Top storylines for 2017 MLB Postseason

Clayton Kershaw is among the best pitchers in the game. Can he pull it together for the NLCS?

The 2017 MLB playoffs are set. In roughly one month’s time, we’ll be crowning the Los Angeles Dodgers, Cleveland Indians, Houston Astros, Washington Nationals, Boston Red Sox, Chicago Cubs, Arizona Diamondbacks, New York Yankees, Colorado Rockies, or Minnesota Twins as World Series champions.

With these teams set to duke it out for the crown, we have plenty to look forward to.

No less than three teams enter the playoffs essentially needing a World Series win to call this season a success. A team that broke a 108-year drought in 2016 can break a league wide trend in 2017. Some of baseball’s playoff teams are expected qualifiers, others came out of nowhere, leaving us with the potential for some great underdog stories.

The 2017 MLB postseason has an abundance of great storylines to follow. For die hard and casual fans alike, these are the most important ones to keep an eye on.

Cubs’ quest to repeat

The Cubs won the World Series in 2016, ending 108 years of heartbreak and frustration. If they win again in 2017, they’ll go from curse breakers to trend breakers.

The last defending World Series champs to even get back to the Fall Classic was the 2009 Philadelphia Phillies. The last one to repeat was the New York Yankees, who won three in a row from 1998-2000. No National League team has repeated in more than 40 years, with the Cincinnati Reds winning in 1975 and 1976. Any team breaking that kind of streak would be quite a story. If the team that does it is the Cubs, with all of their previous futility, the historical significance is even greater.

Clayton Kershaw’s attempt to shed the choker label

We know that Kershaw is a future Hall of Famer. In truth, his reputation of being a big game choker isn’t completely fair. It’s just not entirely unfair, either. The Dodgers are now in the playoffs for the fifth straight year. Three of the previous four trips ended with Kershaw taking a loss and pitching poorly in the final game. It’s reasonable to expect the best pitcher in baseball to come through in those spots. When he doesn’t, it’s fair to criticize him.

If he can come through in the clutch in 2017, it will do a lot to quiet the critics. If not, though, the chatter will only grow.

A rivalry renewed in the AL Wild Card Game

Postseason matchups always have a little bit of extra juice when teams with a playoff history against each other are squaring off. We’ve got one of those in each of the Wild Card Games. In the junior circuit, we’ve got two teams with a deep postseason history against each other.

The Yankees and Twins met in the ALDS in 2003, 2004, 2009 and 2010, with the Yanks winning all four series. Throw in the big market vs. small market/rich team vs. poor team dynamic, and the always intense nature of single-elimination games makes Tuesday’s AL Wild Card Game quite intriguing.

Health of Max Scherzer

Max Scherzer

Certainly, a Washington World Series win would not be surprising. But something that could greatly hinder the hopes of the Nats is a hamstring injury to Scherzer.

The Nationals’ ace left his final start of the year prematurely. His health will be a dominant storyline in the days leading up to the NLDS against the Cubs, and possibly beyond. This is a rotation with a lot of talent and truthfully, Washington can win even if Scherzer is banged up. It’s just not something that anyone associated with the team is in any hurry to prove.

Will a different approach prove beneficial to Boston?

There’s nothing unusual about the Red Sox making the playoffs. But the way that Boston enters the playoffs is highly unusual. For starters, the Sox are entering October somewhat under the radar. They’re not one of the three teams that won 100 or more games. While an early exit would be disappointing and would certainly get the critics chirping, they won it all in 2013. So even a complete disaster in 2017 wouldn’t be all that catastrophic.

Boston is also a different kind of team this year. While most of the other postseason teams have zigged towards the longball revolution, the Red Sox zagged in the other direction. They have baseball’s fourth-lowest home run total and by far the lowest among playoff teams. That makes them different from not only the current playoff teams, but past Boston teams. The days of David Ortiz and Manny Ramirez are long over. Now, line drive guys like Jackie Bradley Jr., Mookie Betts and Andrew Benintendi, as well as pitchers like Chris Sale, are the focus.

Rockies bats vs. Zack Greinke in divisional Wild Card battle

The 2017 National League Wild Card Game is not only a 2007 NLCS rematch, but it matches up NL West rivals. As if that wasn’t enough, the winner will face Los Angeles, another division rival.

Come Wednesday, the Arizona offense against Jon Gray will be a relevant matchup. But the one that will get the most attention will be when Greinke goes against the potent Colorado offense. Greinke, one of the best pitchers of his era, has had a great year — especially in Arizona. At Chase Field, he posted a 13-1 record with a 2.87 ERA and 0.96 WHIP. He’ll certainly be tested on Wednesday when he opposes a strong lineup led by MVP candidates Charlie Blackmon and Nolan Arenado.

Bryce Harper’s return from injury

The Nationals certainly enter the postseason with a lot of question marks for a team that’s had its division effectively locked up since mid-May. In addition to Scherzer’s injury, Harper has played only sparingly in the season’s final week after missing more than a month with a knee injury.

As good as Scherzer is, he’s a starting pitcher who will appear once every four games. Even if his injury proves serious, winning without him is plausible. If Harper — one of baseball’s best everyday players — has a hard time regaining his form, it gets a lot harder to foresee Washington wading its way through strong postseason competition.

Can Dodgers finally rise to October pressure?

Los Angeles has won five straight National League West championships. Make no mistake. That’s a tremendous accomplishment. But the Dodgers didn’t spend hundreds of millions of dollars only to watch other teams celebrate in October. Over the last four years, Los Angeles has had to do that. In 2017, they Dodgers posted baseball’s best record, and while a late August-early September swoon kept this from happening, they had a chance at MLB’s single-season wins record.

That success is all well and good. But make no mistake, if it leads to nothing more than another short October, then the 2017 season will be remembered as a big disappointment. The tension will be high in the City of Angels this month for the Dodgers to live up to the hype.

Astros’ pitching rotation tries to match its bats

MLB Houston Astros Dallas Keuchel

Houston’s offense is simply awesome. We know about the stars like Jose Altuve, George Springer and Carlos Correa. But it’s a deep lineup, as well. The questions revolve around the pitching. Can Dallas Keuchel, Lance McCullers and Collin McHugh match the arms of the Red Sox, led by Chris Sale? If so, can they do the same in a likely ALCS matchup against Corey Kluber and the Indians? Playoff games also tend to be low scoring. So, the bullpen, which ranked in the middle of the pack this season, will be a question mark, too.

Houston is as talented as any team. But being talented is one thing. Being talented in the right places is another. The playoffs will tell us if the Astros can win games against the league’s best teams and pitchers when the offense isn’t routinely beating the ball around the park.

Cubs vs. their old manager in the NLDS

Clips of the old Steve Bartman play should have been retired long ago and certainly should have been retired after the 2016 World Series. Be that as it may, we expect to see that play a few more times as the Cubs go against the Nationals and Dusty Baker, the manager who led Chicago to that fateful 2003 NLCS.

Baker will either end his old team’s championship reign, or his old team will add to his (and his team’s) poor playoff record. Either way, it will be worth watching.

Influx of youth in October

Baseball’s future will very much be on display in October. This year will mark the postseason debuts of Yankees right fielder Aaron Judge and Dodgers first baseman Cody Bellinger, both of whom are obvious Rookie of the Year winners.

The playoffs will also put the spotlight on youngsters like Carlos Correa, Francisco Lindor, Kris Bryant, Corey Seager, Gary Sanchez, Andrew Benintendi and many others. Get used to hearing these names, baseball fans. You’ll be hearing them a lot over the next decade.

Potential David vs. Goliath matchups

Five of the six division winners repeated from 2016. Even the Astros — the one non-repeat division winner — were far from surprising. We can’t say the same about the four Wild Card teams.

The Twins, Rockies, and Diamondbacks were a combined 203-283 in 2016. Heck, while we can’t call the Yankees a traditional Cinderella team, they weren’t exactly considered a playoff team at the beginning of the season. This postseason will offer a wealth of chances to see the David vs. Goliath matchups that we all love.

Will the home run numbers carry into October?

As we already detailed, the Red Sox are really the only playoff team to not be potent at hitting the long ball. In reality, it’s been a league wide influx, with 2017 shattering the previous record for most home runs in a season. Now, will it translate into October? Traditionally, the answer to that is no.

A home run can always make a huge difference in a close, low scoring game between two stud pitchers. But usually, playoff baseball features the best pitchers on the best teams, and quite frankly, they don’t give up the long ball so easily. But in addition to the youngsters like Bellinger and Judge, we have plenty of veterans like Harper, Paul Goldschmidt and Nolan Arenado, just to name a few. As hard as it is to see the playoffs turning into a home run derby, it’s equally as hard to see so many lethal power hitters being kept in the park.

Nationals try to shake off injuries, put poor October past in rear view mirror

Bryce Harper is one of the most annoying MLB players today

This is the Nats’ fourth National League East crown since 2012. The previous three postseason trips all ended in NLDS losses to a team with an inferior record. While the Cubs haven’t had a terribly consistent regular season, they are an immensely talented team. Still, this is a series that Washington should win. The Nationals have the home field advantage and with Max Scherzer (assuming he’s healthy), Gio Gonzalez and Stephen Strasburg, will have favorable starting pitching matchups in every series.

The talent is there to match the expectations. Now it’s on the Nationals to not just win their first playoff series since 1981 (when they were the Montreal Expos), but to put it all together and make this October trip a lengthy one.

Which Aaron Judge will show up?

If it were to come out one day that Judge has an identical twin that nobody knew about, it would make some sense to those who have watched his entire 2017 season. Judge entered the All-Star Break hitting .329/.448/.691 with 30 home runs in 84 games. Then, things went hard in another direction. In his 54 games from July 14-September 9, Judge hit a respectable nine home runs, but he backed it up with a .182/.346/.365 line. Since then, he’s turned it back on. Excluding Sunday, he’s hit .367/.512/1.10 with 13 home runs since September 10.

We’re not going to go as far as to say that the Yankees will lose on Tuesday if the bad Judge shows up, nor will we say that they’ll win if the good one goes up. Baseball is too random to be that brash about one game. But if New York gets through Minnesota and Judge is hitting well, then the Yankees become a very difficult team to beat in a series. Conversely, if the bad Judge shows up, a long playoff run will not be in order for the Bombers.

Indians looking to take that one lest step

It’s almost impossible to come as close to winning a championship without actually winning one as Cleveland did in 2016. Since then, the Indians have followed that up with a great regular season and have had an impossibly good September. That’s the good news.

The bad news? All of those factors combined will make it very hard for Cleveland to call 2017 a truly successful season if it doesn’t end in a championship. Like the Dodgers and Nationals, the expectations are just that high when you combine recent playoff failures with great talent.

The Indians do have some good recent examples in the sports world to follow. Losing a championship and winning the next year? Look no further than your city mates, the Cleveland Cavaliers. Blowing a 3-1 lead in the championship series and winning the next year? The 2017 Golden Warriors showed that that’s possible. Winning a year after losing a crushing Game 7 of the World Series at home? The 2015 Kansas City Royals did just that. The expectations are high, but the Indians have plenty of good recent role models to follow.