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USA TODAY Sports Weekly - - INSIDE - Jock Thomp­son and Ray Mur­phy

Our ex­perts and Base­bal­lHQ size up how the play­offs might un­fold.

This year’s Oc­to­ber brack­ets are very dif­fer­ent. On the AL side: the 108-win Bos­ton Red Sox, the 103-win de­fend­ing cham­pion Hous­ton Astros, 197 more wins worth of wild-card en­tries, and a sneaky Cleve­land In­di­ans team a year re­moved from 101 wins.

Mean­while, the NL story is one of par­ity, as ev­i­denced by the need for two Game 163s to set­tle seed­ings. Even af­ter the ex­tra games, the five NL en­tries are bunched be­tween 90 and 96 wins.

How will the month play out? Here is our take:

Na­tional League

Colorado en­ters the wild­card game with the Coors Field ques­tion. De­spite fin­ish­ing third in runs, the Rock­ies of­fense was just 21st in scor­ing on the road — and will be lack­ing home-field ad­van­tage in ev­ery round. No sur­prise: the Rock­ies own the worst ERA among NL post­sea­son clubs.

A solid Chicago Cubs pitch­ing staff is neu­tral­ized a tad by an of­fense that has been noth­ing spe­cial, par­tic­u­larly since the All-Star break (771 OPS in first half, 709 in sec­ond half). De­spite the late-Au­gust Daniel Mur­phy ac­qui­si­tion, Chicago hit­ters have slid dra­mat­i­cally in most of­fen­sive cat­e­gories, in­clud­ing strike­outs, walks, bat­ting av­er­age, homers and slug­ging.

The wild-card win­ner will face the Mil­wau­kee Brew­ers, who roared down the stretch, win­ning nine of their last 10. They’ve hit the fourth-most homers in the ma­jors, head­lined by peak­ing MVP can­di­date Chris­tian Yelich.

The Brew­ers’ soft spot is a pedes­trian five-in­ning-a-night ro­ta­tion, but a lethal bullpen keeps them dan­ger­ous. Josh Hader (15.9 K/9, 2.50 ERA), Jeremy Jef­fress (1.29 ERA) and a resur­gent Corey Knebel (no runs, 32/3 K/BB over his last 15 in­nings) can eat four in­nings in any close con­test. Mil­wau­kee should ad­vance against ei­ther the Cubs or Rock­ies.

The At­lanta Braves rode youth, a fast start and weak com­pe­ti­tion to their NL East ti­tle. They struck out fewer times than any of their NL post­sea­son com­peti­tors, fin­ish­ing sev­enth in over­all con­tact and fifth in bat­ting av­er­age. But they also fin­ished 19th in both walks and homers, sug­gest­ing that they’ll need good luck on balls in play to keep up with the NL West cham­pion Los An­ge­les Dodgers.

The Braves ro­ta­tion out­pitched its pe­riph­eral num­bers all sea­son, feast­ing on three bot­tom-10 of­fenses in the NL East. At­lanta lost five of seven to L.A. dur­ing the reg­u­lar sea­son and will suf­fer a sim­i­lar fate with­out a home-field ad­van­tage.

The July ac­qui­si­tion of Manny Machado paid big div­i­dends down the stretch for the Dodgers, who led the ma­jors in scor­ing in Septem­ber. They ranked sec­ond over­all in home runs and first in walks.

Just as im­por­tant, their pitch­ers topped the NL in strike­outs and lim­it­ing walks, thanks to a ro­ta­tion that fin­ished with the NL’s best ERA.

Clay­ton Kershaw, fast-ris­ing Walker Buehler, Hyun-Jin Ryu and Rich Hill match up very well with their post­sea­son com­pe­ti­tion on pa­per. Though a volatile bullpen sug­gests the Dodgers may need to lean more heav­ily on their starters in Oc­to­ber, they should have enough to get past the Braves and then the Brew­ers in the NLCS. Barely.

Amer­i­can League

The Astros’ ti­tle de­fense starts on the mound. Aces Justin Ver­lan­der (2.52 ERA, 12.2 K/9) and Ger­rit Cole (2.88 ERA, 12.4 K/9) form the best 1-2 punch in the AL. Hous­ton ag­gres­sively re­tooled its bullpen in-sea­son, adding closer Roberto Osuna (1.99 ERA with Hous­ton) and Ryan Pressly (0.77 ERA with Hous­ton) to an al­ready­deep group. As their league­lead­ing 3.11 team ERA (half a run bet­ter than the next team) shows, the Astros’ run preven­tion is elite.

Of­fen­sively, Alex Breg­man (31 HRs, .926 OPS) has grad­u­ated from sup­port­ing ac­tor to star­dom. He aug­ments the re­turn­ing heart of 2017’s cham­pi­onship core — Ge­orge Springer, Car­los Cor­rea and Jose Al­tuve — all of whom spent time on the dis­abled list in the sec­ond half but are now healthy.

Hous­ton will face the In­di­ans, who fea­ture their own pair of aces in Corey Klu­ber (2.89 ERA, 9.3 K/9) and Car­los Car­rasco (3.38 ERA, 10.8 K/9). The key for them is the next man up, whom they hope will be Trevor Bauer (2.21 ERA, 11.3 K/9), as he is just re­turn­ing from a late-sea­son leg in­jury.

The In­di­ans bullpen is head­lined by the three-headed mon­ster: mid­sea­son ac­qui­si­tion Brad Hand (32 saves, 2.89 ERA, 13.3 K/9), last year’s closer Cody Allen (27 saves, 4.70 ERA, 10.7 k/9), and dinged-up su­per weapon An­drew Miller (only 34 in­nings, 4.24 ERA, 11.9 K/9), all of whom fig­ure to be de­ployed ag­gres­sively by man­ager Terry Fran­cona.

The In­di­ans lineup fin­ished third in the AL in runs scored, keyed by the dy­namic in­field duo of Fran­cisco Lin­dor (.277, 38 HRs, 129 runs, 25 SB) and Jose Ramirez (.272, 39 HRs, 106 RBI, 34 SB). But late-Au­gust pickup Josh Don­ald­son is a po­ten­tial game-changer. He spent Septem­ber shak­ing off a sum­mer’s worth of rust, and it seemed to work: his 1.00 Eye ra­tio (10 walks/10 strike­outs) with the In­di­ans sug­gest he’s ready for Oc­to­ber.

Cleve­land is for­mi­da­ble, but we’ll fa­vor the Astros in this ALDS matchup.

The wild-card show­down be­tween the Oak­land Ath­let­ics and New York Yan­kees fea­tures two teams with sim­i­lar pro­files: rel­a­tively thin start­ing ro­ta­tions, backed by deep and ver­sa­tile bullpens, and the two top homer-pro­duc­ing of­fenses in the cir­cuit.

Await­ing the wild-card sur­vivor will be a stacked Red Sox team that has a sur­pris­ing num­ber of ques­tions en­ter­ing Oc­to­ber.

Chief among them is the sta­tus of ace starter Chris Sale (2.11 ERA, 13.5 K/9), who threw only 42 sec­ond-half in­nings, in be­tween two DL stints for shoul­der in­flam­ma­tion. Be­hind him, David Price (3.58 ERA, 9.1 K/9) had a strong re­bound year but was re­peat­edly shelled by the Yan­kees (10.34 ERA in 16 IP).

Rookie man­ager Alex Cora spent Septem­ber hold­ing open au­di­tions for bullpen slots in front of closer Craig Kim­brel (42 saves, 2.74 ERA, 13.9 K/9), with­out find­ing clear an­swers.

Pre­vi­ously un­known Ryan Brasier (1.60 ERA, 7.8 K/9 in just 34 IP) seemed to step into the eighth-in­ning role as Matt Barnes (3.65 ERA, 14.0 K/9) missed much of Septem­ber to in­jury.

What the Astros are to run preven­tion, the Red Sox are to run scor­ing. Bos­ton’s 876 runs scored were 50 more than any team ex­cept the Yan­kees. With their Fen­way Park home-field ad­van­tage locked in, they have the po­ten­tial to sim­ply slug their way through any se­ries — even if Sale isn’t at his best, or the bad ver­sion of Price shows up, or the setup re­lief crum­bles in front of Kim­brel.

In a ti­tanic ALCS matchup be­tween the Red Sox and Astros, we fa­vor Hous­ton’s elite run preven­tion, plenty of of­fen­sive fire­power in their own right, and fewer ques­tion marks over­all. Look for the Astros to make a re­turn trip to the World Se­ries ... and once again edge out the Dodgers in a se­v­engame re­match.


Ev­ery­thing points to the Astros cel­e­brat­ing a sec­ond con­sec­u­tive World Se­ries ti­tle this fall, again com­ing at the ex­pense of the Dodgers.

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