2021 MLB Playoff Preview: Post-Season Storylines That’ll Get You up to Speed

Back of San Diego shortstop Fernando Tatis Jr. (23)
San Diego shortstop Fernando Tatis Jr. (23) on deck during MLB game between San Diego Padres and San Francisco Giants.Thurman James/CSM/Shutterstock

Major League Baseball’s postseason starts Tuesday night with an especially spicy American League Wild Card Game between the New York Yankees and Boston Red Sox. The playoff sprint will last about a month, and MLB is back to its standard 10-team format after briefly expanding the field to 16 teams for the 60-game pandemic season of 2020. In other words, baseball’s playoffs are back to being the hardest to get into across the major North American pro sports, with just a third of the league playing on past October 3.

Spoiler: The playoffs will be good. They always are, and the stakes will feel especially high after a two-year layoff from the last regular postseason with fans in the stands. But to get a little more specific, here are a few things to watch as the pennant race approaches its final chapter.

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Some of the sport’s biggest teams will have their backs against the wall

The Yankees and Red Sox won 92 games each, a solid effort but well behind the 100-victory Tampa Bay Rays, who took the AL East crown and an automatic slot in the Division Series. So New York and Boston, with the second- and fifth-largest payrolls in baseball, will have a one-game playoff to see who meets the Rays and whose postseason ends before it starts.

In the National League, the story is similar enough. The Los Angeles Dodgers, owners of the biggest-budget roster in baseball at about $267 million this year, were their typically elite selves this season. But the San Francisco Giants somehow pulled a 107-win season out of their back pocket, meaning L.A.’s 106 wins merely got the Dodgers a one-game playoff with the St. Louis Cardinals, a postseason mainstay that itself has a top-10 payroll.

All together, the four Wild Card teams have won nine World Series this century. Two will be done by Wednesday night. The AL game is Tuesday at 8 p.m. ET on TBS, and the NL game is at the same time, and on the same channel, on Wednesday.

The Giants will try to finish off one of the most absurd seasons in baseball history

As we covered back in the summer, there was no particular reason coming into this season to think San Francisco would even be a playoff team. The Dodgers have been the NL West’s dominant force for years, and it seemed like the San Diego Padres were the team best positioned to challenge L.A. But the Padres faded after a hot start, and the Giants simply kept winning all year with a lineup of veteran hitters who’d appeared to be nearing the ends of their careers and a rotation of pitchers who consistently outstripped expectations. They also helped themselves at the trade deadline by getting Kris Bryant from the Chicago Cubs, though Bryant has been more good than great since getting to the Bay Area at the start of August. No team league-wide has won more than their 107 games since the 2018 Red Sox, and no team in franchise history has ever won as much as the 2021 Giants.

So here the Giants are, with a historic year under their belt and a chance to win their fourth World Series since 2010. Despite the best record in baseball, the Giants are tied for the third-best odds to take the Fall Classic, a reflection that even after 107 wins, there’s still some skepticism about the Giants’ staying power. Part of it is that their reward for all those wins may well be a five-game series with the second-best team in the league this year: Los Angeles.

The Rays will try, again, to get over the hump against their bigger-spending opponents

Tampa Bay is the gold standard for MLB teams trying to compete without spending serious money on their rosters. That’s not worth praising, as team owner Stu Sternberg clearly has the means to spend more and the Rays have repeatedly cashed MLB revenue-sharing checks while making relatively paltry investments in their big league team.

It’s not a good thing for fans or players that the Rays have been so good while spending so little and refusing to spend more, and it’s arguably why they’ve failed to win a World Series in six postseason appearances since 2008. This year’s payroll was 26th in the majors, as Sternberg’s team leaned on young, cheap stars like second baseman Brandon Lowe and right fielder Randy Arozarena. So far, of course, it’s worked out. Whether the Rays can make a deep run with a pitching staff that lacks a true front-line starter is unclear, but they’ve got lots of depth. It helps to have a bullpen that led the majors in wins above replacement.

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