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Is it possible for the 104-win Dodgers to be . . . underdogs?


I’m trying to remember a postseason in which a team that won as many games as the Dodgers did during the regular season inspired so little excitement, emotion or confidence. L.A. won 104 games this year and they’re getting less press and it seems as though they have fewer people predicting a deep playoff run for them than any of the other division winners. It’s like they’re the 1998 Braves or something.

Part of this is recency bias, of course. The Dodgers were on a record pace for wins as late as mid-August, everyone was talking about them and they graced the cover of Sports Illustrated with the words “Best. Team. Ever?” slapped across it. Then they went on a 1-16 skid, stumbling through late August and much of September and they seemed extraordinarily mortal. They were, suddenly, just the latest super talented Dodges team that seemed destined to flame out in the playoffs.

I suppose it’s certainly possible that will happen again, but we probably shouldn’t lose sight of the fact that this is a really, really good Dodgers team.

All of the Dodgers playoff teams of recent years have been good, but this one is a bit more versatile. They’re better on defense. They’re nowhere near as susceptible to lefties as they have been in the past. If one bat goes cold, as so often happens, it’s not as big a deal because there are more big bats, including Dodgers playoff newcomer Cody Bellinger. Clayton Kershaw is still Clayton Kershaw. Kenley Jansen is still Kenley Jansen. The rotation is deeper thanks to the emergence of Alex Wood, which will allow Dave Roberts to keep Kershaw on regular rest unless all hell breaks loose. There’s every reason to think that the 2017 Dodgers have a better chance to finally break through and win a pennant than the 2013-2016 editions.

Still, no one seems all that confident in the Dodgers’ chances. Arizona took 11 of 19 meetings between the clubs and won the last six games against the Dodgers in the regular season. Robbie Ray may not pitch until Game 2 or 3, but he dominated the Dodgers during the regular season, going 3-0 in five starts with a 2.27 ERA and 53 strikeouts in 31.2 innings. Diamondbacks pitchers tamed Cody Bellinger in their matchups. Rich Hill got lit up by the Dbacks in four meetings. You can look at the position-by-position breakdowns of these two clubs and conclude that Los Angeles is a bit better than Arizona in just about every department, yet still think that Arizona has the edge for whatever psychic reasons augment your thinking about such things.

Which leads us to an almost absurd question: is a 104-win team an underdog in a series against a Wild Card team?

I think that’s too much — I still favor the Dodgers here, and I’ll never abide the Los Angeles freakin’ Dodgers or their fans playing the “no one believed in us” card — but at the very least, this series could prove to be a fantastic case study of momentum, juju and vibe. I have no idea what to expect. I don’t even know if the Dodgers do, if they’re being honest.

The Astros gave the Yankees an opening. Keuchel and Verlander will try to close the door.

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If Game 4 of the ALCS had been even remotely conventional, it’d stand at 3-1 in favor of Houston right now. The Yankees’ starter pitched well but got no run support. A mighty Astros team with an ordinarily good closer in Ken Giles had a 4-0 lead in the late innings. As the Yankees set out to mount a comeback, a base runner fell down in between first and second and should’ve been dead to rights. This is playoff baseball, however, so stuff, as they say, happens. The runner was safe, the closer struggled, the Yankees rallied and now we’re tied 2-2.

But are we even at 2-2?

On paper, no, because the Astros now will send Dallas Keuchel and Justin Verlander out in Games 5 and 6, and that gives them a clear advantage. Keuchel dominated the Yankees in Game 1, tossing seven scoreless innings and striking out ten batters. Verlander struck out 13 batters in a 124-pitch complete game in which he allowed only a single run. Beyond the mere facts of the box scores, however, the Yankees have looked profoundly overmatched by both of the Astros’ aces, in this postseason and on other occasions on which they’ve faced off against them. Most notably in the 2015 wild-card game at Yankee Stadium when Keuchel pitched six scoreless innings in the 3-0 victory.

But remember: stuff happens.

Stuff like Aaron Judge‘s and Gary Sanchez‘s bats waking up. The two most important sluggers in the Bombers lineup combined to go 3-for-6 with two doubles, a homer, a walk and five RBI in last night’s victory. Each of them had been silent for the first three games of the series but if they’re heating up, the Yankees will be a lot harder to pitch to.

Stuff like Masahiro Tanaka showing that he can tame the Astros’ lineup. Which he did pretty well in Game 1, giving up only two runs on four hits in six innings. He was overshadowed by Keuchel in that game, but it was a good performance against a strong lineup in a hostile environment. Tanaka pitches much better at Yankee Stadium than he does on the road, so don’t for a second think that the Astros bats will have an easy time of it today.

Stuff like the Yankees bullpen still being the Yankees bullpen. Yes, the Astros got to David Robertson yesterday, but it’s still a strong, strong group that gives the Yankees a clear advantage if the game is close late or if they hold a lead.

All of which is to say that we have ourselves a series, friends. While, 48 hours ago, it seemed like we were on our way to an Astros coronation, the Yankees have shown up in a major way in Games 3 and 4. If you’re an Astros fan you should feel pretty confident with Keuchel and Verlander heading into action over the next two games, but we have learned that absolutely nothing is guaranteed in the postseason.