With the wild wild-card games behind us, four equally compelling Division Series await.
USA TODAY Sports breaks down the major keys to each series:
Red Sox vs. Indians: A fair fight?
Boston had the best offense in baseball, and not by a little. They led the majors in runs (878), hits (1,598), doubles (343), total bases (2,615) and batting average, on-base percentage and slugging percentage (.282/.348/.461). They outscored the runner-up in the American League, which happened to be the Indians, by 101 runs. Now, the Indians must suppress that lineup after losing two of their top three starting pitchers, Carlos Carrasco and Danny Salazar, to injuries. Rotation ace and Cy Young Award candidate Corey Kluber suffered a strained thigh muscle Sept. 26, pushing him back to Game 2 of this series.
Given the struggles of his back-end starters, Indians manager Terry Francona is going with erratic former first-round pick Trevor Bauer as his Game 1 starter and might return to Bauer on short rest for Game 4, should Cleveland get that far. Bauer had a strong first half but has posted a 5.51 ERA in his last 16 starts. It’s daunting, but there is still a route to victory for Cleveland. If Kluber can pitch up to his abilities and deliver a win against David Price in Game 2 and Cleveland can pull out one of the other first four games via its capable and swift-footed offense and shut-down bullpen, it would have Kluber back on full rest for Game 5 in Cleveland. It’s a long shot, to be sure, but anything can happen in a short series.
Blue Jays vs. Rangers: Personal time
For all the animus between these clubs — most notably the punch Texas second baseman Rougned Odor landed to Jose Bautista’s jaw in May — it’s easy to forget the phenomenal baseball that occurred in their ALDS a year ago.
Last year’s series was a thriller in which the Rangers took a 2-0 lead with a 14-inning victory in Game 2 only for the Jays to tie the series, forcing Game 5 in Toronto, where Bautista’s infamous bat flip after a home run ended a wild inning and agitated the Rangers.
In a rematch of last season's ALDS, the Rangers and Blue Jays meet again in the postseason. USA TODAY Sports
This year, the season series produced four one-run games, three walk-off finishes and two extra-inning affairs, along with the Odor-Bautista showdown, which wasn’t the Blue Jays’ last dust-up.
As recently as the final week of the regular season, in the series finale against the New York Yankees, likely Game 1 starter J.A. Happ responded to the wildness of 22-year-old Luis Severino by plunking the first batter he faced in the next inning. Toronto reliever Joaquin Benoit tore a calf muscle storming out of the bullpen for the ensuing melee, ending his season, and second baseman Devon Travis hurt his surgically repaired left shoulder in the brawl.
Travis has returned to action, but those injuries proved just how harmful such childish behavior can be, to say nothing of the impact of ejections, suspensions or potential injuries resulting from the confrontational plays themselves. Given how evenly matched these teams are, this series could very well go to the team best able to keep its emotions in check.
Dodgers vs. Nationals: D.C. disjointed
Clayton Kershaw vs. Max Scherzer in Game 1? Bryce Harper back in the postseason? Daniel Murphy facing the Dodgers again in October? A rejuvenated Yasiel Puig? Rookie sensations Corey Seager and Trea Turner? This series doesn’t lack for star power, but it could be undermined by the rash of injuries suffered by the Nationals in late September.
Catcher Wilson Ramos, the team’s third-best hitter this season behind Murphy and Turner, suffered a season-ending anterior cruciate ligament tear in his right knee on September 26. No. 2 starter Stephen Strasburg, an ace on any other team, will not pitch in this series - and probably not in the postseason at all - due to a flexor mass strain in his right forearm. Murphy is expected to play, but has made just one plate appearance since Sept. 20 and has not played the field since Sept. 17 due to a strained gluteal muscle.
Left fielder Jayson Werth missed the final two games of the season due to a sore back. That doesn’t include the thumb injury Harper suffered on Sept. 25, as he returned to the lineup for the final two games with no apparent limitations.
As good as the Nationals may be, can they possibly beat another capable division winner, a team they went just 1-5 against during the regular season, without their No. 2 starter, third-best hitter, and with three more of their middle-of-the-order bats banged up? If not, the early exit of yet another Nationals team, and another Dusty Baker-led team, won’t be the manager’s fault, this time.
Cubs vs. Giants: History lessons abound
Okay, so the Giants are in the playoffs proper in an even year. Big deal, they had to burn Madison Bumgarner to get here and now have to face the best team in the league with Bumgarner only available to pitch once in the series.
The trouble is, they were in exactly this spot in 2014 and not only beat the NL’s best team in the Division Series on their way to yet another even-year championship, but they won that NLDS matchup with the 96-win Nationals in four games despite losing Bumgarner’s only start. This is a different Giants team, but it’s difficult to argue that it is an inferior one. Most significantly, the 2014 Giants didn’t have a No. 2 starter as good as Johnny Cueto (Jake Peavy was their Game 1 starter in that year’s NLDS). Going Cueto-Jeff Samardzija-Bumgarner in the first three games of this series won’t be a major setback for the Giants.
Still, the Cubs have to be the heavy favorites here. They’re not just the best team in the National League this year, they’re the best team in the majors by a good distance and the first team to win 103 games since the eventual world champion Yankees in 2009. They’re an almost perfect team with the best defense in the majors (per park-adjusted defensive efficiency) enabling the best pitching in the majors (by runs allowed per game), backed up by an offense that was only outscored by the Red Sox and the park-assisted Rockies this year, and their manager isn’t about to make the same sort of mistake that opened the door for the Giants in 2014, when Matt Williams pulled Jordan Zimmermann one out shy of a complete game victory in Game 2 because he issued his first walk of the game with his 100th pitch.
If you want to talk history and magical reasoning, perhaps a matchup with the Giants is exactly what was required of the Cubs’ postseason run this year. After all, it was a decisive final regular season game against the Giants, the makeup of the infamous Fred Merkle game, that put the Cubs in the World Series in 1908.
PHOTOS: 2016 MLB Playoffs
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