Welcome to the in-between time, when the vast majority of Major League Baseball casts its attention on the Division Series, with three of the four matchups set, top seeds rested and revved up and the playoffs truly ready to get going.
With just a little old business to wrap up.
It’s Mets-Padres, Act III (7:07, ESPN), at Citi Field. It’s about as even a Game 3 as one could imagine with a pair of steady No. 3 starters, Chris Bassitt and Joe Musgrove, pitching to save the season yet faced with navigating a star-studded opposing lineup.
For everyone else, it’s time to dream bigger.
Congratulations to the Philadelphia Phillies, Seattle Mariners and Cleveland Guardians for their two-game sweeps in this wild card round. A look at what Saturday’s results mean – for the impending Division Series and the last wild cards standing:
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Mets-Padres: Water finds its level
It could have been a disastrous two-game flop for the Mets, with a $290 million roster meekly succumbing to the Braves (in a final-weekend division-deciding series) and then these Padres, after San Diego launched four homers off $43 million man Max Scherzer in Game 1.
Yet a 7-3 Game 2 victory provided relief, if not utter redemption. Jacob deGrom, who could have been starting his last game as a Met, had enough dominant stretches mixed in between the occasional egregious mistakes, yielding his fourth home run in two games but staying upright for six innings, exiting with a 3-2 lead.
Pete Alonso and Francisco Lindor homered, Jeff McNeil was a professional hitter and the Mets, after a shaky month, were fully on brand.
So, what now?
Well, after winning 101 games yet somehow feeling like a failure thanks to an unstoppable Braves team, it’s interesting to ponder the Mets after getting more than a few glimpses of their own mortality. Musgrove is no easy out; he’s a mirror image of Bassitt insofar as both pitched 181 innings this season, are highly regarded by teammates and hold down the No. 3 role in their rotations.
He’s potentially dominant but nothing for the Mets to necessarily fear. Did scoring seven runs off Blake Snell and friends shake loose some of the swagger gone dormant after frittering away the division?
If nothing else, it showed them what’s possible: Beat Musgrove. Throw Taijuan Walker against, probably, Julio Urias in Game 1 of the NLDS and then hope Scherzer and deGrom can throw a massive scare into the indomitable Dodgers.
It is not as clear nor as confident a path as the club that sat atop the division for six months before losing it. But it’s also interesting to ponder the Mets, suddenly, as a team with nothing to lose.
Phillies-Cardinals: Two for the show
So maybe the NL Central winner has, in recent years, been a mere speed bump for the coastal elites on their way to the World Series. Perhaps we shouldn’t make too much of Zack Wheeler and Aaron Nola throwing 13 combined shutout innings against a Cardinals lineup that managed one run-scoring hit – Juan Yepez’s pinch-hit homer in Game 1 – and is home for the winter.
But these are the Cardinals of Albert Pujols and MVP frontrunners Paul Goldschmidt and Nolan Arenado, of expert bathandlers like Tommy Edman, trailing only the Dodgers and Braves in OPS and runs this season. Sure, this was just two games.
But it’s also delicious to ponder Wheeler and Nola manning Games 2 and 3 against an Atlanta team it performed decently against – 8-11. Division foes in the playoffs have no secrets, and the Phillies are no longer playoff newbies.
“He’s really something. He really is. He’s cool as a cucumber, and just gives us great starts,” Phillies manager Rob Thomson said of Nola, who flirted with a perfect game in the playoff-clinching game at Houston. “He’s so consistent. I just can’t say enough about him.”
Wheeler, meanwhile, held the Braves to one run over seven innings in his last start against them on Aug. 3. Game 1, with Ranger Suarez starting, will merely be house money.
“It’s going to be a tough series,” third baseman Alec Bohm said Saturday, “but it’s going to be fun.”
Guardians-Rays: Bronx spoilers?
No AL Central team has advanced past the Division Series since Cleveland in 2016. These rebranded Guardians didn’t break new ground, then, by out-grinding the Rays to win 2-1 and 1-0 games – the latter in 15 innings – and surviving this knockout round.
But now that it’s out of the way, and their opponent is in view, it’s curious to ponder what can be done.
Bottom line: The Yankees, Rays and Guardians are awfully close when it comes to pitching peripherals – and we just saw what Cleveland did to Tampa Bay.
That trio ranks 2-3-4, generally, in the AL in most pitching categories, and it’s a fair question to ask what might be harder – scoring off the Yankees or scoring off the Guardians?
New York has Aaron Judge and Cleveland doesn’t, and that’s an obvious disadvantage. The Guardians got nothing from top rookie and leadoff man Steven Kwan – he went 0 for 9 against the Rays – and just one big swing (OK, a huge swing) from perpetual MVP candidate Jose Ramirez. They still won both games against the Rays.
Put it this way: Cleveland’s offense can’t perform much worse than it did – and they’re still standing. It might be tough to match runs against Gerrit Cole when pitch-to-contact right-hander Cal Quantrill starts Game 1 at Yankee Stadium. But then it’s back to Shane Bieber and Triston MacKenzie in Games 2 and 3 and we may yet be reminded: You can’t win if you don’t score.
That will be a tougher plan to execute against the Yankees. But if the games are well-pitched and low-scoring, anything can happen. And it can’t get much tighter than what the Guardians just endured.
Mariners-Blue Jays: Past isn’t prologue
The Mariners went from Cute Story to Officially Dangerous right around the time J.P. Crawford’s ducksnort fly fell between Bo Bichette and George Springer, and the Mariners riverdanced around the bases like they do after big victories.
Now, we’re about to find out how much of a difference Luis Castillo can make.
The Mariners have been little more than an afterthought for the Astros, who beat them 12 times in 19 tries this year on their way to winning the AL West by 16 games. Yet they never had to face Castillo, who threw his first pitch for the Mariners on Aug. 3 and never faced the Astros after his trade from Cincinnati.
Well, Castillo announced himself in a big way against Toronto, throwing 7 1/3 shutout innings and allowing just one extra-base hit. It set the tone for the impending sweep and, perhaps, for these playoffs.
Wild-card survivors are supposed to be at a disadvantage coming out of that round. But the Mariners’ Division Series alignment – Logan Gilbert followed by Castillo in Games 1-2 at Houston – might be a better look than the Castillo-Robbie Ray duo against Toronto.
Seattle needed 10 runs and Crawford’s miracle three-run double to eradicate Ray’s three-inning flop in Game 2. He disappointed at times in the first year of a $115 million deal, though he steadied down the stretch.
Against Houston, he won’t start until Game 3, at home, while Gilbert and Castillo aim to steal one from Justin Verlander and Framber Valdez. Castillo was a 2022 All-Star, posted an overall 2.99 ERA and, as he showed in Game 1, can be unhittable at times.
The Astros have advanced past the Division Series every season since 2016. They may very well overwhelm the Mariners. But Castillo will give the Mariners a chance – and they’ve proven dangerous with just that.