2016 ALCS: what to watch for

The Cleveland Indians are  tough to put away, and tough to beat at home.
The Cleveland Indians are tough to put away, and tough to beat at home.

by Paul West

In a surprising turn of events, what looked like two closely matched divisional series both ended in sweeps. The Toronto Blue Jays exacted their revenge on the Texas Rangers with a three-game sweep that ended on a thrilling Josh Donaldson dash to the plate; the next day, the Cleveland Indians went into Fenway Park and ended David Ortiz‘s career on a bittersweet note, sweeping away the Boston Red Sox. The stage is now set for an ALCS between two teams with firepower, pitching and a feeling that their time has come.

The Blue Jays’ lineup, when hot, is a veritable murderer’s row of home run potential. They’re something of a streaky bunch, but more than any other team in baseball, their power hitting seems contagious–especially in the Rogers Centre, their home ballpark. Edwin Encarnacion hit 42 home runs and drove in a whopping 127 runs this season, while reigning AL MVP Donaldson had 37 and 99, respectively; along with Russell Martin, Troy Tulowitzki and company, they helped power an offense that scored 22 runs in the aforementioned three-game ALDS sweep. The Indians, for their part, seemed for much of the season like the comeback kids of the major leagues; they often seemed to win in their last at bat or come back in the latter innings of a game, and Tyler Naquin‘s walkoff inside-the-park-homer seemed emblematic of the Indians’ season. Cleveland’s comeback mojo contributed to a whopping 53-28 home record; should the series go the distance, playing at home in a deciding seventh game will give them a decided advantage. It will also facilitate the use of closer Cody Allen, who’s quietly put together a very solid year. Allen finished with a 2.51 ERA and a 1.00 WHIP, struck out 87 batters in 68 innings, and went 32 for 35 in save situations; he’s at the tail end of a strong bullpen that features Bryan Shaw and fearsome lefty Andrew Miller as setup men. Miller is a former closer who saved 36 games in 2015, allowing manager Terry Francona some situational flexibility when using his bullpen. The Blue Jays’ pen isn’t nearly as daunting, but it’s more solid than it was considered for much of the year. Closer Roberto Osuna saved 36 games and posted a .93 WHIP to go with a 2.68 ERA, while former starter Francisco Liriano has been solid as the setup man of late. Brett Cecil and former closer Jason Grilli have mostly held serve this postseason, and they’ll have their work cut out for them against the comeback-happy Indians.

The Blue Jays can binge on home runs, and they'll need to stay hot against Cleveland's staff.
The Blue Jays can binge on home runs, and they’ll need to stay hot against Cleveland’s staff.

The biggest x-factor in this series is the health of the Cleveland rotation. The Blue Jays were tied for the major league lead in quality starts, and their rotation has been a strength for most of the season; ace Marco Estrada is dialed in, and threw a gem against the Texas Rangers in his ALDS start. Lefty J.A. Happ, who at 20-4 had the best regular season of his career, is scheduled to start game two. Meanwhile, the Indians are missing two of the four exciting talents who headlined their rotation for most of the year. Carlos Carrasco, who struck out 150 in 146 innings this season and finished with a 3.32 ERA and 1.15 WHIP, is on the 60-day disabled list with a broken pitching hand. Danny Salazar, who struck out 161 in 137 innings, is on the disabled list with an elbow strain. Corey Kluber, missed the ALDS with quad tightness, but he’ll be back to pitch the ALCS opener; the 2014 AL Cy Young Award winner finished the year with 228 strikeouts, a 3.14 ERA and a 1.06 WHIP. This means Trevor Bauer, who opened the series against the Red Sox, will pitch the second game. This also means there will be less pressure on spot starters Mike Clevinger and Josh Tomlin to pick up the slack. If Cleveland’s starters can sidestep Toronto’s long ball power long enough to hand it off to Francona’s versatile relief staff, the Indians could make their first World Series appearance since 1997.

Prediction: Cleveland in seven

 

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