With a pitch in the Bronx, presumably from Luis Severino to Brian Dozier, along comes baseball’s postseason on Tuesday night.
Who we’re watching this week and this month:
Robbie Ray: Among qualified pitchers, the National League leader in strikeouts per nine is Ray, the 26-year-old left-hander who had a break-through season for the Diamondbacks. Four years ago, the Nationals traded him (and two others) to the Tigers for Doug Fister. A year later, the Tigers flipped him to the Diamondbacks in a three-way trade that, among other outcomes, put Didi Gregorius in New York. In the event the Diamondbacks beat the Rockies, Ray was 3-0 with a 2.27 ERA and 53 strikeouts over 31 ⅔ innings against the Dodgers. In a postseason in which they’ll have to spend Zack Greinke in the wild-card game, Ray becomes a critical player in the division series.
David Price: Weird year, man. Persistent elbow and forearm pain limited him to 74 ⅔ innings, 8 ⅔ of those over the past two weeks in relief, the role he’ll occupy in October. He killed time berating reporters, along with Dennis Eckersley, while Red Sox fans pondered Price’s affinity for their city, along with theirs for him. It’s all gotten a little fragile. None of it will matter if the Red Sox knock out the Indians and Price gets outs between their starters and Craig Kimbrel. So far, so good. In those 8 ⅔ innings, he has allowed three hits and no runs and struck out 13.
Jon Lester: The Cubs are really interesting again. They weren’t quite what we thought they’d be for a long time, and then only the Indians won more games in the second half. They pitched better. They outscored everybody, by a lot. And they enter the postseason wholly capable of doing that October thing, end to end, just like last October, when Lester took the ball six times (once in relief) and the Cubs won five of those games. He remains a good portion of the determination and toughness that drives the Cubs. He did, however, give folks a decent scare when he popped three imprecise starts – too many walks, too many home runs, not enough strikeouts – across a month, before righting himself in the final two.
Trevor Bauer: Say what you will about the eccentric right-hander, but the guy has great stuff, he can pitch, and he’s not afraid. His season numbers aren’t much better than they were last year, though that’s primarily because of a ratty early season. Since May 14, in 25 starts and one relief appearance, Bauer won 15 games and posted a 3.45 ERA. The Indians’ undoing last fall was their lack of rotational depth. That’s changed. For all the reasons the Indians could be better this fall – the addition of Jay Bruce, a healthy Carlos Carrasco and Jose Ramirez’s power – an improved Trevor Bauer would have the greatest impact.
Charlie Blackmon: He hit .391 in 302 home at-bats. The Rockies do not play at home Wednesday night. But, should they take out the Diamondbacks, there’ll be some Coors Field at-bats coming for Blackmon, and those make the Rockies dangerous. Beyond that, Blackmon plays the game smart and fast and with power. He hits good pitching. (vs. Carlos Martinez, .529; vs. Robbie Ray, .519; vs. Stephen Strasburg, .455; vs. Madison Bumgarner, .333; vs. Clayton Kershaw, .313). He bears one of the great/awful beards in the league, and easily the best mullet, and a fun sense of humor. The world needs more Charlie Blackmon.
Marwin Gonzalez: In the past few weeks alone, Gonzalez logged innings at first base, second base, left field, shortstop and third base. The reason for that is the Astros hardly ever needed him in right or center field anymore. In the annual season-ending conversation about value, cast a little love toward Gonzalez, the utility player who accumulates more than 500 plate appearances, who spells the stars in the middle and on the corners, who also hits 23 homers and bats .303. Who hits .360 with runners in scoring position. Who hits .429 at Fenway Park and .364 against the Red Sox.
Yasiel Puig: Even on a team of stars and emerging stars (and a few former stars), there’s something about Puig that forever makes you wonder what he’s up to. Well, he just played in a career-high 151 games, hit 28 home runs (15 while batting eighth), mastered right field, hammered right-handed pitching (and, oddly, was borderline helpless against lefties) and generally was a good dude. Yes, he had his moments. Yes, he was benched for being late. He was, ultimately, a productive ballplayer, if not a superstar, and a tougher out, if not precisely what everyone had in mind a few years ago.
Byron Buxton: This is what it looks like when a young man begins to grow into his body, into his career. Buxton is 23 years old. The second overall pick in the 2012 draft (after Carlos Correa), Buxton was in the big leagues at 21, labeled a bust at 22, and ignoring that at 23. In the first half, Buxton batted .216. In the second, he was the Twins’ best player. He smoothed out his swing, quieted his mind, and suddenly he had a bat to go along with one of the better gloves in baseball. Of all the Twins do well offensively, they’re not in New York if Buxton doesn’t hit .387 in July, .324 in August, .270 in September, if Buxton doesn’t hit enough to keep his glove and legs in the lineup.
Gary Sanchez: Over 177 career games, Sanchez has 53 home runs and a .920 OPS, 33 of those homers in 122 games this season. He stands in the middle of the Yankees’ lineup, most recently in the three-hole behind Aaron Judge, and drives an offense outscored by only the Astros in the American League. Sanchez is, however, considered a defensive liability, as evidence by his 16 passed balls, tied with Yasmani Grandal for the most in baseball. Joe Girardi benched Sanchez in August for defensive purposes, saying then, “He needs to improve, bottom line.” Sanchez might be better suited as DH, but it appears he’ll be the regular catcher for as long as the Yankees last.
Bryce Harper: Up until Max Scherzer grabbed a hamstring on the season’s final Saturday, Dusty Baker’s nagging concern would have been for Harper, who required six weeks to return from his knee injury and in four games had one hit – a single – and six strikeouts in 14 at-bats. He rallied for a couple hits and a walk Sunday. He also scored from first on a seventh-inning double. So, progress. The Nationals now have four days off, so four more healing days for Harper’s knee, but also four more quiet days for Harper’s bat, which probably could use the reps.