Griff’s 2023 Wildcard Series Previews
The sprint to the World Series begins
3-Minnesota Twins (87-75) vs. 6-Toronto Blue Jays (89-73) at Target Field
Tuesday (4:38 p.m.) – RH Kevin Gausman (12-9, 3.16) vs. RH Pablo Lopez (11-8, 3.66))
Wednesday (4:38 p.m.) – RH Jose Berrios (11-12, 3.65) vs. RH Sonny Gray (8-8, 2.79)
*Thursday (4:38 p.m.) – RH Chris Bassitt (16-8, 3.60) vs. TBA
OVERVIEW: This series pits a better-than-their-record Blue Jays, a third-place team from a division 88 games over .500, against the Twins, the first-place team from a division that was 94 games below .500. The Twins must crank their intensity back up after a final month during which the only two contenders they faced since Sept. 4 have been the Rays and the Reds. Sure, the advantage was they were able to set up their rotation and rest some nicked-up position players, but it’s go-time. The Jays were fortunate in the final 12 games, contending against three AL West teams. The best one of those AL West teams was always going to win that division, with the Jays needing then to beat out just one of the remaining two -- and that was the Mariners.
Blue Jays: The bullpen will be key for the Jays. They have watched with concern down the stretch as CL Jordan Romano, RH Jordan Hicks, LH Genesis Cabrera and RH Trevor Richards have wobbled at moments and, in a 3-game series, just one late-innings stumble can be the difference. Three RH starters for the Twins allows the Jays’ best defence to be out there every day, led by LF Daulton Varsho and CF Kevin Kiermaier. C Alejandro Kirk has been an easy mark for base-stealers. 2B Cavan Biggio is hot, while SS Bo Bichette and 1B Vlad Guerrero Jr. need to step up in the post-season. The secret weapon for the Jays may be LH Yusei Kikuchi in long relief.
Twins: Are 1-18 in their last 19 post-season games. With CF Byron Buxton sidelined, DH Royce Lewis uncertain and SS Carlos Correa hobbled by plantar fasciitis, that is three weapons that can make a difference. Impactful rookie and Quebec City native 2B Edouard Julien boasts similar skills to Jays’ rookie 2B Davis Schneider in his understanding of the strike zone and plate discipline, combined with defence that needs to step it up. The bullpen is deep in big arms led by CL Jhoan Duran. The lineup can field an array of lefthand and switch-hitters, meaning the three lefty relievers in the Jays pen will be essential.
Winner: Blue Jays
4-Tampa Bay Rays (99-63) vs. 5-Texas Rangers (90-72) at Tropicana Field
Tuesday (3:08 p.m.) – LH Jordan Montgomery (10-11, 3.20) vs. RH Tyler Glasnow (10-7, 3.53)
Wednesday (3:08 p.m.) – TBA vs. RH Zach Eflin (16-8, 3.50)
*Thursday (3:08 p.m.) – TBA vs. TBA
OVERVIEW: The Rays organization is forever amazing in its ability to overcome injuries to key pitchers…but also is amazing in the number of pitching injuries they suffer every year. Hey Rays fans, you do know that your team had the second best record in the AL, right? Where are you? The Rangers had control of the AL West for most of the season, then lost two of three on the final weekend to be reeled in by the Astros, landing in the WC2 slot ahead of the Jays. These are two battle-hardened, post-season managers in Rangers’ Bruce Bochy and Rays’ Kevin Cash. The biggest difference is in hat size where Bochy rules.
Rangers: The Rangers offence is deep and relentless, led by the keystone combo of 2B Marcus Semien and SS Corey Seager. A couple of rookies have become factors – 3B Josh Jung (expected) and OF Evan Carter (unexpected). RF Adolis Garcia and 1B Nathaniel Lowe are studs. The other starts should come from RH Nate Eovaldi and LH Andrew Heaney. The Rangers’ bullpen is the Achilles Heel led by the biggest heel in LH Aroldis Chapman who still throws hard but along with RH Jose Leclerc leads a group of relievers that has allowed 33 blown saves while earning just 30 successful saves. To temper that dismal stat, it should be understood that many of those blown saves came before the ninth inning. Still concerning.
Rays: The Rays are missing four pitchers that were projected as starters at spring training, led by LH Shane McLanahan and RH Drew Rasmussen. But RH Tyler Glasnow is now healthy and ready to establish himself among the game’s elite starters. They have been able to muddle through without SS Wander Franco on the restricted list, but these are the playoffs and big-time offensive length in the lineup is key. The Rays rely too much on 1B Yandy Diaz, RF Josh Lowe and LF Randy Arozarena. CL Pete Fairbanks has been wobbly as the main man in an experienced bullpen that has not been as diverse or creative in styles and stuff as past Rays pens.
3-Milwaukee Brewers (92-70) vs. 6-Arizona D’dbacks (84-77) at American Family Field
Tuesday (7:08 p.m.) – RH Brandon Pfaadt (3-9, 5.72) vs. RH Corbin Burnes (10-8, 3.39)
Wednesday (7:08 p.m.) – Zac Gallen (17-9, 3.47) vs. RH Freddy Peralta (12-10, 3.86)
*Thursday (7:08 p.m.) – Merrill Kelly (12-8, 3.29) vs. TBA
OVERVIEW: The D’backs trade for LF Lourdes Gurriel Jr. and C Gabby Moreno seems to be a trade that has worked out for both sides, as the Jays with LF Daulton Varsho, also qualified as wildcard. The perception of the Brewers winning a very weak division is not as dramatic as people think with the NL Central bouncing back as a group to finish two games under .500. The Snakes slithered past the favoured Cubs and Reds to sneak onto the October dance floor.
Diamondbacks: Nice to see former Jays coach, now Snakes MGR Torey Lovullo back in the playoffs. C Gabby Moreno made 93 starts behind the plate and threw out 39% of base stealers. The offence is keyed by rookie OF Corbin Carroll, 2B Ketel Marte, 1B Christian Walker and LF Lourdes Gurriel Jr. The bullpen is led by former M’s close Paul Sewald but is not scary.
Brewers: The Brew Crew was a scorching 27-13 in the final 40 games, starting on Aug. 18. However, the news that RH Brandon Woodruff is likely out with shoulder issues means they will be scrambling for a Game 3 starter vs. the D’backs. The offence relies on quality not quantity, with the bounce-back of LF Christian Yelich, plus the needed acquisition of 1B Carlos Santana and DH Mark Canha. Don’t sleep on 3B Josh Donaldson, despite his continued pedestrian numbers. CL Devin Williams owns the ninth inning if they can get there with a lead.
4-Philadelphia Phillies (90-72) vs. Miami Marlins (84-77) at Citizens Bank Park
Tuesday (8:08 p.m.) – LH Jesus Luzardo (10-9, 3.63) vs. RH Zack Wheeler (13-6, 3.61)
Wednesday (8:08 p.m.) – LH Braxton Garrett (9-7, 3.66) vs. RH Aaron Nola (12-9, 4.46)
*Thursday (8:08 p.m.) – TBA vs. TBA
OVERVIEW: Before this series even starts, history has been made with Marlins’ GM Kim Ng being the first female to lead a team to the post-season. The Marlins in full season play have gone to the post-season just twice, 1997 and 2003, each time as a wildcard and have gone on to win the World Series both times. The Phillies under MGR Rob Thomson have roared through the second half of the last two seasons to reach the playoffs. DH Bryce Harper is an ornery superstar after his dustup with UMP Angel Hernandez and leads a team greater than the sum of its parts.
Marlins: Made some key acquisitions at the deadline, acquiring 1B Josh Bell, 3B Jake Burger and RH David Robertson. Even though Robertson did not have the impact on the field, his presence with this young group of relievers adds to the mix. The loss of Cy Young RH Sandy Alcantara and sensational rookie RH Eury Perez was expected to end their post-season quest, but batting champ 2B Luis Arraez, electric CF Jazz Chisolm and 36-homer DH Jorge Soler would not let that happen. Rookie skipper Skip Schumacher should be strongly considered for manager-of-the-year.
Phillies: This is an experienced and hungry City of Brotherly Love group that surprisingly advanced to the World Series in 2022, but it would not be a surprise in ’23. The heart and soul of the group is DH/1B Bryce Harper. The guy providing lightning and thunder on an otherwise sunny day is LF Kyle Schwarber who hit .197 with 215 strikeouts – but also had 47 homers and 126 walks. RF Nick Castellanos became the player that VP Dave Dombrowski thought he had signed. The rotation is veteran and October ready, while the bullpen has some big arms but also has the possibility of giving a game away late, which is only reason to go with the Fish.