MLB Wild Card Series Previews: Eight teams battle over three days for opportunity to face top dogs in Division Series

Mandatory Credit: Photo by Julia Nikhinson/AP/Shutterstock (13046139l) New York Mets shortstop Francisco Lindor, right, catches San Diego Padres’ Esteury Ruiz who was trying to steal second base during the second inning of a baseball game, in New York Padres Mets Baseball, New York, United States – 24 Jul 2022

MLB Wild Card Series Previews: Eight teams battle over three days for opportunity to face top dogs in Division Series

Major League Baseball is debuting a new Postseason format for 2022, allowing 12 teams in total to qualify with byes for the top two seeds in each league. In the American League, the Houston Astros and New York Yankees earned those byes, while the Los Angeles Dodgers and Atlanta Braves did in the National League. As a result, each of those four teams will await the winners of this weekend’s Wild Card Series, which begin Friday. Each series is played in a best 2-of-3 format, with the higher seed hosting the lower seed over potentially three consecutive days. The Division Series, in which the teams with byes will play the Wild Card Series winners, is still played as a five game series with a more traditional form of home field advantage awarded to the teams who have byes through the Wild Card round. All four Wild Card series will begin on Friday, so let’s take a closer look at the matchups in store all afternoon and evening. 

Tampa Bay Rays (86-76, 3rd in AL East) at Cleveland Guardians (92-70, AL Central Champions)

Game 1: Friday, 11:07am CT

The Tampa Bay Rays and Cleveland Guardians are cut from much of the same cloth, conventional underdogs with low payrolls making the most of what they have to reach the MLB Postseason. Both teams boast impressive bullpens, ranking fifth (Cleveland, 3.07) and seventh (Tampa Bay, 3.35) respectively in reliever ERA this season. The Guardians won four of their six meetings with the Rays this season, including taking two of three from Tampa just two weeks ago. Both wins in that series came on late rallies against the Rays’ bullpen, with reliever Shawn Armstrong shouldering both losses. Cleveland’s offense is predicated on surrounding switch-hitting slugger Jose Ramirez with terrific speed and players with a penchant for getting on base. Rookie Steven Kwan led the Guardians in both batting average and on-base percentage, and provided elite defense in the outfield as well. Tampa’s offense is more balanced, leaning on a wealth of Postseason experience that dwarfs that of Cleveland. Shane McClanahan and Shane Bieber are Game 1’s probables, both of whom put up elite numbers in 2022 but struggled the last time they saw this opponent. Bieber dominated Tampa Bay on the road in late July, but allowed four earned runs when he saw the Rays just two weeks ago. Shane McClanahan struggled down the stretch, posting a 5.79 ERA in September – and allowed 5 earned runs in just 4.1 innings of work on July 31 against the Guardians. 

Philadelphia Phillies (87-75, 3rd in NL East) at St. Louis Cardinals (93-69, NL Central Champions)

Game 1: Friday, 1:07pm CT

The Philadelphia Phillies and St. Louis Cardinals will begin a Wild Card Series from Busch Stadium in St. Louis on Friday in a matchup of 2011’s NL Division Series. In stark contrast to the Rays and Guardians, Philadelphia and St. Louis bludgeoned their way to the playoffs with two of the top seven home run totals and slugging percentages in Major League Baseball. The Phillies’ starting pitching rotation makes them a difficult opponent for anyone in the Postseason, especially when they can turn to Zack Wheeler (2.82 ERA) and Aaron Nola (3.25 ERA) for back-to-back starts in a short series. If the Cardinals want to topple Philly in a three game set, they’ll need to keep games tight enough for their sizable bullpen advantage to pay off in the late innings. The Cardinals and Phillies haven’t played since July, when Philadelphia took four of the six games in the season series. Zack Wheeler was dominant in both outings against the Cardinals, pitching a total of 14 innings without allowing an earned run. St. Louis did however punish Aaron Nola in his only start against them, dealing him a loss while scoring five earned runs at Busch Stadium. The biggest storylines surrounding the Cardinals are their veterans, who act as a motivating force for a team wanting to send three of its legends out on top. Albert Pujols, Yadier Molina, and Adam Wainwright have all won World Series Championships together in St. Louis, and are hoping to rekindle that magic in front of a raucous home crowd this weekend. 

Seattle Mariners (90-72, 2nd in AL West) at Toronto Blue Jays (92-70, 2nd in AL East)

Game 1: Friday, 3:07pm CT

After 21 long years, the Seattle Mariners will play their first Postseason game Friday night in Toronto and end the longest playoff drought of any team in American professional sports. Waiting for them are the Toronto Blue Jays, a talented group who were a trendy pick to win the American League East before the season began. Toronto fans have been known to arrive over the border in hordes when the Blue Jays play in Seattle, but won’t have to cross international borders to turn the Rogers Centre back into the deafening Postseason venue it was through much of the mid 2010s. The visiting Mariners won five of the seven they played against Toronto this season, including sweeping them in Seattle over four games in early July. Both organizations built impressive young offensive cores, led by generational talents like Seattle’s Julio Rodriguez and Toronto’s Vladimir Guerrero Jr. They also both built star-studded starting pitching rotations through offseason free agent signings and trades, taking aim at a 2022 Postseason run that would signify their arrivals as World Series contenders. The Blue Jays’ offense was one of the best in Major League Baseball all season, boasting a 119 wRC+ as a team that ranked only behind the 111-win Los Angeles Dodgers overall. Seattle’s offense has been productive for much of the season as well, but the Mariners rely on an elite bullpen (3.34 ERA, 6th in MLB) they’re hoping will hold up in the Postseason. Friday afternoon’s Game 1 will feature one of the better pitching matchups we’ll see all month long, with trade deadline addition Luis Castillo going for the M’s against home grown stud Alek Manoah for the Jays. 

San Diego Padres (89-73, 2nd in NL West) at New York Mets (101-61, 2nd in NL East)

Game 1: Friday, 7:07pm CT

If there’s one team playing Friday who expected to have a bye into the Division Series, it is undoubtedly the 101-win New York Mets. New York led the National League East for 175 days this summer, but collapsed in a key late season series in Atlanta that allowed the Braves to win the division by tiebreaker. Their punishment is a much tougher road through the National League Postseason, starting with a three game series against the San Diego Padres for the right to battle the Dodgers. San Diego returns to the Postseason for the first time since 2020, and only their second appearance in the last 17 seasons. The Padres bring with them a star-studded roster, loaded with talent after adding every big name they could at the 2022 trade deadline. San Diego and New York both enter with impressive starting pitching talent, two of only four teams in Major League Baseball with starting rotations that have struck out more than 900 hitters in 2022. The Mets will lean on their aces, starting with Max Scherzer in Game 1 Friday night. New York hopes to save Jacob deGrom for the Division Series if they can pick up two quick wins over San Diego, but are prepared to deploy him at the first sniff of facing elimination. The Padres’ front line starters have been impressive in their own right, and they’ll open the series with one of the game’s hottest arms in Yu Darvish. Darvish, fresh off a ridiculous September that saw him win NL Player of the Month, will likely be followed by either Blake Snell or Joe Musgrove in Game 2. The Padres took four of six from the Mets this season, including handing Max Scherzer a loss on July 22 – if they intend to play in Los Angeles next week, they’ll likely need to beat Mad Max again on Friday night.

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