The Fatal Flaw That Could Wreck Every MLB Playoff Team in Divisional Round
In some cases, the flaw was easy to suss out. In others, it necessitated nit-picking.
But no club—regardless of depth and talent—is invulnerable. Everyone can stumble, whether they're a win away from advancing or on the brink of elimination.
With the first two games of the division-series round completed and the league championship series looming, let's identify the weakness that could undo each remaining contender.
Atlanta: Starting Pitching Depth
Atlanta lost up-and-coming right-hander Mike Soroka for the season to Achilles surgery, got only 3.1 innings from veteran lefty Cole Hamels after signing him to a one-year, $18 million contract and saw ace Max Fried go down with an ankle injury in late September.
Fried returned and threw seven scoreless innings in Atlanta's Game 1 Wild Card Round win over the Cincinnati Reds. But he yielded four runs on six hits on to the Miami Marlins on Tuesday.
His offense had his back, and Atlanta ended up winning 9-5. Still, it's a troubling sign considering the club may now rely on Ian Anderson and Kyle Wright in the next two NLDS games.
Both have talent. Anderson tossed six shutout frames with nine strikeouts in his postseason debut against the Reds. That's the totality of his and Wright's playoff experience, however.
One or both could rise to the occasion in the NLDS, but it's far from guaranteed based on their lack of track record.
Houston Astros: Zack Greinke's Health
The Houston Astros spent the regular season as MLB's pariahs in the wake of their sign-stealing scandal. They finished the regular season at a paltry 29-31 and made the playoffs only because of the expanded format.
Now, like it or not, Houston is rolling.
After sweeping the Minnesota Twins in the Wild Card Round, the 'Stros have won two straight against the AL West champion Oakland Athletics.
Their offense has scored a combined 15 runs thus far against Oakland, and Carlos Correa (6-for-14, 3 HR) and George Springer (7-for-18, 2 HR) have led the charge in the club's four October contests.
On the pitching front, their arms posted a middling 4.31 ERA during the regular season after losing ace Justin Verlander and closer Roberto Osuna to injuries. Jose Urquidy and Framber Valdez, in particular, have helped fill the void so far, and the Astros will call upon Urquidy again in Game 3.
The Astros might be able to get past the A's without the veteran right-hander, but they'd be in much better shape if he were healthy and ready to go.
Los Angeles Dodgers: Kenley Jansen's Decline
The Los Angeles Dodgers have no glaring weaknesses as they charge toward their first title since 1988. But it must be said: Closer Kenley Jansen isn't what he used to be.
Is he still the Dodgers' automatic ninth-inning go-to? Not necessarily.
Jansen threw a scoreless final frame in Game 1 of Los Angeles' Wild Card Round sweep of the Milwaukee Brewers. But he sat in the high-80s with his velocity, and manager Dave Roberts told reporters the 33-year-old's signature cutter "lacked teeth."
L.A. has other options, including Blake Treinen and hard-throwing young right-hander Brusdar Graterol, who got the call in the ninth inning of Game 2 against the Brewers.
If the Dodgers ask Jansen to cede closing duties, even partially, it could ruffle his feathers. And while it might be the correct call, discord is the last thing the Dodgers want this close to the championship finish line.
Miami Marlins: The Bullpen
The Miami Marlins are the Cinderella of the 2020 playoffs. They slipped into October with a 31-29 record and minus-41 run differential, but they swept the experienced Chicago Cubs in the Wild Card Round.
Now, Miami is trying to topple division-rival Atlanta, but the bullpen could be its undoing.
Miami's pen ranked 26th during the regular season with a 5.50 ERA, though Marlins relievers logged 6.1 scoreless frames against the Cubs in their two wins at Wrigley Field.
On Tuesday, they gave up four runs on four hits and two homers in two innings in a 9-5 loss to Atlanta. Key cogs such as Yimi Garcia (3 R, 3 H, 0.1 IP) wobbled.
The Marlins offense mustered five runs and nine hits. Hard-throwing Miami starter Sandy Alcantara coughed up five runs, though he also racked up eight strikeouts in six innings.
Ultimately, the pen torpedoed the Marlins' chances. If that trend continues, they'll lose a postseason series for the first time ever.
New York Yankees: Starting Pitching Depth
After an up-and-down, injury-marred season, the New York Yankees have flexed their offensive muscles in the playoffs.
They scored 22 runs on 23 hits and seven home runs in their Wild Card Round sweep of Cleveland, and they have plated 14 runs with six homers in the first two games against the division-rival Tampa Bay Rays.
However, their series with Tampa Bay is tied 1-1 after the Yankees fell 7-5 on Tuesday. Much of the blame falls on 21-year-old right-hander Deivi Garcia and veteran lefty J.A. Happ.
Garcia got the start in Game 2 and gave up a run in one inning before yielding to Happ, who surrendered four runs in 2.2 frames. If it was a bait-and-switch tactic, it didn't produce the desired results.
Yankees ace Gerrit Cole has been strong in two postseason starts, scattering five runs on 12 hits over 13 innings with 21 strikeouts. New York has won both of his outings.
After that, though, Masahiro Tanaka (6 ER, 5 H, 4 IP) looked shaky, and the duo of Garcia and Happ inspired little confidence.
Even with their potent bats and playoff-tested bullpen, the Yankees will need a starter other than Cole to help them to get past the deep, dangerous Rays.
Oakland Athletics: Matt Chapman's Absence
The Athletics outlasted the Chicago White Sox in the Wild Card Round and broke a string of nine consecutive losses in winner-take-all playoff contests in Game 3 of that series.
Now, Oakland finds itself down 2-0 in its best-of-five battle with Houston.
The Athletics haven't pitched particularly well, as they've coughed up 15 runs in two games against the 'Stros. But they've also scored only seven runs and have been missing a proven middle-of-the-order presence.
That could have come in the form of third baseman Matt Chapman, who finished sixth in AL MVP voting in 2019 and owned an .812 OPS with 10 home runs in 37 games this season before undergoing season-ending hip surgery.
Other Oakland hitters have stepped forward in the postseason, including designated hitter Khris Davis (6-for-15, 3 HR) and shortstop Marcus Semien (7-for-19, 1 HR). So far against Houston, though, it hasn't been enough.
San Diego Padres: Starting Rotation Health
The San Diego Padres survived a Wild Card Round scare against the St. Louis Cardinals, who defeated them in Game 1 and carried a 6-2 lead into the bottom of the sixth inning of Game 2.
The Padres came back and won the series largely on the strength of their offense, led by shortstop Fernando Tatis Jr.
San Diego also got clutch work from its bullpen to help offset the 6.1 combined innings and 10 runs allowed it received from starters Chris Paddack, Zach Davies and Craig Stammen.
The Friars will need more from their rotation to defeat the loaded Dodgers. To that end, they were surely hoping for a strong outing from Mike Clevinger on Tuesday in Game 1.
A trade-deadline acquisition from Cleveland, Clevinger posted a 2.84 ERA with 19 strikeouts in 19 innings for the Padres, but he was sidelined on Sept. 23 with an elbow injury. After wriggling out of trouble in the first inning Tuesday, Clevinger threw only two pitches in the second before trainers visited the mound and he was removed from the game.
The Padres' other top starter, Dinelson Lamet, is also sidelined with a biceps injury. If he and Clevinger are unavailable for the remainder of the NLDS, it doesn't bode well for San Diego.
Tampa Bay Rays: Swing-and-Miss Tendencies
The Rays evened their series against the Yankees on Tuesday, and they have a solid chance of advancing to the ALCS if the Yanks can't get a quality start from someone other than Gerrit Cole.
Tampa Bay boasts strong starting pitching led by Blake Snell and Tyler Glasnow, a potent bullpen and a balanced lineup that helped them win the AL East and tie for the best run differential (plus-60) in the Junior Circuit.
With that said, Tampa Bay has a weakness: whiffs.
Rays hitters paced baseball with 608 strikeouts in the regular season, and they're tied for the third-most Ks in the postseason with 37. Although the Yankees are first with 47 postseason strikeouts, their hitters own a collective .998 OPS to the Rays' .791.
Strikeouts don't automatically doom an offense. In fact, they've been on a record-setting rise for years. And Tampa Bay's arms can miss bats as well, as evidenced by the 18 strikeouts they tallied against New York in Game 2.
At some point, though, the Rays' tendency to get rung up could undermine their run for the first title in franchise history.