As we enter the month of September, we also enter the final full month of the 2023 MLB season. At this point in the year, each team knows exactly what’s at stake. Some teams are out of the hunt, while others gear up for a push to the postseason. With that in mind, let’s take a look at some of the most interesting races for the MLB playoffs.
The AL East is arguably the most competitive division in all of baseball this year. Up until a little while ago, all five teams had a winning record. Currently, the worst team, the Yankees, are just one game below .500.
Currently, the newest team on the scene is the Baltimore Orioles. They lead by three games with an 85-51 record. Still, the Rays are hot on their tail. Both of these teams are excellent in nearly every aspect, and this will be one of the most exciting races to watch. Will the newcomer Orioles have the poise to hold on, and likely secure a first-round bye? Only time will tell.
On the other side of the country, the western section of the American League has been very interesting.
Texas has led this group for most of the season, yet have gone on a skid as of late, and sit one game off the pace. The Astros have been holding steady all year long, and their persistence has them tied for first.
Meanwhile, Seattle has risen from the ashes, and currently hold a share of the division lead. After a rough first half to the season, they’ve gone on a tear, and have formed an exciting three-team race for the division as the year winds down.
Leading the division is Milwaukee with a 76-61 record, led by their impressive pitching staff. The Cubs, like Seattle, burst onto the scene during the second half of the year. They’re just 2.5 games off the pace at this point.
Finally, there’s Cincinnati. The Reds have slowed down as of late, after a run to start the season that had them leading the division for quite a while. They’ve fallen back to reality, and sit just four games above .500, sitting 5.5 games behind the Brew Crew.
AL Wild Card
With just a month left, we can get a pretty good look at how the Wild Card race might end up. It seems whoever finishes second in AL East will get the first Wild Card spot, as Tampa Bay is currently over five games ahead of the Astros.
After that, currently the second and third-place teams in the West hold the remaining two spots. The Blue Jays are only half a game behind Texas for the third spot. The next closest team is Boston, at 4.5 games back.
This Wild Card race is much, much more interesting. The Phillies currently hold the first spot, five games clear. They’re followed by the Cubs, who have a narrower, three game cushion. Finally, the D-backs, who sit at 71-67, are just one game ahead of Cincinnati for the final Wild Card spot.
As I just mentioned, the Reds are the first team out of the race. Miami is right on their tail, at just a half a game back. The only other team close is San Francisco, who sits a full game out. This is a race that has been infected by new, young teams, and is much more exciting than usual for that very reason.
This season, we were treated to farewell tours for at least two future Hall of Famers. It could be three, depending on whether or not Adam Wainwright hangs it up, and depending on whether or not he gets in. If it was his last, it was not exactly a great end, but that shouldn’t overshadow what was a fantastic career.
That career was spent as part of arguably the most accomplished battery of all time with catcher Yadier Molina. The two set an MLB record this year for the most starts by a battery. Speaking of ‘Yadi’, he capped off his career with a clutch hit that extended the game by another at-bat.
This was a perfect way for him to punctuate one of his most underrated qualities: clutch hitting. Molina gets knocked often for only being average at best offensively for most of his career. This causes his ability to get hits in crucial situations to get overlooked. He got to remind us all of this trait on his way out the door.
Then we have departure of the greatest hitter of the 21st century: Albert Pujols. Having Pujols come back to St.Louis for a swan song season was perfect in itself. He somehow made it better with a miraculous run in the second-half of the season to reach 700 career home runs. It was one of the coolest things that has happened in baseball — and sports in general — in a while.
Having all of this happen in one year was truly special. It is not something that happens very often. Including a playoff run made it even sweeter. Unfortunately, they were unable to capture the ultimate storybook ending with a ring. That would have been almost too perfect anyway.
Pitching Finally Does Cardinals in
In a three-game series, being out-matched on the mound is basically a death sentence. Starting pitching had been a glaring weakness for St. Louis all season. They added two solid pieces to the rotation at the deadline in Jose Quintana and Jordan Montgomery. Still, they lacked the high-end starting pitching that the Phillies put on full display this weekend.
Quintana had earned the right to start game one of the series. He pitched well, but his limitations reared their head in the sixth inning. Despite playing great, Quintana is not someone that has earned the trust to face an opposing lineup three times.
He was pulled, and the job for the bullpen proved to be one inning too big. Ryan Helsley and Andre Pallante were shelled for six runs in the ninth. On the other side, Philadelphia starter Zack Wheeler was able to lighten the load for his bullpen by pitching into the seventh inning.
Game two is when the pitching disparity became most obvious. Aaron Nola was brilliant as usual for Philly. He went 6.2 shutout innings, gave up just four hits, and struck out six batters. The Cardinals sent out a committee of starters and relievers. Miles Mikolas got the start, but made it less than five innings and gave up two runs before ceding to Montgomery.
The former Yankee finished the fifth and pitched the sixth and seventh, as well. Giovanny Gallegos and Jordan Hicks finished out the last two innings. The game ended 2-0.
The Cardinals pitching staff did not play bad in this series at all. In fact, outside of the ninth inning in game one, they largely kept the team in it. But at the end of the day they just weren’t quite good enough to keep up. Aces reign supreme in October, and St. Louis doesn’t appear to even have one right now.
Paul Goldschmidt and Nolan Arenado Need to Step up
This seems silly given the pair will likely finish top-two in the National League MVP voting. Regular season awards are nice, but they mean nothing in October. Both Goldschmidt and Arenado were hardly noticeable offensively in this series.
The former was just horrible, going zero for seven with one hit-by-pitch and four strikeouts. The latter was slightly better. Arenado had just one hit, but if a couple of things went his way, his numbers would have been more respectable.
This wouldn’t be a huge deal by itself. What is alarming is that this seems to be part of a trend. In last year’s Wild Card game against the Dodgers, Arenado was hitless in four at-bats. Goldschmidt was solid in that game, getting a hit and drawing two walks.
However, that was one of his better postseason performances since joining the Cardinals in 2019. He has gone 14 for 60 in the playoffs with St. Louis, which is a .233 batting average. These two have simply not lived up to expectations when it has mattered the most.
Looking back at their pre-St. Louis postseason numbers doesn’t help much, either. Arenado went a dismal 4-for-21 in Colorado. Goldschmidt was decent with Arizona, hitting 10-for-32. These are very small sample sizes due to the fact that the Rockies and Diamondbacks were pretty bad for most of their respective tenures. The ability to play postseason baseball on regular basis is a big part of what brought them to St. Louis in the first place. Now that they have the opportunities, it is up to them to make the most of it.
With the Cardinals’ elder statesmen retiring, ‘Goldy’ and Arenado will become the de facto leaders of the team. What made the old guard so great was their ability to turn it on in October. It has been time for these two to start doing the same. They need to find that playoff magic soon, or they could start to wear out their welcome.
Oliver Marmol is Still Green
There is a lot to commend Marmol for in his debut season. He navigated the hoopla of the final seasons for the team’s stars very well. He also oversaw the emergence of a lot of young talent. Finally, he got a club without an ace pitcher a division crown.
Yet, when the playoffs rolled around, Marmol’s inexperience was felt. Typically, pulling Quintana when he did would have made a ton of sense. In the playoffs, that ‘three times through the lineup’ rule goes out the window. If your starter is dealing, you ride the hot hand. This is especially true when your closer is not a hundred percent healthy.
Trying to pitch Helsley for more than three outs was also a mistake in and of itself. That Helsley implosion is totally on Marmol, and it cost the Cardinals the game — and likely the series. Had St. Louis made it to a game three, they would have gotten to feast upon lefty Roger Suarez, in what would have been a favorable match-up. That one mistake in game one makes the whole thing moot, though.
Looking Beyond the St Louis Cardinals 2022 Season
The Future Looks Bright
While the departures of Yadi, Pujols, and possibly Waino mark the end of an era, a new one is already taking shape. They have several other veterans ready to lead in Goldschmidt and Arenado. There are budding stars beginning reach their prime in Tommy Edman, Brendan Donavan, and Lars Nootbaar. Plus, you have plenty of promising talent ready to come out of the pipeline in Nolan Gorman, Jordan Walker, and Masyn Winn. They also have a promising young manager who will surely grow into the job.
Just looking at it on paper, St. Louis will only have to replace a catcher, a starting pitcher, and a designated hitter who didn’t even play every day for most of the season. 2023 should be more of a reload than a rebuild.
To say that Yordan Alvarez was pretty good in the American League Championship Series is an understatement. Saying he was on fire the last two games of the ALCS is pretty accurate. Alvarez, who was named the series MVP, was virtually unstoppable in the final two games. In fact, in games five and six, he outhit the entire Red Sox by himself. The ball may be looking huge to him right now and the Houston Astros are hoping that stays.
The Astros and the Atlanta Braves will meet starting Tuesday night in Game 1 of the World Series. Alvarez will be playing in his second World Series after appearing in the 2019 Fall Classic as a rookie against the Washington Nationals. Alvarez’s been a skilled acquisition for the Astros. However, if not for former GM Jeff Luhnow, he may not have ever come to Houston.
The Dodgers signed Alvarez as an international free agent after two seasons in the Cuban National Series. The Astros traded for him in 2016 for reliever Josh Fields. Alvared would make his professional debut in 2016 with the Dominican Summer League Astros, and began 2017 with the Quad City River Bandits. During this time, he was promoted to the Blues Creek Astros. He appeared in the All-Star Futures Game.
While with AA Corpus Christi in 2018, he was ranked among the top minor league prospects in the game. This earned him a promotion to the Fresno Grizzlies of Class AAA Pacific Coast League. He hit a combined .293/.369/.534 with 20 home runs, and 74 RBI. The 2019 season for Alvarez with the Round Rock Express of the PCL finished as follows: .343/.443/.742 with 23 home runs, 71 RBI, 38 walks, and 50 runs before he was called up on June 9, 2019.
Alvarez made his MLB debut against the Baltimore Orioles and went 1 for 3 with a two-run home run. In 87 games with the Astros, he batted .313 with 27 home runs, 75 RBI, and had a slugging percentage of .655, which was the highest in history for a qualified rookie. He helped lead the Astros to the World Series and hit his first postseason home run in Game Five’s victory. After the season, he would win the American League Rookie of the Year award unanimously.
The 2020 season would be one to forget for Alvarez. He sat out at the start of the season due to testing positive for COVID-19. He would return in August but only play two games due to knee issues that would cause him to have arthroscopic surgery on both knees and shut him down for the season.
Alvarez would rebound from his lost 2020 season and play well in 2021. He finished the regular season batting .277 with 33 home runs and 105 RBI, helping the Astros win the AL West division. He’s been successful this postseason; now just hope he can keep his hot streak going in the World Series. Should he stay hot, it’ll go a long way in the Astros winning their second World Title in five seasons. For him, it would be his first and the perfect way to end the season after a lost one.
Framber Valdez was on top of his game in game five of the American League Championship Series on Wednesday night. No Houston Astros pitcher had gone more than three innings in any of the previous four games in the series. Valdez went eight innings, allowing one run on three hits while striking out five to shut Boston down. The Astros are now one game away from their third AL Pennant and advancing to the World Series for the third time in five seasons.
Game Five Recap
Valdez, who started game one and lasted two and ⅔ innings, was great in game five. He got into a jam in the fifth inning, however. After Rafael Devers singled to right field and then a hit-by-pitch to J.D. Martinez, Astros manager Dusty Baker visited the mound to talk and calm his right-hander. Whatever was said worked, as Hunter Renfroe grounded into a double play and Alex Verdugo grounded out to first.
Valdez and Red Sox starter Chris Sale were in a pitcher’s duel going into the sixth inning. With the Astros leading 1-0, on the strength of a Yordan Alvarez solo home run in the second, they erupted for five runs in the frame. After Jose Altuve singled and Michael Brantley reached on an error, Alvarez doubled to left to score them both to make it 3-0. A Kyle Tucker infield single would move Alvarez to third and a Yuli Gurriel double would bring him in to make it 4-0. Jose Siri would follow and single to right, scoring Tucker and Gurriel for a 6-0 lead.
Houston would add another run in the seventh on a Brantley single to center, scoring Altuve. Two more runs in the ninth on a Gurriel single would bring Alex Bregman and Correa around to make it 9-1. Alvarez would finish the night three for five with three RBI and finishing a triple short of the cycle. Valdez went eight innings and allowed one run on three hits and five strikeouts. Ryne Stanek would pitch the ninth to finish off the win.
Look Ahead To Game Six
The Astros will now head back to Minute Maid Park just one win away from moving on to the World Series. Game Six will be a pitching rematch of game two. Luis Garcia, who went one-plus inning in game two and left with knee soreness, will oppose Nathan Eovaldi who won game two. Garcia should be good to go with no issues. The Astros bullpen is rested now after throwing 28 ⅓ total innings from game one through game four. If he can go at least five innings, I am sure Dusty will be good with that. The offense has been hot the last two games after scoring nine runs in back-to-back games in Fenway Park. Game six will be Friday at 7 PM from Minute Maid.