The six remaining division series teams take the field on Wednesday, so it’s a perfect time to take stock of what we’ve seen so far — and where the 2023 MLB playoffs could go from here.
In the National League, the Los Angeles Dodgers are on the brink of elimination after the No. 6-seeded Arizona Diamondbacks defied odds by sweeping the Milwaukee Brewers in the wild-card round, then claiming the first two games against a Dodgers team making its 11th consecutive postseason appearance. The Philadelphia Phillies and Atlanta Braves, meanwhile, are locked in a 1-1 battle after Atlanta pulled off a thrilling comeback win in Game 2.
In the American League, the Minnesota Twins also could see their October run come to an end, as the Houston Astros look to ride the momentum from their dominant Game 3 victory all the way to their seventh straight AL Championship Series. The Baltimore Orioles became the first team eliminated from the division series on Tuesday night after being swept by the red-hot Texas Rangers.
What will Day 5 of the division series bring? ESPN MLB experts Bradford Doolittle, Buster Olney and David Schoenfield break down some of the biggest questions moving forward.
Arizona leads 2-0
Are the Dodgers … done?
Doolittle: Done? No. They aren’t the favorites to win the series any longer, but that’s just the math that goes with needing to win three straight games. The math is less severe here than it is for other teams in the 0-2 hole, because whatever happens in the series, the Dodgers are the superior team in talent and experience. They just need to get a starter out of the first couple of innings. Lance Lynn can do that. Chase Field is no longer a homer-friendly park, and maybe that will play to Lynn’s fly ball tendencies, which have become even more extreme since he joined the Dodgers.
Olney: Nah. Their offense is too good. And even in defeat, they created a lot of opportunities. The Dodgers will be hard-pressed to come back from down 0-2 and win the World Series, but they will put runners on base against Brandon Pfaadt. They will have chances. This is a team that scored more runs than anybody but the Braves during the regular season. The Dodgers have more than a puncher’s chance.
Schoenfield: Well, as Earl Weaver famously said, “Momentum is the next day’s starting pitcher.” Unfortunately for the Dodgers, that starting pitcher is Lynn, who led the majors with 44 home runs allowed. Thanks to that powerful offense, he did go 7-2 in his 11 starts with the Dodgers. But manager Dave Roberts certainly will have a quick hook and rely heavily on his bullpen once again — and hope for a lot of runs scored. And if the Dodgers win one, they’re back in the series, even if they’ll have to beat Merrill Kelly and Zac Gallen in Games 4 and 5.
If the Diamondbacks do advance, what shot do you give them against the Phillies or Braves in the NLCS?
Doolittle: The Diamondbacks would be decided underdogs, but that doesn’t mean they can’t win. Moment by moment, they’ve won virtually every possible tipping-point situation they’ve encountered so far in October. The belief is there, and their bullpen is rolling. Nevertheless, the Phillies and Braves are better teams, and there is a sizable gap between them and the still-forming Diamondbacks. If you want to put a number on it, I’d give both the Phillies and Braves around a 65% shot at beating Arizona.
Olney: The Braves and Phillies are in a different universe right now than all of the other teams in the postseason. And with the exception of the experienced Astros, it’s hard to imagine anyone beating the Phillies-Braves winner.
Schoenfield: The Diamondbacks held a decent chance at beating L.A. in large part because the three potential off days (yes, it’s silly and stupid to have three off days in a five-game series) meant they could start Kelly and Gallen in four of the five games. In a seven-game NLCS, they’ll have to dig much deeper into their rotation, and that’s a big problem. They’ll be about as big of an underdog as we’ve ever seen in a championship series no matter which team they might play.
Series tied 1-1
The Braves finally stole back some momentum at the end of Game 2. What do they need to do to keep it heading to a raucous Citizens Bank Park in Philly?
Doolittle: They need to forget about those momentum-building moments. They were amazing, producing the best action we’ve seen so far in the postseason. But in the end, all they did was square a series between two comparable teams — and the Phillies still left Atlanta having swiped home-field advantage in the series. That game is done. The Braves need their as-of-now-unnamed Game 3 starter to put up a couple of early zeros and build from there.
Olney: They need to pick the right guy to open on the mound for them in Game 3 — and it’s not really about whether it’s a starter or a reliever. It’s about someone who can be calm in that wild atmosphere in Philadelphia. It’s incredible how many runs have been posted in the first inning in this postseason — 18% of all runs as compared to 12% in the regular season — and the Braves need to avoid giving up that big, crooked number in the first inning. They just need to make sure they get out of the gates nicely in Game 3.
Schoenfield: Get to Aaron Nola early, and force Phillies manager Rob Thomson to make some tough decisions with his bullpen. Nola had long ball issues this season, surrendering 32 in his 32 starts in the regular season — although he has been better down the stretch in that department, and he pitched seven scoreless innings against the Miami Marlins in the wild-card series. Nola was pretty solid against the Braves this season, allowing seven runs and three home runs across 18 innings in three starts. He had similar numbers last season and also allowed just one unearned run in beating Atlanta in the playoffs. So, the Braves haven’t exactly figured him out.
In a series full of stars, which one player will most decide which team moves on from here?
Doolittle: It’s going to be a reliever, right? That’s playoff baseball, circa 2023. Austin Riley‘s clutch homer came off Jeff Hoffman. And Hoffman has been terrific this season. But that was the biggest moment of the playoffs to that point, and it involved a guy who was released in spring training. So which reliever? Let’s say Craig Kimbrel. Despite Game 2, I’m still high on Thomson’s bullpen, but Kimbrel at the back is the guy I worry about most. I don’t know if it will be the Phillies or the Braves whom Kimbrel will boost, but he’ll be involved one way or another.
Olney: I mean, there’s no wrong pick, right? There are so many candidates — but I’ll be Captain Obvious and go with Bryce Harper. He is competing with Carlos Correa and Yordan Alvarez for The Guy Most Locked In this October.
Schoenfield: I think we’re going five games, so that would set up a Game 2 rematch between Zack Wheeler and Max Fried. (Oh, those off days.) I think Wheeler dominates again — except this time, Thomson doesn’t leave him in a couple of batters too long, and the Phillies’ bullpen hangs on.
Houston leads 2-1
How much has Houston’s playoff experience vs. Minnesota’s relative lack of it factored into the series?
Doolittle: I don’t really think experience has much to do with it in this case. The Astros as a group have a ton of postseason experience because they are talented, confident and completely unflappable. So they end up winning in the postseason every year. Those qualities represent who they have always been, not who they have become. The Twins are a good team, but they won 87 games in baseball’s worst division. They just weren’t on the same level as the Astros.
Olney: It’s not that the Twins are inexperienced. It’s just that the Astros are that good and have emerged from their regular-season slumber. It’s worth repeating: These Astros, trying to become the first team since the Yankees from 1998 to 2000 to win back-to-back titles, remind me a lot of those New York clubs in that they are much closer to their true selves once the postseason begins. The Astros need that playoff and World Series adrenaline, just as those Yankees’ teams started to need in it in 1999 and 2000. As former Yankees pitcher and current Astros broadcaster Mike Stanton said in a conversation recently, it’s human nature.
Schoenfield: I’m going with nonfactor. The Twins led the majors in strikeouts as a pitching staff; that was a good sign heading into the playoffs. But their hitters also led the majors in strikeouts; that was the bad sign. Sonny Gray also got rocked in Game 3, and he’s one of the Twins with postseason experience (including a good start against the Toronto Blue Jays in the wild-card round).
If the Astros go to a seventh straight ALCS, how impressive of a feat is that?
Doolittle: Tremendous. An all-timer. The counterpoint to their consistent October success is the Dodgers. L.A. does everything right and is so consistent you can write their name on the NL bracket in spring training and use ink to do it. The Dodgers have made some runs; they have won pennants and a title during this era. But they aren’t a constant like the Astros. You just should not be able to manifest your excellence in one short series after another as the Astros have done for so long now. Truly remarkable.
Olney: In the recent PBS documentary about the franchise, former Astros general manager Jeff Luhnow said Houston has a dynasty. I’m not sure about that; you need at least one more title to qualify, I think. But a seventh straight AL Championship Series would be remarkable because of the consistency required, and the Astros have been doing that through a ton of turnover, from Luhnow to a change in managers to losing George Springer and Correa.
Schoenfield: Given the nature of the modern MLB playoffs, with so many rounds and the inherent random nature of short series, it would be an unbelievably impressive accomplishment to get there seven years in a row. And given that four of those Astros squads won more than 100 games, this team is hardly the best of the group, but it keeps finding ways — first to make the playoffs, then to pull out the division title on the season’s final day and now perhaps to beat the Twins. I wouldn’t bet against the Astros.
Texas wins series 3-0
How do you see the Rangers faring in the ALCS?
Doolittle: This is so hard for me to wrap my head around. The Rangers look very much like a team for which the light has come on. But if they end up facing Houston — well, I was at those games in which they were outscored 39-10 over three days at Globe Life Field in early September. I don’t expect that kind of rout to happen again, but let’s just say I’ll like the Rangers’ chances a lot better if the Twins are able to come back against Houston in the other series.
Olney: If the Braves-Phillies are Muhammad Ali-Joe Frazier, then the Rangers-Astros could be Marvin Hagler-Thomas Hearns. Two strong offensive teams from different parts of Texas, tons of experience on both sides — and the Rangers would be underdogs, because the Astros have a little better pitching, especially with Cristian Javier emerging. But Texas would be favorites against the Twins.
Schoenfield: It’s hard to believe this was the lineup that just over a week ago blew the division title in the final series of the season by losing three of four at the Seattle Mariners and getting shut out twice in the process. Corey Seager is absolutely locked in, rookie Evan Carter has been so hot that manager Bruce Bochy has moved him to fifth in the order and there is plenty of right-handed power with the likes of Adolis Garcia, Marcus Semien and Josh Jung. The biggest key, however: After returning from an injury and struggling in September, Nathan Eovaldi has delivered back-to-back strong outings in the postseason. I’m still not completely sold on the bullpen, but I see it as a coin flip against the Astros and have the Rangers as favorites over the Twins too.
Despite sending three teams to the playoffs, the AL East didn’t manage a single victory in the postseason. Is the division overrated?
Doolittle: Sure. It always is. Now it’s not the worst division, by any stretch. That’s the AL Central or the NL Central, but it’s a Central of some sort. The AL East had four winning teams and a last-place team that won 78 games — and its members did occupy half the AL bracket. But when the East is good, we start seeing speculations about “best divisions ever” and such. It’s a good division, and the teams in it are not at fault for the hype-based expectations that surround some of its members.
Olney: I think the division is just down, in an outlier year. The Yankees were huge disappointments; the Boston Red Sox were who we thought they were; and the Blue Jays haven’t taken advantage of their window yet. I’d bet that with the maturation of the Orioles, a healthier Yankees team and a more determined Boston franchise, the division will quickly rebound.
Schoenfield: It’s playoff baseball. The first rule of playoff baseball: Don’t read too much into what happened. It was still the best division in the regular season: The only non-East AL team with a winning record against the East was the Rangers. Meanwhile, the AL East was 48 games over .500 against the AL Central, 18 games over .500 against the AL West and 22 games over .500 in interleague action. The Orioles, Blue Jays and Tampa Bay Rays just all stunk it up in October.
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