American League Playoff Preview
Four teams, one world series spot: after 162 games of gruelling regular season action the best of the American League do battle for a chance at the championship.
The American League play-off race was wide open for much of the season. Even in the season's final week there were several teams vying for just two wildcard spots. With the possibility of a three-way tie looming over the AL on the final day of regular season action, the Detroit Tigers were unable to win ensuring an all AL East match-up in Tuesday's wildcard game. After a topsy-turvy extra inning battle, Edwin Encarnacion's late walk-off home run sent the Toronto Blue Jays into the divisional series. Down now to four teams, it is time to weigh up their respective play-off chances.
Boston Red Sox
The Red Sox 2016 narrative has run fairly firmly through one man: David Ortiz. The 40 year old designated hitter has enjoyed a fairytale swansong season in Boston, and will retire from the team as a legend in his own right. If there is one thing we have learned with Ortiz however, it is that for as good as he is in the regular season he only ever gets better in the post-season. One of the greatest clutch hitters ever to grace October baseball, his proclivity for crucial late-game hits will make his at-bats must watch TV in the post-season.
Alongside Ortiz, the Red Sox boast a particularly strong line-up, highlighted by MVP candidate Mookie Betts and resurgent first baseman Hanley Ramirez, whilst 22 game winner Rick Porcello leads an improving rotation. Play-off games at Fenway Park tend to be particularly special, and this team is going to be very hard to beat especially if they get deeper into this post-season.
First the Cavaliers, now the Indians? It's already been a magical year for Cleveland sports fans (assuming they haven't bothered watching NFL Sundays) and after a couple of years hiatus the Indians find themselves back in the post-season as the AL Central champs. The Indians haven't won a championship since 1948 and have won just two in total in their 115 year history (I know, Cubs fans would kill for that kind of success). Manager Terry Francona successfully ended Boston's extensive championship drought in 2004 and he will steward this exciting Cleveland team here in 2016. The team's best player and leader is the impressive Francisco Lindor. At just 22 years of age, Lindor has already proved himself to be one of the game's best shortstops and an important piece at the heart of the Indians line-up. On the mound, injuries have ravaged a once lethal rotation but Corey Kluber is a Cy Young winner and with Andrew Miller and Cody Allen, this team has one of the best late-inning bullpen tandems in the league. They won't be a particularly popular World Series pick, but overlook the Indians at your peril.
The Rangers stormed to the best record in the American League and subsequent home-field advantage throughout the post-season. Behind one of the best line-ups in baseball and a rock solid pitching staff, the team has flown under the radar a little having had the division sewn up for a while. Adrian Beltre has rolled back the years at third base, whilst Yu Darvish's return from Tommy John surgery has thus far been successful. After their crushing World Series defeat in 2011, the Rangers will be out to finally win their first championship and could be the team to beat if Darvish and Cole Hamels pitch to their potential and the revamped line-up continues to rake.
Toronto Blue Jays
After a thrilling walk-off victory over Baltimore in the wildcard game, the Blue Jays have booked themselves a rematch of last year's ALDS against the Rangers. To say that these two teams have some history would be an understatement. The undoubted 'mic drop moment' of the 2015 play-offs came in game five of that divisional series when Jose Bautista launched one of the great post-season home runs sparking pandemonium in Toronto. Earlier this year, the rivalry threatened to boil over again when Rougned Odor landed an eye watering punch during a wild melée. The Blue Jays have a line-up stacked with right-handed power hitters but there are question marks over the durability of this pitching staff. Regardless of the quality of baseball, the series promises some firework moments if recent contests between these two teams are anything to go by.
Predictions for the American League:
Red Sox beat the Indians in 5: The Red Sox have had issues with their bullpen but ultimately the offense is too strong to fall short in a great series.
Rangers beat the Blue Jays in 4: This series will explode to life in game four when an extra-inning victory for Texas helps exact some revenge for last year's result.
Rangers beat the Red Sox in 6: Yu Darvish and Cole Hamels prove too much quality for the Red Sox who are unable to provide a fairytale ending to David Ortiz's glittering career.
Be sure to tune in and watch whatever baseball you can this post-season - if the wildcard games are anything to go by then we're in for an exciting set of games!