PLAYOFF SNAPSHOT-NATIONAL LEAGUE DIVISION RACES

I spent a weekend in Cleveland, Ohio watching the Cleveland Indians extend an almost unbelievable winning streak. When I left for home in Phoenix the streak had reached 18 wins. The excitement was incredible. It was almost as if the electricity in the air could be felt and touched. It was almost as if the team could do no wrong. Every active player contributed. It was almost as if manager Terry Francona put the car in cruise control, lightly touched the gas and let every part of the well-oiled machine find a rhythm and gently roll along without much pushing or prodding. Hitting, starting pitching, relief pitching, stealing bases and playing world-class defense all came together.

Conversely, the Los Angeles Dodgers experienced a massive losing streak that proved once again that no team, no matter how good, is invincible. Every sports team is vulnerable at one point or another. Suddenly, discussions about the Dodgers being the “best team ever in baseball” were quieted. All it takes is losing four, five, ten games in a row to turn the room temperature from feeling like a bubbling boiler to a gigantic glacier.

When a team is losing it presses. Every bad pitch is magnified. Every strikeout becomes monumental. Guys try to hit a five-run homer. Pitchers try to throw the ball through the backstop at 110 miles per hour. The baseball world in which they live is rotting away like an uneaten apple sitting out in the sun. Losing becomes demoralizing.

And so, there are quirks that greet almost every baseball team in almost every baseball season- a team can go from the penthouse to the outhouse in a couple weeks. There is an ebb and flow to a baseball season. It lasts for months, not mere days. Teams have to ride the good times and cope with the bad. The better teams handle winning streaks with the ultimate reality that the streak will end. The better teams handle losing streaks with the ultimate reality that the streak will end. But there is a huge difference between the streaks. One is heaven and the other…is not.

I believe in momentum. I believe hitting is contagious. I believe pitching is contagious. No baseball player likes being the guy that hits into a double play to end a rally. No pitcher wants to yield a game-winning home run in the bottom of the 9th. Most of the veteran guys that play the game and have made their money want one thing more than anything else-that shiny World Series ring. They want the symbol that tells the world they are among the best. That’s why every guy on a team wants that ebb and flow going in his team’s direction at the right time of the year—-and this my friends is the right time of the year.

As I did with the American League division leaders last week, I want to share my thoughts about the National League Division leaders.

NATIONAL LEAGUE WEST-LOS ANGELES DODGERS

Stop! Not so fast! The Dodgers players are human, after all. After setting the National League ablaze and letting all of baseball know that they were an amazing collection of talented, winning veterans and rookies blended together to win game after game after game in the first three-quarters of the season, the Dodgers have begun to melt like a snowman under a bright winter sun. They may be crumbling like Humpty Dumpty, but the wall they built can sustain this current crash. They will be tough to beat in the postseason.

If not for a huge lead and talk of them being the best team ever assembled, the Dodgers would be limping into the fall. Their swagger seems to be more of a jog with a limp. But they, too, shall overcome this brief flicker of adversity. They’re too good to go on losing.

Clayton Kershaw

Photo Credit: Ryan Morris

Why will the flowers start to bloom again? Because they have Clayton Kershaw. No other team has him. Not Chris Sale or Corey Kluber are like Clayton Kershaw. They also have lefties Alex Wood and Rich Hill and Hyun-Jin Ryu and righties Yu Darvish and Kenta Maeda and a bullpen that features Kenley Jansen and Josh Fields. So don’t write them off yet. Not at all.

Frankly, the offense doesn’t excite me. I really like Justin Turner, Corey Seager and Cody Bellinger. So do you, I know. Chris Taylor is fun to watch and he has some offense in his game. But. Do you trust the 2017 edition of Yasiel Puig? Better, yes. As good as he was as a rookie? No. Inconsistent? Yes. A winner? I’ll leave that up to you.

One of the best human beings on this earth that we are all sharing is Curtis Granderson. But is he a starting left fielder on a World Series contender? Uh, no. Logan Forsythe is a nice player, but is he a starting second baseman on a……you know the rest of the sentence. Uh, no.

So, this Greatest Team To Ever Play The Game’s slip is showing. And badly. This slip has been accompanied by a gigantic slide. 11 game losing streaks don’t just happen. There are reasons.
But a pitcher like Kershaw snaps losing streaks. And that’s exactly what he did.

Strengths: Kershaw, Jansen and other great pitching
Weaknesses: Inconsistent offense
Key Player: Yasiel Puig

NATIONAL LEAGUE CENTRAL-CHICAGO CUBS

Who knew that in mid-September, with only the last two weeks of the baseball season remaining the Cubs would be fighting for the Central Division championship? Certainly not me. I thought we were seeing the beginning of a dynasty. But perhaps either the Cardinals or Brewers can overtake them. And if they lose the division, they may not even make the postseason. How’s that for falling off a high horse?

While every team I have written about in this and last week’s preview of the American League has pitching to boast about heading into October baseball, the Cubs are sweating in that department. Jake Arrieta had been improving, but he has health issues. Jon Lester has scuffled as much as he’s pitched well. The same can be said for John Lackey. Good starts and bad starts. Mike Montgomery has helped. Jose Quintana certainly hasn’t given the Cubs the lift they thought they would get with his presence in the rotation. His inconsistency continues with the Cubs. Some good starts, and some very meh. So, no, I’m not nuts about the Cubs pitching. I don’t think the Cubs are nuts about the Cubs pitching, either. The team is not built for several long series beginning in October and lasting through November.

That places a ton of pressure on the offense. And frankly, they do have the thunder and lightning to storm through the fall. The offense makes them very dangerous.

“Knock knock.” “Who’s there?” “Kyle Schwarber.” “Kyle Schwarber who?” Have you ever seen a player tumble from the top of the mountain to the bottom so quickly? He was All Everything last year. But last year is so…last year. Usually it takes a season or two to lose the glitter from the gold. In the eyes of many, early in the season Schwarber crawled into the dumper and stayed. That type criticism is too harsh. He is simply not as good as he was in 2015 and he isn’t as bad as his critics have indicated. And maybe he hasn’t fallen all the way to the bottom of that mountain. But he’s hanging on for dear life to keep from a further decline.

As I write this Schwarber is hitting .207/26/51. The 26 homers are nice. The rest is meh! In 2015, the sun rose on Schwarber and never set. Last year he was hurt. But something tells me that the Cubs brass and their fans expected a better batting average and more RBIs.

Catcher Miguel Montero criticized his teammates and won himself a trip out of town as quickly as the Cubs Brass could make a phone call.

So it hasn’t been all champagne and caviar like it was when the Cubs won the World Series in extra innings of the 7th game. In fact, it’s been a tough fight. And the Cubs could go into the playoffs with a damaged interior self-esteem and a bruised collateral ego.

Anthony Rizzo

Photo Credit: Ryan Morris

The team still can fill out a lineup card with some of the best players in the game. Kris Bryant is a .285 hitter with 26 homers. But he has driven in far fewer runs at 63 than expected. Anthony Rizzo is the real deal at first base. He’s a Gold Glove caliber first baseman who hits .277 and 31 homers. He has also driven in 102 runs to set the pace for the Cubs.

But after Rizzo, the drop off in run production is eye-popping. Catcher Wilson Contreras in next in line with 70 RBIs. Javier Baez can really hit, but he certainly hasn’t been an everyday player for Chicago until he took over shortstop once Addison Russell went down with a foot injury. Russell is expected back for the postseason, but his numbers were way, way off expectations this season as well. Baez though is one dangerous guy at the plate when he gets on a roll.

The outfield of Schwarber in left, Albert Almora in center and Jason Heyward in right hasn’t set the world on fire offensively. Heyward in particular has been the epitome of meh. Almora and Heyward play very good defense, but they need to perk up at the plate.

Wade Davis is a solid closer. He anchors a fairly good, but not great bullpen. But last year the Indians had to face Aroldis Chapman in the 9th inning. Yes, it was rocky at times, but he was still Aroldis Chapman and that brought some trepidation. The other members of the Cubs pen pitch well, but they aren’t the best part of the club. Hector Rondon has a high ERA, 4.50, for a reliever. Lefty Justin Wilson helps as a key southpaw. Pedro Strop is a workhorse capable of high leverage innings. Koji Uehara is now 42 years old, and at times pitches like he’s 42 years old. But I still think he’s reliable. In short, the bullpen is adequate.

The Cubs are a real enigma. Which team shows up in the postseason is anyone’s guess. The team can be very, very good if they are pitching and hitting on all cylinders. To the contrary, they can be very mediocre if they play as they have all season-doing just enough to sneak through. It won’t be enough to be mediocre against the Dodgers or the Nationals.

Strengths: Kris Bryant, Anthony Rizzo

Weaknesses: Defense in left field with Schwarber

Key Player: Kyle Schwarber

NATIONAL LEAGUE EAST-WASHINGTON NATIONALS

This was the team that was supposed to win now for a couple of years. And for a couple of years that have laid an egg. Several eggs for that matter.

I like the way the team is constructed. I like the fact that finally-and it took a while, the front office got some help for the bullpen.

Those who follow me know I am a freak about pitching. Pitching and defense rule my roost. I love hitting, but I still say good pitching and good defense can carry a team in a short series.

The Nationals can pitch. Stephen Strasburg is on a positive roll. He appears to be healthy. Can he stay healthy? In 25 starts he is pitching to a very solid 2.64 ERA with a 1.03 WHIP. In BERNIE’S BASEBALL WORLD those are the two most critical statistics for a pitcher. Even in the new world of metrics. Strasburg helps lead a terrific starting rotation and will pitch two to three times in seven-game playoff series.

But when the season is over and analysts reflect on the Nationals of 2017, the name of Gio Gonzalez will come up over and over. What a job he has done. He has a 2.50 ERA and a WHIP of 1.14 in his 28 starts. He has been the glue that has kept the pitching staff together.

And of course, Maxwell M. Scherzer may just be a serious Cy Young candidate himself. Most feel he is the ace of the staff. And, why not? All he’s done is fashion an ERA of 2.32 and a minuscule WHIP of 0.87. Those are All-World numbers. He has missed some work with nagging injuries, and I worry about his health and that of Strasburg in the postseason. But he’s a great competitor and a great pitcher.

Most teams don’t boast the type of quality 4th starter the Nationals have in Tanner Roark. He’s a real luxury and I would guess the team would make great use of him in the postseason.

Bryce Harper

Photo Credit: Ryan Morris

Offensively, Washington can destroy even the best pitching staff. It all begins with Bryce Harper. If Harper is healthy, the club will be tough to beat in any Division series. Harper can get hot and put his team on his back. But what will time off do to his timing and swing? Still on the disabled list as I write this in mid-September, the clock is ticking. Will he get it all back and be able to play up to his potential, if at all during the postseason?

Ryan Zimmerman is probably a leading candidate for Comeback Player of the Year in the National League. He is a “poster child” for the importance of health to any player. Zimmerman has had a great year because he is whole. He is a total hitter now because he appears at the plate healthy.
Together, he and Harper form a very dangerous duo.

One of the little moves this year was when the Nationals brought Howard Kendrick into the fold. I have always been a Kendrick fan. In the early years, I thought he would win a batting title with the Angels. Now he is playing left field for Washington and hitting .322. Not too shabby.

And All-Star second baseman Daniel Murphy continues to hit. He is up to .321 in 486 at-bats. he has 22 home runs and has driven in 88 runs, second only to under the radar Anthony Rendon.

So how would you like to face Kendrick, Harper, Zimmerman, Murphy and Rendon. Rendon is hitting .302 with 23 homers and 91 RBIs. He has struck out only 68 times.

This is a team that traded away quality pitching in Lucas Giolito, Reynaldo Lopez and Dane Dunning to get their new leadoff hitter and table setter…..Adam Eaton, who has played exactly 91 games. Trea Turner, the wizard shortstop with blazing speed has played only 81 games. So the Nationals have been doing their damage without everyday contributions from two guys they counted upon.

The bullpen? At the beginning of spring training, manager Dusty Baker let it be known loudly that he didn’t appreciate not having a true closer for the pen. He didn’t view Koda Glover, Shawn Kelly or anyone else on the roster trustworthy enough with the ball in their hand in the 9th inning. So general manager Mike Rizzo went to work and reeled in Sean Doolittle who has done a lot. He brought Blake Treinen to the fold. He has helped as well. Ryan Madson has given the pen a bit of stability they didn’t have early in the year. So the pen is mightier than before.

Strengths: Awesome trio of starters, dangerous hitters and improved bullpen
Weaknesses: Health issues with Harper, Strasburg and Scherzer
Key player: Bryce Harper

BUNTS:

There are three recent additions to playoff-bound rosters that have really made an impact.

The Astros got a tremendous lift when they traded for Justin Verlander. He has stabilized the rotation, added leadership to the clubhouse and has become a role model for the younger pitchers on their club.

J D Martinez has pounded home runs and driven in runs in droves for the Diamondbacks. They now have a very dangerous middle of the order with Martinez and Paul Goldschmidt. It will be very difficult for a pitcher to navigate the lineup. Hats off to the Dbacks front office for making a tremendous move to get Martinez.

Jay Bruce has added another very tough bat in the middle of the Indians lineup. He’s tough as can be against right-handed pitching. With the Indians depth, he can take a rest against lefties without the lineup being negatively impacted.

I guess my prediction last week of the Yankees to win the AL East may not come true. But there is still time for them to catch the Red Sox. We’ll have to wait and see how this plays out. The last couple weeks should be great.

October 1 is the deadline to notify me if you wish to join us on our trip to Cuba. We leave from Miami January 19 and return from Cuba to Miami January 26. Chances are good that we will be watching Cuban playoff baseball in that week.

For costs and details, please email me at BPleskoff@aol.com. I’ll send you all the information about how you can be riding in 1956 Chevys and drinking the best rum in the world in Cuba when you’re freezing cold at home here.

Follow me on Twitter @BerniePleskoff

 

 

About The Author

Bernie Pleskoff is a former professional scout for the Houston Astros and Seattle Mariners. Bernie’s work has been featured on MLB Pipeline, MLB.com and FanRag Sports, among others. You can follow Bernie Pleskoff on Twitter @BerniePleskoff