MLB Playoffs: Four teams, two of them easy to root for

Oct 8, 2020; Houston, Texas, USA; Atlanta Braves designated hitter Marcell Ozuna (20) reacts after defeating the Miami Marlins in game three of the 2020 NLDS at Minute Maid Park. Mandatory Credit: Thomas Shea-USA TODAY Sports
Oct 8, 2020; Houston, Texas, USA; Atlanta Braves designated hitter Marcell Ozuna (20) reacts after defeating the Miami Marlins in game three of the 2020 NLDS at Minute Maid Park. Mandatory Credit: Thomas Shea-USA TODAY Sports /
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There are four teams left in the MLB playoffs, and two of them are easy to root for. The Rays and Braves yes, the Astros and Dodgers no.

The MLB playoffs is down to four teams. But for most of us who do not have a personal rooting interest, it’s really down to just two.

The Atlanta Braves will play the Los Angeles Dodgers in the National League Championship Series. In the American League, the Houston Astros will play the Tampa Bay Rays.

Fans of two of those four teams will not be onboard with this. But for the rest of us, the two easy teams to root for are the Rays and Braves.

That’s the only logical preference for those who root for the uplifting story, the feel-good tale. Neither the Dodgers nor the Astros bring with them that same cachet.

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The problem is that cachet is a tough thing to mobilize against. It is often flimsy, and equally often under-talented. Already in this elongated post-season, several teams that might have filled that role – the Oakland Athletics, the Miami Marlins, the Minnesota Twins – have been brusquely shunted aside. The Twins and Athletics both went down to the Astros, the least likeable, least deserving potential World Series winner this year…and maybe of all time.

Handing the Commissioner’s Trophy to the Astros this particular post-season would be tacitly rewarding mischief. After all, many of the same players implicated in the sign-steal scandal were the ones carrying the club this past two weeks. “Hey, you guys cheated…and your punishment is you get the trophy.”

No, unless you live in Houston, you have to root for the Astros to go down. That is a moral imperative.

But even as the AL East champion, Tampa Bay will have a tough challenge. Only last fall, the Astros took down the Rays in a tough five-game division series. In their four-game victory over the Oakland Athletics, the Astros out-scored their opponents 33-22. That’s virtually a run an inning…and against a good pitching staff.

Jose Altuve batted .219 in the regular season, but .400 in the division series. Alex Bregman was a .242 hitter until this past week, when he also hit .400. Carlos Correa hit .500.  The Astros as a team batted .322 against the A’s, 82 percentage points higher than during the regular season.

The baseball world will be rooting for Tampa Bay to take down those Astros, but it will not be at all easy.

The Dodgers have a far cleaner reputation than the Astros, but I still can’t root for them. Granted: LA hasn’t won a World Series since 1988. Also granted: LA has the best personnel this year. The team won 72 percent of its games.

The problem with rooting for the Dodgers is that doing so carries no buzz with it. You hop on the bandwagon of the odds-on favorite, and the odds-on favorite wins. How satisfying is that? What kind of guts does it take to pick a team that went 43-17?

That leaves the Braves and Rays. That’s OK because there are rewarding elements to the both teams’ stories.

Atlanta saw most of its pitching staff evaporate. Remember Mike Foltyniewicz, Mike Soroka, Sean Newcomb and Cole Hamels? That’s four-fifths of Atlanta’s rotation at season’s start, and right now not one of them is on the roster.

The Braves have been forced to make do, and they have. They’re getting by with their one reliable starter, Max Fried, plus Ian Anderson, Kyle Wright and a bunch of Hail Marys.

Offensively, Marcell Ozuna has come over and revitalized his career. Travis d’Arnaud and Dansby Swanson have proven that yes, they can hit. Adam Duvall has become something more than a stick-figure slugger, and Ronald Acuna Jr. is an on-base machine.

Tampa Bay’s lineup is equally laden with inspirational, underdog-type stories. The team’s most productive player, based on regular season WAR, was Brandon Lowe. This is a guy who has never hit above .270, never topped 17 home runs or 51 RBIs, and who until this year was not even a full-time player. He’s average sized, average speed and average-at-best power.

Randy Arozarena starred against the Yankees, but he wasn’t even a regular during the regular season. Coming over from the Cardinals last winter, he got on the field for 76 plate appearances. But against the Yanks he homered three times and nearly batted .500. That’s stepping up.

I’m not sure how the Rays beat the Astros. In the division series, they batted in the .220s with a staff ERA solidly above 5.00. But I have to root for a team that can persevere in the face of those numbers.

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Give me one of those underdog stories in the MLB playoffs against a bunch of oughta-be jailbirds and an overwhelming favorite any day.