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World Series 2016: Cubs vs. Indians Game 7 Pitching Preview and Prediction

After 108 years of waiting, Chicago Cubs fans will witness an epic Game 7 of the World Series tonight, even though their guys will be battling for the championship at Progressive Field in Cleveland. For the Cleveland Indians, it’s been 78 years since their last title, so their fans have done perhaps enough waiting for a lifetime as well. 

In Game 6, Chicago routed Cleveland on its home field, winning 9-2 powered by three home runs from Kris Bryant in the first, Addison Russell in the third and finally Anthony Rizzo in the ninth. The Indians once held a commanding 3-1 series lead over the Cubs, but that seems like ancient history ahead of tonight’s decisive Game 7. 

Pitching has been a major storyline all series, from the Cubs stellar starters to the Indians diabolical bullpen. Tonight, all eyes will be on the starters, 2014 Cy Young Award winner Corey Kluber for Cleveland and Kyle Hendricks, a Cy Young candidate this season, for Chicago. 

Before the series, Indians manager Terry Francona told Kluber that he was counting on his ace to take the mound in Games 1, 4 and 7 should they be necessary, and how much Francona has needed to rely on Kluber‘s arm cannot be overstated. Kluber will have to deliver one more time if Cleveland hopes to win tonight in front of its fans. 

In Game 1, Kluber was dominant—he threw six scoreless innings, giving up only four hits while walking no batters and striking out nine. In that game, the Indians offense was dominant as well, scoring six runs in a game where it only really needed one, and Cleveland would win 6-0. 

Then, in Saturday’s Game 4, Kluber posted a similar line. He went six innings again, this time allowing one run on five hits. He fanned six Cubs and walked one. Again, the Indians lineup threw crooked numbers up on the scoreboard to secure the 7-2 victory and push Chicago to the brink of elimination. 

Perhaps most notably in terms of tonight’s game, though, is that Kluber—who will be pitching on just three days rest for the second consecutive start—threw fewer than 90 pitches in both of his starts in the World Series. He threw 88 pitches (59 strikes) in Game 1 and then only 81 (58 strikes) in Game 4. Although tonight will be Kluber‘s third start in just more than a week, the fact that he hasn’t been overworked should be a source of confidence for Francona and the Cleveland fans. 

Kluber has been nothing short of spectacular all postseason long. In his five starts in the playoffs, he’s thrown 30.1 innings and pitched to a 0.89 ERA. Also, per, he’s kept his WHIP below one at 0.99. Although Kluber has gone just six innings in both of his World Series starts, he doesn’t necessarily need to do more than that to secure a championship for his squad. 

The ace of the Indians bullpen, Andrew Miller, threw exactly zero pitches in Games 5 and 6, so he will be ready to slot into any jam or inning that Francona needs him to and perhaps go up to three innings. That’s a huge buffer for Kluber to have, knowing that he doesn’t have to go the distance to give his team the best chance to win.

So far in the World Series, Cubs hitters are hitting just .205 off of Kluber, a number they will need to elevate tonight if they hope to break the multitude of curses that may or may not be plaguing their team and their city. 

Kluber‘s adversary in Game 7 will be the wiry Hendricks, who turned in a startlingly great regular season for Chicago. Hendricks led Major League Baseball with a 2.13 ERA in the regular season, which was 0.31 runs per game lower than the next closest pitcher in that category, his teammate Jon Lester

Emotions in the playoffs are high—and that’s an understatement. There is perhaps no greater test for a pitcher than to start Game 7 of a World Series when the last seven months of baseball rest on his shoulders. However, Hendricks might just be perfect for the opportunity. 

During a report from Cleveland on ESPN this morning, Pedro Gomez described Hendricks’ demeanor when he pitches. Gomez said that after striking out the side, for example, a time when his teammates would expect him to stomp into the dugout all pumped up, Hendricks strolls in with his head down, seemingly unimpressed with himself. 

While it’s no sin to use the adrenaline that comes with starting a Game 7, Hendricks’ collectedness might come in handy as he battles the Indians in what is sure to be a hostile Cleveland crowd. 

Hendricks has made four starts in the postseason, the most recent coming in Game 3 against the Indians, the first game of the series at Wrigley Field. In that contest, Hendricks lasted only 4.1 innings despite not giving up a run. Manager Joe Maddon‘s quick hook with Hendricks had largely to do with the closeness of the game, in which the Cubs would fall 1-0. 

His best start of the postseason, however, came a round earlier in Game 6 of the NLCS. Hendricks threw 7.1 scoreless innings while opposing Los Angeles Dodgers starter Clayton Kershaw. Hendricks surrendered only two hits in that game and struck out six, propelling the Cubs to the World Series. Tonight will not be Hendricks’ first potentially series-clinching start of the postseason. 

There is something that could give Cubs fans pause with Hendricks, however. During the regular season, Hendricks’ numbers varied quite a bit at home versus when he pitched on the road, as he will do tonight. At Wrigley Field, Hendricks’ ERA was a blistering 1.32. When he traveled away from the Friendly Confines, though, it ballooned to 2.95.

Now, an ERA of under three runs per game is nothing to scoff at, especially when you consider that no pitcher in the American League had an ERA less than three. Still, it does suggest that Hendricks may not be as effective when pitching on the road, which could significantly impact tonight’s outcome. The sample sizes are nearly the same, but Hendricks gave up 17 more runs on the road than he did at home. 

Hendricks did pitch his 4.1 scoreless innings in Game 3 at Progressive Field, so there’s no evidence that he can’t be just as dominant tonight, although hopefully for a longer stretch if you’re Maddon

These two pitchers enter the most important game of their lives with impressive resumes, and they both possess the ability to pitch deep into this game and potentially shut out the dangerous offenses they’re tasked with oppressing. 

From the standpoint of the pitching matchup, I’d have to give the edge to Kluber and the Indians, based on his body of work this postseason and in the World Series. Having said that, I’m taking the Cubs to win Game 7, mostly citing momentum, history and their blazing bats after Game 6. 

This one could very well be decided late into the night, and that will be because both teams’ starters refused to be outdone.

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Indians vs. Blue Jays: Keys for Each Team to Win ALCS Game 4

Show me someone who, back in October 2015, predicted that two major Cleveland sports teams would make it to their respective championship rounds in 2016, and I’ll show you an irrational Clevelander. 

However, as of Monday night, the Cleveland Indians are just one win away from turning that fantasy into a stunning reality as they try to follow in the footsteps of the defending NBA champion Cavaliers.

With a victory on the road in Game 3, Cleveland now leads the Toronto Blue Jays 3-0 in the American League Championship Series, and the two squads will play a potentially series-ending Game 4 on Tuesday afternoon at 4 p.m. ET at the Rogers Centre. 

Despite coming out on top, the Indians had an unusual and inauspicious start to Monday’s contest. After taking a 1-0 lead in the top of the first inning, Cleveland’s starter, Trevor Bauer, exited the game after pitching just two-thirds of an inning when his stitched-up right pinkie began dripping blood.

Bauer badly injured the pinkie finger on his pitching hand days earlier when—and this is true—he was repairing a drone. He even brought the drone that had malfunctioned and sliced his finger to a press conference, where he explained the incident. 

While Bauer will recover, his bizarre injury ended up having a significant impact on his team’s pitching staff, as Cleveland had to use six pitchers to get through Game 3 after Bauer left the mound. 

But before we get to how Bauer’s odd start will affect his team, let’s discuss what Toronto must do on Tuesday to avoid elimination. 

The term “must-win” gets thrown around too often in sports, but when I say Game 4 is a must-win for Toronto, I mean it in the old-fashioned sense—as in, the Jays must win, or they can hit the golf course until spring training. If they are to avoid that fate, the Blue Jays must get at least one home run from the trio of Jose Bautista, Josh Donaldson and Edwin Encarnacion and score at least three runs by end of the fifth inning. 

Baseball is a complicated sport, and it can be managed and micromanaged with painstaking detail. Having said that, there’s a simple explanation as to why Toronto is facing a devastating sweep—the Blue Jays’ infamous home run-blasting offense has become a hollow shell of itself this series.

As I noted during their division series, the Blue Jays rely on the long ball to power their offense and win games, and they are strikingly unsuccessful when they do not hit home runs. 

Michael Saunders did go deep in the second inning of Game 3, but his solo home run was the only big fly Toronto hit in the game. Even beyond home runs, the Blue Jays’ normally prolific offense has turned anemic by any measure. Toronto had just seven hits in Game 3. 

For Monday’s Game 3, Toronto manager John Gibbons shook up his lineup in an attempt to generate runs. In the first two games, Ezequiel Carrera led off and Bautista hit fourth. 

After scoring just one run total in those two games, Gibbons moved Bautista and his .366 regular-season OBP into the leadoff spot and dropped Carrera to eighth, thus getting his best hitters to the plate earlier and more often. The move did not ignite the offense the way Gibbons had hoped, though. 

Cleveland’s pitching has been outstanding, yes, but the Indians started Josh Tomlin in Game 2 and depended almost completely on their bullpen in Game 3. In other words, the kind of power outage Toronto has experienced can’t be blamed solely on the Indians’ pitching acumen. 

Next, the timing of Toronto’s run scoring is vitally important because of the dominance that Cleveland’s bullpen, deftly handled by manager Terry Francona, has exhibited late in games these playoffs. There is no better symbol of the success of the Indians bullpen than Andrew Miller.

In Game 2, Miller came on to throw two perfect innings while striking out five of the six batters he faced. Then in Game 3, Miller recorded the last four outs while giving up only one hit and striking out three. His postseason ERA remained at zero. 

If the Jays can’t get on the board early in Game 4, they’ll rue their incompetence when they have to score off Miller, Bryan Shaw and Cody Allen, which has proven to be nearly impossible. 

Of course, Toronto must limit the Indians offense as well if it hopes to keep its season alive, but Cleveland hasn’t been tearing the cover off the ball, scoring fewer than three runs per game so far in this series.

The Blue Jays don’t necessarily need to hang 10 runs on the Indians like they did to the Texas Rangers in Game 1 of the division series. Instead, it likely will be enough to extend the series if Toronto’s offense can even resemble its past potency in Game 4. 

As for Cleveland, the Indians find themselves in the driver’s seat entering Game 4. Hailing from Cleveland, though, the last thing they want to do is tempt fate and give the Blue Jays any momentum. If Cleveland is going to complete the championship series sweep, which would give the team its seventh consecutive win this postseason, it will have to combat Toronto’s probable paths to victory.

Namely, the Indians must continue their excellent defensive play behind projected starter Corey Kluber to keep Toronto’s offense down, particularly Bautista, Donaldson and Encarnacion, as well as get production from the top half of their batting order against Toronto starter Aaron Sanchez. If Francona does send Kluber to the mound, he will be pitching on just three days’ rest after starting Game 1 on Friday. 

Kluber, unsurprisingly, impressed in Game 1, tossing 6.1 strong, scoreless innings to lift the Indians to a 2-0 win. He did give up six hits and two walks in the game, but he gave up just one extra-base hit—a double to Encarnacion. 

Although they scored only two runs in Game 3, the Blue Jays did put several good swings on the ball throughout the game. Notably, Francisco Lindor turned a slick double play from one knee on a hard ground ball from Ryan Goins in the second inning, and Coco Crisp made a sliding grab in left field to save at least one run in the seventh on a stinging line drive from Donaldson. 

Perhaps Kluber will limit such hard-hit balls in Game 4, but if the Blue Jays start putting together at-bats culminating in rockets hit to all fields, Cleveland must be able to limit the damage with its gloves. 

Half of the Indians’ runs in Game 3 were produced by the previously silent bat of Mike Napoli. Entering Monday’s game, Napoli had been 2-for-18 in the postseason and had yet to drive in a run, but he went 2-for-3 with a walk in Game 3. His two hits came in the form of an RBI-double in the first inning—one that clanked off Bautista’s glove in left-center field—and, three innings later, a home run to nearly the same spot that his double had landed short of the wall. 

After Toronto managed to tie the game up in the fifth, Jason Kipnis went deep as well, hitting his second home run of the playoffs but his first since the first game of the division series. 

It is guys like Napoli and Kipnis, as well as Carlos Santana and Lindor, who will be responsible for securing Cleveland’s ticket to the World Series. In a closeout game, where else should the team look for offense but to the guys who have been doing it all year long?

However, they will have their work cut out for them. Although Sanchez is not necessarily a household name, the 24-year-old pitched to a 15-2 record in 2016 and added 161 strikeouts. 

If Sanchez and the Jays bullpen can silence those guys’ bats, the Indians might have to head home to Cleveland to wrap this series up. 

Lastly, it would be wrong to take the Indians’ outstanding bullpen for granted, but how can one not have confidence in that group at this point in the postseason after what we’ve seen? If the Indians bring a lead late, or even midway, into Game 4, Cleveland and its fans will have to feel good about their chances to make the franchise’s first World Series since 1997. 

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Chicago Cubs vs. Los Angeles Dodgers: Keys for Each Team to Win NLCS Game 1

The Chicago Cubs enter the National League Championship Series with as much confidence as a team battling a 108-year title drought could possibly have.

Late Tuesday night, it looked like Chicago would be headed home to Wrigley Field to play a pivotal Game 5 against the San Francisco Giants. The Cubbies trailed 5-2 in Game 4 and were just three outs away from dropping their second straight game to the Giants. 

Instead, Chicago tacked four runs on the Giants bullpen to take a 6-5 lead, and then closer Aroldis Chapman struck out the side in the bottom half of the inning with a flurry of 100-plus mph fastballs. The win propelled the Cubs to their second trip to the NLCS in as many years—they fell to the New York Mets in the 2015 championship series. 

The Cubs will host Game 1 on Saturday night—first pitch is scheduled for 8:08 p.m ET—on the strength of their 103-win regular season, welcoming the Los Angeles Dodgers to town. Los Angeles fought off a late Game 5 surge from the Washington Nationals on Thursday night at Nationals Park to set its date with Chicago. 

The Dodgers overcame the Nats’ 2-1 series lead to make the NLCS—the team’s first since its 2013 loss to the St. Louis Cardinals—and now face ostensibly their toughest test of the season: a locked-in Cubs team on a mission for a championship.

If Los Angeles hopes to progress to the World Series to take on the Toronto Blue Jays or Cleveland Indians, whichever team emerges from the American League, it will likely need to take at least one of the first two games in Chicago. With the momentum the Dodgers will maintain from Thursday’s victory, Game 1 is as good a time as any to snatch back home-field advantage.

But first, let’s take a look at what Chicago must do to keep its postseason freight train rolling. 

A Cubs triumph in Game 1 relies on performances from students of the old school and the new school.

One key to victory Saturday evening lies with the Cubs’ Game 1 starter, grizzled veteran and Cy Young candidate Jon Lester. He’s only 32, but Lester has pitched in seven postseasons, including 2016, with the Boston Red Sox, Oakland Athletics and Cubs. Lester attained a bulk of his playoff experience in 2013 with Boston, as it rumbled to a World Series title. That postseason, Lester surrendered just six earned runs in 34.2 innings. 

Three years later, Chicago manager Joe Maddon and the Cubs could hardly ask for a steadier Game 1 starter, and this is a team that also features 2015 NL Cy Young winner Jake Arrieta and Kyle Hendricks, who dealt to a dazzling 2.13 ERA in the regular season. As for Lester, he won 19 games in 2016 and surrendered only 2.44 runs per nine innings, which is the lowest ERA of his career. 

Lester also proved he has the mental fortitude to handle the pressures of being a Game 1 starter for a team pegged as the World Series favorites. He was magnificent in Chicago’s Game 1 victory at home in the division series. Facing the Giants, Lester tossed eight scoreless innings and gave up just five hits while walking none.

The Cubs needed every zero Lester was able to throw up on the scoreboard, as their offense didn’t break through until the 8th inning. In the eighth, Javier Baez blasted a solo home run to give Chicago the lead. Facing Los Angeles, Lester has the tough assignment of dealing with the likes of Corey Seager, Justin Turner and Adrian Gonzalez, all of whom homered against the Nationals. 

Now Chicago has made it to yet another NLCS, the expectations continue to rise and the ghosts of losing seasons past begin to creep into everyone’s minds. And since it’s only Game 1, we won’t mention the events of October 2003. 

Instead, it’s important to note the Cubs’ lack of offense in Game 1 of this year’s NLDS. Chicago’s lineup is stacked—it produced the third-most runs in Major League Baseball during the regular season. But based on what we saw in the Cubs’ first game against San Francisco, the impetus to get the offense going against the Dodgers on Saturday should fall squarely on Anthony Rizzo and Kris Bryant. 

To give their team the best chance of grabbing an immediate advantage in the series, Rizzo and Bryant need to drive in at least two runs between them in Game 1. They can’t bank on someone such as Baez, Jason Heyward or even Ben Zobrist to pick up the slack again. 

These corner infielders and NL MVP candidates were the biggest threats to opposing pitching during the 2016 campaign, and that continues to be the case into the postseason, even though Rizzo struggled mightily in the division series. He went just 1-for-15 against Giants pitching, but the guy smacked 32 homers and drove in 109 runs in the regular season. He needs to return to form early on in the series if the Cubs are going to make the Fall Classic. 

As for Bryant, he doesn’t have much adjusting to do since he hit .375 off of Giants pitching in the first round of the playoffs with three extra-base hits.

The Cubs hitters will take their hacks in Game 1 off Dodgers starter Kenta Maeda, who will take over the role the Dodgers would have liked to give to their ace, Clayton Kershaw, had he not had to record the final two outs against Washington. 

Pitching will be one of the most significant areas for the Dodgers in this series, but in Game 1, each pitcher who comes to the mound will have to do his job. Manager Dave Roberts used six pitchers to record 27 outs in Game 5 of the division series, but it was the one he had to use that ups the ante for Game 1.

In addition to starter Rich Hill, who lasted 2.2 innings despite giving up only one run, Roberts called on starters Julio Urias, the 20-year-old, to throw two innings and Kershaw to close it out. It would be no easy task to pick out a hurler on the Dodgers roster who’s well rested at this point in the postseason, so requiring any starters or relievers to pick up another’s slack could hamper Los Angeles’ chances of winning at Wrigley on Saturday night. 

So although the pitching duties need to be shared among L.A.’s staff, it all starts with Maeda. He registered solid numbers during the regular season—16 wins, 11 losses and a 3.48 ERAbut the 28-year-old struggled in his only postseason appearance.

In Game 3 of the NLDS, the Dodgers returned home to L.A. with the series tied at one, but Maeda lasted only three innings, giving up four runs on five hits. After his exit, Los Angeles went on to use seven more pitchers in the 8-3 loss. Although Roberts’ crew was able to climb back from that 2-1 series deficit, a short outing from their starter would put the Dodgers in an unfortunate position in Game 1, as well as for the rest of the championship series.

The second key for Los Angeles to take Game 1 has almost as much to do with its team as with the Cubs. Chicago has a stellar defensive squad thanks to the crew of fielding wizards assembled by team president Theo Epstein. However, the one area where the Cubs often struggle is preventing runners from creating anarchy on the basepaths since their pitchers have trouble holding runners on.

Unfortunately for the Dodgers, stealing bases was not something they excelled at doing—the club stole the fourth-fewest bases (45) of any team over the course of the regular season. In the postseason, though, throw out the stats (well, not completely). Still, Roberts knows the power a well-timed stolen base can have on a playoff game from his time with Boston. 

Since the Cubs make few errors and will not just give Los Angeles any extra bases, the Dodgers need to manufacture runs, especially against Chicago’s stellar pitching. Seager hit two home runs in the division series, but no other Dodger hit more than one.

As the playoffs move along, timely run-scoring hits tend to power offenses late in games even more than long balls do. If the Dodgers can come through in situations with runners in scoring position, they will seriously improve their chances of taking down Chicago.

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ALDS 2016: Keys for the Red Sox and Indians to Win Game 3

Sunday’s American League Division Series Game 3 between the Boston Red Sox and Cleveland Indians at Fenway Park was postponed because of heavy rain in Boston, so the teams will meet Monday night with the first pitch scheduled for 6:08 p.m. ET. Now, the Red Sox and Indians know which team awaits them in the American League Championship Series—the Toronto Blue Jays.

Toronto completed its sweep of the top-seeded Texas Rangers after taking Game 3 in 10 innings. The Jays walked off, ironically, after a throwing error on the back end of a potential double play by Rangers second baseman Rougned Odor. Yes, the same guy who clocked Jose Bautista in the face back in May. It was Toronto that got the last laugh, and now the Blue Jays have some time to wait for the Red Sox and Indians to wrap up their series. 

In Game 2 between Boston and Cleveland on Friday afternoon, Indians starting pitcher Corey Kluber blanked the Red Sox for seven innings, and the Tribe would go on to secure the victory by a score of 6-0. As has been the case in his career, David Price came up small in the postseason again in Game 2, giving up five earned runs over just 3.1 innings of work. 

Now, fighting for their season, the Red Sox will have to repeat the daunting task they performed back in 1999—win three straight games in a division series to climb out of an 0-2 hole and topple the Indians. Counting the Red Sox out, however, would be foolish. We vividly remember the astonishing comeback they mounted in the 2004 ALCS. 

Monday night, Boston will turn to Clay Buchholz to try to salvage its season. Cleveland plans to counter with Josh Tomlin as it tries to bury the Red Sox before they can begin to generate any semblance of momentum in this series. 

The keys for the Red Sox lie with the rejuvenation of the newly dormant Boston offense and with Buchholz.

What else is there to say about the Red Sox’s batting performance? The lineup that terrorized baseball from April to September has vanished, and although it might be painfully obvious, Boston’s game plan all year was to run up the score, not win close contests with superb starting pitching and strong relief. The bats are what led the team to outscore its opponents by 184 runs, by far the largest margin of any team in the American League. 

To help put that in perspective, the Texas Rangers, who won 95 games and claimed the top seed in the American League playoffs, scored only eight more runs than the opposition in 2016. 

Although Boston trots out one of the deepest lineups in all of baseball, its best chance to hang some numbers other than zero on Fenway’s manual scoreboard comes from the guys at the top and in the middle of its lineup. And while manager John Farrell will gladly take runs at any time during the game at this point in the series, the Red Sox need to pounce on the Indians early in Game 3, or they run the risk of facing Cleveland’s rested bullpen with a run gap to close. 

As for where the production will come from, the pressure is on Mookie Betts, twilight-of-his-career David Ortiz and Hanley Ramirez. Those guys hit third, fourth and fifth in Game 2, going a combined 1-for-11 with a walk. Another performance resembling Friday’s from those three guys—of all of whom hit at least 30 home runs in the regular season—could very well result in a depressing sweep. 

The other key for Boston is a strong performance from Buchholz, the 32-year-old who has never won a playoff game and pitched to a poor 4.78 ERA in 21 starts this year. Although the numbers aren’t great, Buchholz finished the season by going 4-0 with a 2.92 ERA in his final eight starts.

Against the Indians, Buchholz must keep runners off the basepaths, especially by not issuing walks. Buchholz’s WHIP in 2016 was a subpar 1.33, and if he allows runners into scoring position on Monday, Cleveland has guys capable of coming up with timely hits. 

On Buchholz’s upcoming start, Nick Cafardo of the Boston Globe gave some telling insight:

Some smarty pants is probably thinking, “Yeah right. Clay Buchholz to save the day? Clay Buchholz to the rescue? Clay Buchholz to do what a 22-game winner [Porcello] and a former Cy Young winner [Price] couldn’t do?” There may not be a lot of logic in the thinking that he could do it, but what logic was there in the Indians beating two pitchers who combined for 39 regular-season wins?

I predict we will find out early on in Monday’s game whether Buchholz is up to the task, and if he isn’t, the Red Sox could very well meet the same fate as the Rangers. 

Despite being up 2-0 in this best-of-five series, the Indians cannot afford to let up. Cleveland has its own set of keys to focus on if it wants to close out Boston, something the Indians were unable to do in the 2007 ALCS, when they led the Red Sox 3-1 before losing in seven games. 

Much has been said about the success and unconventionality of Cleveland’s bullpen, especially because of the way manager Terry Francona navigated the second half of his team’s 5-4 win in Game 1. However, just as the Red Sox will have to rely on their starter, one of the keys for an Indians sweep is Tomlin rising to the occasion—one that will unfold under perhaps the brightest lights of Tomlin’s career. 

Tomlin’s regular-season numbers are not going to astound anyone, but they topped those of Buchholz in most categories. The key for Tomlin relates directly to stopping what Boston’s sluggers need to donamely, using their power to drive in runs. 

Tomlin’s regular-season ERA didn’t best Buchholz’s by much at 4.40, but what’s most notable is his history facing the Red Sox hitters he’ll see in Game 3. 

Ortiz and Dustin Pedroia are most familiar with Tomlin, as they have each had 17 at-bats against the right-hander. In those meetings, Ortiz tallied three hits, while Pedroia had five. As is to be expected, the younger guys in Boston’s lineup have less experience against Tomlin, although shortstop Xander Bogaerts is 3-7 against Tomlin, while Betts is just 1-6. 

Tomlin’s job will be to mitigate the power of the Boston hitters who are most likely to do damage. If he can do that, as Trevor Bauer and Kluber were mostly able to do in the first two games, Tomlin will, at the very least, put the Indians in a position to be competitive deep into the game. 

As for Cleveland’s offensive attack, the team cannot rely on the home run as it has largely done over the first two games. In Game 1, the bulk of the runs came via three solo home runs over the course of four batters, and in Game 2, the most significant blow was a three-run shot from Lonnie Chisenhall. Along with those homers, the Indians have gotten valuable production from Jason Kipnis, who is hitting .571 with three runs batted in so far in the series.  

The key for Cleveland on offense, though, will be to continue its dominance of Red Sox pitching with runners in scoring position. In Game 1, the Indians went 2-for-3 with RISP and 3-for-7 in Game 2. That is part of a formula for postseason success. 

The home runs have been nice, sure, but it would be unwise for the Indians to depend on the long ball to propel them. Of the four players who have homered for Cleveland in this series, two of them—Roberto Perez and Chisenhall—hit fewer than 10 home runs during the regular season, and Francisco Lindor, who went deep in Game 1, hit just 15. 

The Indians must focus on timely hitting and execution from hitters throughout the lineup as they set their sights on the championship series. Whichever team can achieve its winning hallmarks will have a date with Toronto, which is a daunting prospect at the moment. 

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ALDS 2016: Keys for All 4 AL Teams to Win Game 2

Thursday’s Game 1s in the American League, which featured some of the most potent offenses in all of MLB, didn’t lack the firepower we’ve come to expect from the the teams that have been doing it all year. The Toronto Blue Jays and Cleveland Indians grabbed 1-0 series leads over the Texas Rangers and Boston Red Sox, respectively, with frightening combinations of quality pitching and overwhelming power at the plate. 

The series between Toronto and Texas is a rematch of the 2015 American League Division Series. A year ago, the Blue Jays dropped the first two games in the best-of-five series at home before heading to Texas. Toronto won both games on the road to force a decisive Game 5, which it would win at home.

The 2016 division series began differently for Toronto, which secured its date with the Rangers by sinking the Baltimore Orioles at home on Tuesday following a walk-off, three-run home run in the 11th inning from Edwin Encarnacion

Despite embarrassing the Rangers at their home park on Thursday by a score of 10-1, the Blue Jays know all too well that there is an arduous road ahead that leads to the American League Championship Series and continues at 1 p.m. ET on Friday. 

Neither the Red Sox nor the Indians were participants in the 2015 postseason—Cleveland won 81 games a year ago, while Boston claimed just 78 victories. Each team’s story was substantially different in 2016, with both teams winning more than 90 games. 

Cleveland edged out Boston by one game over the course of 162, and the Tribe took Thursday’s Game 1 at home 5-4. The two teams combined to jolt six solo home runs, but it was Jason Kipnis’ RBI single in the fifth inning that made the difference.

After one game, it wouldn’t be surprising to see this series go the full five games. However, Cleveland and Boston cannot look past Game 2 on Friday at 4:30 p.m ET. 

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MLB Playoff Picture 2016: Bracket, Odds, Wild-Card Standings Entering Last Week

With just over one week left in the long slog that is the MLB regular season, the playoff pictures in both leagues are becoming clearer with each passing day. Each of the six division races is all but over, but teams in both the American League and National League continue to claw at each other’s heels in their final attempts to secure wild-card spots. 

In the AL, the Boston Red Sox and Cleveland Indians have firm holds on their respective divisions, and the Texas Rangers have already clinched the AL West title. Meanwhile, the division winners are all locked in for the NL playoffs. The Washington NationalsChicago Cubs and Los Angeles Dodgers will represent the East, Central and West, respectively, after the Dodgers clinched the NL West Sunday evening. 

Now, superstition-fueled history tells us that the San Francisco Giants should be the 2016 World Series champions. After all, they win the Fall Classic every two years, or at least they have on alternating years since 2010. If San Francisco wants a shot at keeping that trend alive, though, they’ll have to fight off the St. Louis Cardinals, who trail the Giants by just a half-game for the second wild-card spot and are 1.5 games behind the New York Mets.  

If San Francisco can snag a wild-card spot, it will enter the slugfest that will be the 2016 MLB playoffs. There will be no easy game or series for the Giants or any postseason team, and the last club standing will have had to prove it is the undisputed champion among the league’s behemoths. 

Let’s take a look at the updated playoff picture and standings.


American League

Perhaps the biggest surprise out of this group is the Indians, who strung together an inspired 14-game winning streak that just so happened to coincide with the Cleveland Cavaliers’ remarkable NBA championship in June. At 90-65 through Sunday’s action, the Indians have left the Detroit Tigers in the rearview mirror as they look to claim the AL Central led by studs such as All-Star Francisco Lindor and Carlos Santana

Cleveland acquired reliever Andrew Miller just before the trade deadline from the New York Yankees for a troop of prospects, and since changing teams, Miller has given up just five earned runs in 22 games. He has bolstered an already-impressive bullpen for the Indians.

Meanwhile, the Red Sox have just recently run away with the AL East. The Yankees abruptly faded from the playoff picture, while the Orioles and Blue Jays have been relegated to competing for the right to host the AL Wild Card Game. Boston, which has now won 11 straight games, has been buoyed by its trove of heavy hitters, led by the indefatigable David Ortiz (clap-clap, point to sky).

Ortiz, who plans to retire after this season, is absolutely mashing the ball in 2016, hitting .321 with 37 home runs and 124 RBI. During the All-Star break, Los Angeles Angels center fielder Mike Trout told Fox Sports’ Ken Rosenthal (via Joe Rodgers of Omnisport for Sporting News) he wasn’t sold that Big Papi would actually hang it up at year’s end, although due to his aching body, Ortiz maintains he will retire. 

Despite Ortiz’s monster stats, I’d be remiss not to mention Red Sox standouts Mookie Betts, Hanley Ramirez and Xander Bogaerts. And still, the list goes on, making Boston a serious threat come October in spite of its occasional shaky pitching. 

The Rangers boast an offense that is possibly more impressive than that of the Red Sox. Like Cleveland, Texas took advantage of the Yankees’ mediocrity back in July by acquiring Carlos Beltran. Beltran joined Adrian Beltre, Rougned Odor and Ian Desmond in Texas’ potent offensive attack.

Texas and Boston both boast records of 92-64 after Sunday’s games, which is tied for the best record in the American League, so let me clarify why the Rangers are still slotted as the top seed above.

Should both teams finish the season with the same record that is tops among their AL foes, the team with home-field advantage would be the squad that won the head-to-head season series. However, the Red Sox and Rangers each won three of the six meetings this season. Next, seeding is determined by which team has a greater winning percentage in games against divisional opponents. The Rangers hold a slight edge in that category and thus would be the AL’s No. 1 seed if the playoffs began today. 

Lastly, the Blue Jays and Orioles aren’t yet safe in their spots in the standings. The Tigers trail Baltimore by just 1.5 games, and the Seattle Mariners are still only 2.5 games out of the second wild-card spot. Although they currently stand to host the Wild Card Game, the Blue Jays can’t be too happy about not yet securing their place in the postseason this late in the campaign after reaching the ALCS last year.


National League

So, is this the year the Cubs finally exorcise their demons and win the World Series? With a startling record of 99-56 entering the season’s final stretch, the baseball community has to fear the Cubbies this postseason. It is the first time since 1935 that Chicago has posted at least 99 victories, although, as you know, the Cubs didn’t win the World Series that year. 

The club’s offense is led by young guns Anthony Rizzo and Kris Bryant, who have combined for 69 homers and 204 RBI so far in 2016. As for their pitching staff, the Cubs have relied heavily on Jon Lester, Jake Arrieta and Kyle Hendricks to win games this year, and they’ve done just that. The Cubs could meet up with the Mets in the NLDS if New York makes it past the Wild Card Game, which would provide a rematch of the 2015 NLCS

Speaking of the Mets, it is their former second baseman, Daniel Murphy, who has continued his postseason magic from a year ago all season long, but now he plays for his old division rival, the Washington Nationals.

Murphy has been more productive than the Nats ever could have hoped during an injury-plagued season for reigning NL MVP Bryce Harper. Murphy is hitting .347 with 25 long balls and 104 RBI and will need to continue to lead the Nationals as they make a push toward World Series baseball. 

Out west, a familiar cast of characters propelled the Dodgers to a fourth consecutive NL West title. Corey Seager, Adrian Gonzalez and Justin Turner have carried the bulk of the offensive burden, and the pitching staff responded well after the departure of Zack Greinke to Arizona during the offseason and even as ace Clayton Kershaw missed some time due to injury. 

As for the wild-card race, the Mets might be the most intriguing story. After a thrilling run to the World Series last year, New York fell flat against the Kansas City Royals. There were times during this season when it didn’t look like the Mets would even make it back to the playoffs, especially as injuries sidelined many of their high-powered arms.

After a 17-0 romping of the Phillies on Sunday, the Mets seem to have caught fire—or at least sparked some embers as the postseason nears. If they can keep it up, they will inspire some panic in their wild-card opponent, which figures to be either San Francisco or St. Louis.


World Series Odds

According to Odds Shark, the Cubs (+300; bet $100 to win $300) are the current betting favorites to win it all. These teams follow: 

Washington Nationals: +500 

San Francisco Giants: +550

Cleveland Indians: +650

Texas Rangers: +750

Baltimore Orioles, Boston Red Sox, Los Angeles Dodgers: +1200

Toronto Blue Jays: +1400 

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