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Major League Baseball Underdogs To Face-Off In Postseason

ROBERT SIEGEL, HOST:

There are plenty of familiar faces in this year's Major League Baseball playoffs. The St. Louis Cardinals, the Los Angeles Dodgers, New York Yankees - they're all in again. But there are also plenty of upstarts in the postseason including a couple of teams playing in wild-card games this week. And joining me to talk about all this is Grantland's Jonah Keri. Welcome to the program again.

JONAH KERI: Thanks for having me.

SIEGEL: Let's start with the wild-card games. In the American League matchup tomorrow in New York, the Houston Astros are sending out their best pitcher and the man who may have the biggest beard in all baseball, Dallas Keuchel, against the Yankees. How do you see that one playing out?

KERI: You know, it will be interesting to see. Keuchel does seem to be a pretty good matchup in that ballpark. On the other hand, once you get to these one-game playoffs, you're not necessarily going to ride your starter seven, eight or nine innings because you have the ability to pull out all the stops. It's an elimination game. And from that standpoint, the Yankees would seem to have the advantage because the Yankees have two monster relievers in Dellin Betances and Andrew Miller. So they have the ability to mix and match a little bit and get aggressive in how they use that bullpen which could nullify potentially any advantage that the Astros might have in starting.

SIEGEL: Well, then in Wednesday's National League matchup, the Chicago Cubs will face the Pittsburgh Pirates in Pittsburgh. The Pirates have won 98 games, and the Cubs have won 97. But after this wild-card game, one of those teams will be going home - doesn't seem fair.

KERI: Yeah, what a beauty of a matchup. It doesn't seem fair. You're right. Both managers have kind of intimated they wish it was at least a three-game series.

And great pitching matchup here - Jake Arrieta - what a phenomenal season by him. One of the best seasons we've seen in a long, long time by any pitcher. He's great for the Cubs. And for the Pirates, Gerrit Cole will be an excellent matchup for him. You know, again here it could be a bullpen situation where the Pirates - they could roll out guys starting in the fifth or sixth inning if Cole tires.

The thing about Arrieta, though, is Arrieta just set an all-time major league record for lowest ERA in the second half - .75. And so if there is any one pitcher that you would consider riding deep into this game and not treated as a - what you would call a bullpen game, it could be Arrieta. I mean, it's not impossible. He could just come out there and win the game one to nothing or two to nothing.

SIEGEL: Pirates haven't won a World Series since 1979. The Cubs, of course, haven't won at all since Theodore Roosevelt was president. It's hard to imagine a casual fan not rooting for the team that wins that game.

KERI: Yeah, absolutely. These are two very likable ball clubs. There's no question they're underdogs. I mean, not just the World Series - the Pirates didn't have a winning season for two decades before finally breaking that streak a couple years ago. And you know, the Cubs, of course, have a lot of great young players too - Chris Bryant, who's going to win Rookie of the Year and Joe Maddon, the Renaissance man as the manager - likable to many, although possibly not to the Cubs' rivals. Perhaps they don't see his Merlot drinking is all that attractive.

SIEGEL: (Laughter). Now, waiting for either the Cubs or the Pirates - whoever wins that game - are the St. Louis Cardinals who are in the playoffs for what seems to be the 700th season in a row. How do the Cards keep doing this?

KERI: Well, I mean, they just have a great organization top to bottom. I mean, you look at - the players are certainly great, but it really starts with scouting and player development and their general manager, John Mozeliak. And they do an excellent job. And yes, in some ways, it's predictable that the Cardinals made it this year, but if you dig down to the details, they lost half their roster over the course this season. But they just have such incredible depth. They find a way to draft guys, develop them, bring them up to the majors and put them in position to succeed. So credit to everybody - credit to those players certainly, credit to the manager Mike Matheny, who I don't think gets enough credit, quite frankly, and credit to the front office and to the Scouts and the number crunchers and everybody who puts them in position to make that happen. It really is the model franchise in baseball.

SIEGEL: In the American League, the Kansas City Royals are back in the playoffs again. Last year they surprised and delighted almost everyone with an incredible playoff run that ended in the ninth inning of game seven of the World Series with the tying run on third base. This year, they surprised absolutely no one by being the best team in the American League all season long. Can the Royals handle the burden of great expectations and make it back to the World Series?

KERI: You know, it's quite possible. And they're such a strange team. We're sitting here obsessing, almost, over starting pitching - this player and this pitcher.

The way that they won it last year was basically with bullpen, with defense and with base running. They just ran you to death, and they would small ball you to death. And all that stuff was happening. And the difference in this year's club versus last year is that all of a sudden, they're not just a, you know, a paper-cut team offensively. You know, they'll hit some homeruns and doubles and have a chance to beat you offensively too. So they are a dangerous club and one of the better teams coming into the playoffs.

SIEGEL: Jonah Keri, who covers baseball for Grantland. Jonah thanks.

KERI: Thank you. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.