In a 10-team playoff field, there are 45 possible matchups of teams -- 45 combinations of rivalry history, grudges and feuds. Dig one layer deeper, and you find the looming mano a mano standoffs -- Clayton Kershaw vs. Bryce Harper, Aroldis Chapman vs. Jose Ramirez, Byron Buxton vs. Fenway Park’s center-field triangle, Max Scherzer vs. Corey Kluber, Zack Greinke vs. his former Dodgers teammates.
During the past couple of weeks, some broadcast teammates and I have been having a fun conversation about which team playoff matchups would be the most compelling. Here’s my list:
Kershaw was 7 months old the last time the Dodgers won a World Series; the Nationals have never won the World Series. So if these teams meet in the National League Championship Series, each side would seemingly stand to lose as much as they have to gain.
If Los Angeles failed to survive the Nationals, the Dodgers’ summer of domination would be squandered. Kershaw, who is measured against the greatest pitchers of all time, would miss perhaps his best opportunity to eliminate the stupid narrative about him not being a big-game pitcher. There would be continued debate about whether the organization’s mix-and-match philosophy can work in the October tournament.
If the Nationals got knocked out by the Dodgers -- again -- it would leave Washington short of the World Series heading into the final year with Harper before he hits free agency. The ghosts of the 2012 shutdown would continue to hang over Stephen Strasburg. General Manager Mike Rizzo would yet again have to spend time and resources trying to construct an October-worthy bullpen. And who knows what the impact of another playoff loss would have on the forthcoming contract talks between Dusty Baker and the Nationals -- suffice to say that his bargaining position will be greatly strengthened if Washington advances to the World Series.
A Dodgers-Nationals series might be more pressurized than just about any other.
If Arizona survives the NL wild-card game and faces its division rival, there would be two simple truths in play:
A. The Dodgers have been the league’s dominant team all year.
B. The Diamondbacks pounded the Dodgers in the most recent games between the teams.
Arizona swept the Dodgers in the last six regular-season games, outscoring them 40-13. The Dodgers’ rotation could be loaded with some of the game’s best left-handed starting pitchers – Kershaw, Rich Hill, Alex Wood -- and Arizona bolstered the middle of its generally right-handed-hitting lineup with perhaps the best lefty masher in baseball, J.D. Martinez: He is 33-for-89 (.371) with 9 doubles, 1 triple and 11 homers against lefties.
Arizona lefty Robbie Ray has thrown 31 2/3 innings against Los Angeles this season, and in those, he has 53 strikeouts and has allowed just 24 hits with a 2.27 ERA. In a five-game series against the Dodgers, Ray would get two starts and Greinke would get one shot at his former club, a shot at sticking it to his ex-employers.
And the history of the rivalry also would get dragged into the conversation around this series, probably more by fans and media than the players: The time Dodgers players allegedly peed in the Diamondbacks’ pool, the bench-clearing dust-ups, etc.
3. Yankees-Red Sox
For the first time in more than a decade, there is legitimate animosity between the franchises, who could meet in the American League Championship Series. The Yankees are convinced the Red Sox illicitly stole signs and games from them using banned technology, and the Red Sox are perturbed that this part of their feud has been aired in public. CC Sabathia, the oldest Yankee, got angry at former teammate Eduardo Nunez for bunting. Boston seems to have an enhanced level of comfort against Yankees closer Aroldis Chapman, just as it did against future Hall of Famer Mariano Rivera. On the other hand, the Yankees have had success in games started by Chris Sale in the same way they used to find a way to win when Pedro Martinez pitched: They won three of the four games Sale started against them after the All-Star break.
As Grady Little knows firsthand, a Red Sox-Yankees postseason series can lead to employment change, and both managers would have a lot at stake.
In the past two weeks, three players asked me independently who I think the best team in baseball is, but in each case, the question was really a statement -- about the Indians, and about their sheer depth and dominance. They will go into October regarded by a large core of players and front-office types as the best team, because of the quality of their starting pitching, their bullpen (assuming that Andrew Miller is healthy) and the depth of their lineup.
But the Yankees seem to match up decently with the Indians in a lot of ways, and in a shorter five-game Division Series -- if the Yankees get past the Wild-Card Game of Chance -- New York could seemingly steal a series from the Indians. Luis Severino can be dominant. Sonny Gray is capable of throwing up zeroes against Cleveland. Aaron Judge and Gary Sanchez could put up crooked numbers in a hurry. The Yankees’ bullpen might be the deepest in baseball.
The last time they faced off, these two teams produced one of the greatest games of all time in Game 7 of the 2016 World Series. The Cubs have had a bumpy road in 2017, but if they advance through the NL bracket, they will regain their preeminence by the start of the World Series, and would have a chance at building another layer of history for their legacy: After a 108-year championship drought, the Cubs would be the NL’s first back-to-back World Series winners since the Big Red Machine of the 1970s. And for the Indians, it would be the organization’s first title since 1948, baseball’s longest current run of heartbreak.
By the time the World Series began, following three weeks of buildup and anticipation, this would be like baseball’s version of Ali-Frazier II.
This could mean the possible ascension to the national stage for Jose Altuve, Carlos Correa and George Springer. Justin Verlander and Carlos Beltran would be looking for their first championship rings, and the story of the team and the city of Houston would merge.
If the Twins and Rockies clinched playoff berths, won the wild-card games and then overcame their respective roster issues to get to the World Series, it would be the most remarkable and most unlikely of matchups.