Section925 previews baseball’s compelling final four

 Bryce Harper went down swinging to send the Cubs to the NLCS on Thursday (photo by Win McNamee)

Bryce Harper went down swinging to send the Cubs to the NLCS on Thursday (photo by Win McNamee)

By Connor Buestad | connor@section925.com

Cast off into the shadows of football and basketball years ago on the American sports popularity pecking order, baseball is enjoying a renaissance of sorts here in 2017. With the black eye of the Steroid Era now a distant memory, Major League League baseball is entering their final four playoff round with a full head of steam, buoyed by compelling storylines and vibrant personalities whichever way you look. Sure, the balls might be juiced and replay abuse might be at a boiling point, but on the aggregate the game is increasingly healthy and trending upward.

Meanwhile, the world of tackle football appears to be tearing apart at the seams as the concussion crisis grows grimmer by the week. Perhaps worse, our president has lashed out on the game’s best players calling them “sons of bitches” during a sickening rally in Alabama, while NFL owners react with whatever PR stunt they imagine will trick the public into thinking they truly care about their player’s well-being. What's more, cites like Oakland are losing their teams to new states with flashy new stadiums while fans continue to routinely brawl in the stands.  

On the hardwood, college basketball’s underground economy was finally exposed in earnest with the help of an FBI investigation of epic proportions. Four assistant coaches from top programs around the nation were arrested while “Slick” Rick Pitino finally was pinned down, fired and spit out the back door in Louisville. What’s left is a exposed sport that is left to pick up the pieces, while still bracing for other shoes to drop.

Beside Bruce Maxwell’s brave display in Oakland as the first MLB player to kneel for the anthem, baseball has watched quietly as these political and financial storms have torn through the sports around them, instead letting their time-honored game speak for itself. And with baseball, which has so much built in drama when it comes down to short series and win-or-go-home elimination games, the sport always seems to shine once again when October rolls around. This year has been no different. A preview of the last four teams standing follows...  

 Can Didi Gregorius lead New York back to the World Series? (photo by Jason Miller) 

Can Didi Gregorius lead New York back to the World Series? (photo by Jason Miller) 

Let’s start with the American League bracket: the upstart New York Yankees fresh off an upset of Cleveland pitted up against the Houston Astros, a team playing for the victims of Hurricane Harvey.

When the Yankees quickly went down 0-2 in the ALDS versus Cleveland, no one in their right mind gave them any chance of coming back against the best team in the AL, especially with Aaron Judge swinging a wet newspaper for all five games. But somehow, the Bronx Bombers did just that, reeling off three wins against a team that won 22-games in a row this year.

Shortstop Didi Gregorius, with his two dramatic homers in the decisive Game 5, is slowly helping New York fans forget about the hole Derek Jeter left, Todd Frazier is fully embracing his new role as the city’s beloved third baseman, Brett Gardner continues to wear out opposing pitchers and Aroldis Chapman is still throwing over 100 miles per hour in the 9th. If Fresno State product Aaron Judge can shake off the first six games of the playoffs (he’s hitting .050 so far) and get back to his regular season form that included 52 homers, the Yankees could contend for their 28th World Series title later this month. Vallejo’s CC Sabathia will take the ball in Game 3, while ex-Athletic Sonny Gray will go in Game 4.

 Five foot, six inch Jose Altuve is the best hitter on the planet. (Photo by Bob Levey)

Five foot, six inch Jose Altuve is the best hitter on the planet. (Photo by Bob Levey)

Countering the Yankees will be a team on a mission to win for its city that was decimated by Hurricane Harvey at the end of the summer. Owners of the best record in the AL, the Astros are loaded on the mound and around the diamond, epically after acquiring hired gun Justin Verlander, a proven winner in October.

Lefty Dallas Keuchel will pitch Game 1 with a lineup behind him that Yankee Masahiro Tanaka might have nightmares about. Second baseman Jose Altuve, who figures to win the MVP award, is coming off a season in which he hit .346, the best in baseball. So far in the playoffs, the diminutive infielder has slugged three homers in one game and holds a .533 batting average after his series against Boston, a team with above average pitching. Houston’s lineup doesn’t just stop there, mind you. George Springer is hitting .412 in the playoffs and Josh Reddick, owner of the best clubhouse celebration in baseball, finished fifth in the AL in batting this year at .314. Add 40-year-old Carlos Beltran’s veteran bat, Carlos Correa and Alex Bregman and you have yourself a murderer’s row for New York to contend with.

Section925’s pick: Astros in 7

---

 Chicago slid past Washington by a matter of inches in Game 5 of the NLDS. (Photo by Rob Carr)

Chicago slid past Washington by a matter of inches in Game 5 of the NLDS. (Photo by Rob Carr)

Over in the National League we have the defending champion (still doesn't quite roll off the tongue) Chicago Cubs, who are somehow still standing after 12-round slugfest with the Washington Nationals. At the end of the day, the law of Dusty Baker prevailed and his team folded for the 10th straight time in postseason closeout games.

Since the Northsiders buried their long list of curses with last year’s title run, the team seems to now have a degree of luck and mojo on their side these days. The latest example was last night’s pickoff at first base in which instant replay reared its ugly head and helped the Cubbies climb out of jam. They needed all the luck they could get, void of any breakout performances in the NLDS. Even still, the Cubs were able to grind past the Nats into the round of four behind the clutch long relief of Wade Davis.

Going into the NLCS the Cubs still have no idea how their rotation sets up, seeing as how they used up every last arm to survive the division series. But as evidenced by Jon Lester’s drunken postgame rant, the Cubbies aren’t worried about tomorrow, so long as they won today. Veteran pitching abounds throughout Chicago’s rotation and we all know how clutch their starting nine are from last year. Overall, the Cubs will be hard to kill.

 Justin "Red" Turner has been a hitting machine all year long in Los Angeles. (Photo by Harry How)

Justin "Red" Turner has been a hitting machine all year long in Los Angeles. (Photo by Harry How)

Owners of the best record in baseball, the L.A. Dodgers are looking to get back into the Fall Classic for the first time since 1988 and after sweeping the Diamondbacks, there’s no reason to believe they can’t do just that with a dynamic offense and a pitching staff led by Clayton Kershaw.

Unlike the Cubs, L.A.’s rotation is set and ready with Kershaw going Game 1, followed by Rich Hill, Yu Darvish and Alex Wood, while Kenly Jansen does the closing. And on the offensive side of the ball, the Dodgers are riding a red hot Yasiel Puig (.455 in the playoffs) and Justin Turner (.462 in playoffs; .322 in regular season). Sprinkle in young guns Cody Bellinger who hit 39 homers as a 22-year-old this season along with smooth shortstop Corey Seager ranging up the middle and you have a force to be reckoned with down in Southern California.

As mentioned, killing the care-free Cubbies is a task as tough as they come. But ultimately, their fresh pitching should prevail in the end.

Section925’s pick: Dodgers in 7