish things off at Minute Maid Park in G6.

JP: Unlike the Dodgers who stacked the deck and bowed out, the Astros are too well-built to crumble, even at the gargantuan hands of the Yankees. But that’s not to say it won’t be close. I think it goes near the wire and the Astros escape with the series W in 6.

KK: The Astros and Yankees have been features in the AL playoffs for three seasons now. They’re moon craters—you can’t imagine October without them. They’re features.

This feels like the decider of a trilogy, despite the two teams missing each other last season. Since 2017, I suspect the Yankees operated with the Astros on the mind, and if Houston wasn’t thinking about this eventual revenge series, that’s generic sports speak. We’ve been waiting for this since their seven-game classic a couple seasons back. I’m sure Houston and New York have been, too.

In the end, Houston is an historically great team on the path of most resistance through the AL. They’ll get it done by the skin of their teeth and a game 7 Gerrit Cole diamond-encrusted masterpiece. Astros in seven.

BS: Sorry Danny; Astros in six.

Dan Federico, Jonathan Powell and Brent Sirvio are co-founders of Bronx to Bushville. Khurram Kalim is a senior writer. Jason Kates is a staff writer.

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