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TGS SPECIAL REPORT...2016 MLB PLAYOFF PREVIEW!

                                   by Bruce Marshall, Goldsheet.com Editor


(Editor's note: The MLB playoffs begin this week, and THE GOLD SHEET continues its daily releases online, which can purchased for $10 on TGS Top Choice or $25 for multiple picks on TGS MLB Top Choice Plus (+) at www.goldsheet.com.)

Following is a quick preview of how the postseason shapes up in both the American and National Leagues. Pennant win prices are included next to each team's name.

AMERICAN LEAGUE

Perhaps fueled by the memory of a painful playoff exit (as was the case with last year's Royals), the Texas Rangers (2/1), who bitterly recall blowing a 2-0 lead (with the series coming back home to boot) against the Blue Jays in last year's ALDS, have emerged as the AL's most consistent team this season. They have secured home-field edge as far as they can progress in the postseason (thanks also to the AL's 4-2 win in the All-Star Game at San Diego back on July 12). No AL team has been able to score runs with the combination of speed and power as have the Rangers (who added extra pop at the trade deadline when acquiring C Jonathan Lucroy from the Brewers), and the defense has tightened this season with SS Elvis Andrus emerging as a force. Manager Jeff Bannister likely goes with a four-man rotation in the playoffs, with Cole Hamels at the top, followed by Yu Darvish, Colby Lewis, and Martin Perez, though Hamels could be moved into the Perez slot if Texas faces elimination in Game 4 of the ALDS. Lewis, however, enters postseason as a mild concern after going winless in his last five starts. Meanwhile, the bullpen, considered a possible weakness earlier in the season, had a scoreless streak approaching 30 innings into the last weekend of the regular season, the second-longest streak in franchise history (the 1969 Senators went 35 2/3 scoreless innings in April of 1969). The home edge is important, as Texas recorded an AL-best 53-28 home mark in Arlington this season...enough, we think, to give the Rangers a real shot at the ring and a chance to erase the bitter taste of the painful 2011 World Series loss to the Cards in the process.

What will happen in the ALDS between the Boston Red Sox (9/4) and Cleveland Indians (4/1)? Since just before the All-Star break, the Bosox rotation has posted the best ERA (3.54) in the AL, which helped the Sox pull away from the rest of the AL East in September. Rick Porcello, with his MLB-high 22 wins, could win the AL Cy Young Award, while the Sox have won nine of David Price's last ten starts. Meanwhile, three of the top five hitters in the AL (Mookie Betts, Dustin Pedroia, and David Ortiz) are in the Boston lineup, with Pedroia recently recording a 30-game hit streak. Betts could win the MVP, Hanley Ramirez the Comeback Player of the Year, while Big Papi, unlike Kobe Bryant's one-night highlight in his goodbye campaign, has written a season-long fairytale farewell (and how, the AL co-leader in RBIs!), adding extra emotion to the mix.

The concern for Boston entering the postseason centers around recent erratic efforts from closer Craig Kimbrel, suffering from control issues that pitching coach Carl Willis believes are due to mechanical flaws that can be corrected. If Willis is wrong and Kimbrel continues to struggle, however, we're not sure the Bosox, for all of their positives, get past the Tribe in the ALDS. There has already been a bit of magic this year in Cleveland with the Cavs winning the city's first pro sports title in 52 years. Can the Tribe, whose own title drought extends 68 years, follow suit? We'd have felt better about Cleveland's chances had injuries not hit the pitching staff down the stretch, with Carlos Carrasco (finger) definitely out for the postseason and Danny Salazar trying to fight his way back from a forearm injury. Staff co-ace Corey Kluber also gave the team a scare within the last week with a quadriceps strain, but likely is ready for Game 2 of the ALDS on Friday. Remember that Terry Francona's side has been resilient all season, somehow managing to rank second in AL runs scored with a mostly non-descript lineup that has been shuffled and re-shuffled (the same eight position players haven't started in the same eight positions for more than two games in a row all season!), with valuable jack-of-all trades Jose Ramirez having started in four positions. Francona's team has found a lot of ways to win besides leaning on its rotation, and Cleveland will have home edge vs. the Bosox.

We suppose if either of the AL Wild Card entries make an impression in the playoffs, it will be the Toronto Blue Jays (11/2), even though they did not roar down the stretch as they did a year ago, as an offensive short-circuit in September forced the Jays to scramble just to qualify. The Jays still have six batters who have bashed 20 or more homers, but they've mostly cooled in the last few weeks. The staff leads the league in quality starts, with Aaron Sanches and JA Happ a combined 35-6, but Toronto needs its bats to reawaken in a hurry to have a chance to advance. We have been waiting all season for the Baltimore Orioles (12/1) to implode as Buck Showalter works the bullpen to death. But the O's skipper has managed to stitch things together with a variety of relievers (with shutdown closer Zach Britton as near to automatic as can be). While the Birds (who lead the AL in homers) can bang, and journeyman Steve Trumbo led the majors in round-trippers, we still wonder about Showalter's rotation beyond Chris Tillman, especially with Kevin Gausman hampered by a strained intercostal muscle in recent starts. A deep run by the Birds appears unlikely, and the possibility of the Blue Jays and Rangers resuming their recent hostilities in the ALDS would at least make for good TV.

NATIONAL LEAGUE

For the past six months, hype for the Chicago Cubs (10/11) has been on overload, with their first World Series appearance in 71 years and first title in 108 years being treated like a fait accompli in Wrigleyville. We caution, however, that the real record to note is 15-13...the Cubs' mark vs. NL Playoff teams this season. There are also concerns about the recent form of the starting rotation outside of Kyle Hendricks and Jon Lester. Otherwise, however, it is going to take some effort to knock out the Cubbies, who, among other positives, are now getting extra mileage from versatile Ben Zobrist, who rediscovered his power stroke late in the season and whose ability to switch-hit comes in handy. Joe Maddon's pitching staff led the bigs in most relevant stat categories, while the offense and its various power sources were also among MLB leaders. Moreover, the Cubs have a taste of the postseason after winning the Wild Card game at Pittsburgh and dominating the Cardinals in the NLDS before getting swept by the Mets in the NLCS a year ago. There might be a chance to gain revenge on the Mets out of the chute in October, but looming worryingly could also be the Giants, the team Maddon would probably rather not face in the NLDS.

Something has got to give in the other NLDS that will feature the Washington Nationals (27/10) and the Los Angeles Dodgers (4/1), both notorious postseason flops in recent years. Indeed, the Nats franchise has only once won a playoff series, and that came in the jerry-rigged 1981 strike season when, as the Montreal Expos, it won an NL East playoff vs. the Phils before being cruelly denied a World Series berth by the Dodgers and a game-deciding homer by current LA radio announcer Rick Monday.

In 2016, however, it might be an edge to the Nats, partly because Washington has home-field edge, and partly due to matchups. Dusty Baker's fireballer Max Scherzer will confront Clayton Kershaw in Game One, and it is not lost on observers how Kershaw, recently activated from the DL, has never dominated in the postseason, tending to "throw" rather than pitch, as he has often seemed to try to simply blow away opposing batters, often to his detriment. Indeed, the expected LA rotation of Kershaw, midseason addition Rich Hill, and Japanese import Kenta Maeda does not have much of a track record in the postseason. Though Baker will have legitimate fear pitching to Dodger 1B Adrian Gonzalez, the Blue lineup is filled with a lot of swing-and-miss hitters that the Nats staff has mostly feasted upon this season. Washington also has an edge in manufacturing runs with MVP candidate Daniel Murphy and star rookie Trae Turner, and can build an inning without help of the long ball, and 3B Anthony Rendon has gotten red hot in the second half of the season.  Meanwhile,  LA has also had season-long issues vs. lefties. The main concern for the Nats might be closer Mark Melancon, added from the Pirates at the trade deadline, but too often struggling with command. If Melancon doesn't implode, however, expect the Nats to advance...and have no fear of the Cubs, if that is indeed the matchup, in the NLCS.

It might be asking a bit much of the New York Mets (10/1) to make it back to the World Series, especially considering how they have to go the Wild Card route this season and will be proceeding with a depleted rotation minus injured Matt Harvey, Jacob de Grom, and Steven Matz, all in the 2015 playoff rotation. But rookies Robert Gsellman and Seth Lugo have stepped into the rotation that still features Noah Syndergaard at the top, and after dropping to 60-62 in mid-August, the Mets recorded the MLB's best record thereafter. On the other hand, the San Francisco Giants (15/1) recorded the NL's worst record after the All-Star break (at which point they had the best MLB mark, even ahead of the Cubs), but recovered just in time to put away the Dodgers this past weekend to squeeze into the postseason. They've been shut out nine times since the break, and the bullpen just had a stretch where it blew half of its leads entering the ninth inning over a near one-month stretch. But it's an even-numbered year, and Madison Bumgarner now has Johnny Cueto pitching right behind him in the rotation. Bumgarner will have to get past the Mets' Syndergaard on the road in the NL Wild Card game, but we have learned never to count out a Bruce Bochy-managed team in the postseason.  Nonetheless, it would be Bochy's neatest trick yet if the Giants replicate their 2010-12-14 exploits.

Maybe it is the year of the Cubs, and the chance to bury those century-old demons. But this might also be the year of a Series for oldtimers who recall the Senators moving out of D.C. to Dallas-Fort Worth after 1971 (and angry fans loitering onto the field in the 9th inning of the Sens' last game at RFK Stadium, vs. the Yankees, causing a forfeit!) and will get a kick out of a Texas-Washington World Series instead. And the first mentions on the sports pages of former Senators-Rangers owner Bob Short in more than 40 years. Stay tuned.


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