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Monday, December 11, 2017

15 takeaways from the MLB Division Series

Justin Verlander

All four division series of the 2017 MLB playoffs are in the books, and now the chase for the pennant is upon us. The Cleveland Indians, Boston Red Sox, Arizona Diamondbacks and Washington Nationals are home with their seasons over. The New York Yankees, Houston Astros, Los Angeles Dodgers and Chicago Cubs have advanced and will have a chance at reaching the World Series.

The four division series taught us a lot about the teams involved. Some of the teams headed home have work to do this offseason, while those that advanced are proving a point to critics.

Here are 15 takeaways from the MLB division series.

1. The Astros’ Justin Verlander trade may prove to be the most important in-season trade for any team

Flying high at the end of July, the Astros went 11-17 in August, and there were more than a few theories that the team’s lack of trade deadline activity had a major negative impact on clubhouse morale. On Aug. 31, seconds before the waiver trade deadline, the Astros brought in Justin Verlander. It changed the feeling around the organization, which went 21-8 down the stretch after acquiring him.

Verlander pitched twice in the ALDS and won both games, including his first career relief appearance, giving up three runs in 8.2 innings. His ability to outpitch Sale is a big reason why Houston won, and why that trade may prove more important than any other deadline move.

2. The real Dodgers are the elite kind, and they’re back

Concerns were high around the Dodgers after their historic pace came to a halt and saw them lose 16 of 17 games between Aug. 26 and Sep. 20. They recovered to go 8-2 in their last 10 games and never looked to be in much trouble against an Arizona team that actually went 11-8 against them during the regular season. The Dodgers were the best team in baseball for a reason, and that bad stretch made a lot of people forget it. Their sweep of the Diamondbacks in the NLDS should serve as a reminder of just how good they are.

3. Terry Francona’s rotation gambit backfired

We may never know why the Cleveland manager did what he did — perhaps Corey Kluber was hurt, which contributed to a bad series for him — but the way he set up his rotation was not ideal. Trevor Bauer has been good, but how did he get two starts while Carlos Carrasco, who has comfortably been Cleveland’s best pitcher, only got one? Why was the three-man rotation — and Bauer on short rest in Game 4 — necessary when Mike Clevinger, who had a 2.84 ERA as a starter in 2016, was on the roster but punted out of the rotation?

Obviously Kluber not being himself put Francona at a disadvantage from the start, but the Cleveland manager — who usually pushes the right buttons at this time of year — did not optimize his talented rotation for maximum success.

4. Red Sox need a rethink, starting with new manager

It’s safe to say that this is not how Boston’s 2017 season was supposed to go. You do not trade two of your top prospects to bring in Chris Sale only to win one more playoff game than you did the year before. The team seemed to miss David Ortiz’s presence, but beyond that, they were never a dominant force despite Sale exceeding expectations.

Key players underperformed. Mookie Betts could not match his MVP-caliber 2016. Third base was a black hole for much of the season. Not a single regular hit .300. The Sox were last in the American League in home runs. A team that thought they would have three aces in Sale, David Price, and Rick Porcello really only had one as Price got hurt and Porcello underperformed. Rumors flew that manager John Farrell had issues communicating with his players. He was ultimately fired by the team.

Something isn’t right in Boston, and it needs to be fixed; this team hasn’t won a playoff series since their 2013 World Series title. They need to find a suitable replacement for Farrell.

5. Washington’s NLDS issues are officially psychological

It may not be totally logical, but at this point, it makes as much sense as anything else. The Nationals had jumped out to a 4-1 lead over the Chicago Cubs with Gio Gonzalez on the mound, but he gave two runs back, setting up a disastrous relief appearance from ace Max Scherzer that saw the Nationals lose the lead for good.

Every single year, this team underperforms. It doesn’t matter how talented they are. This is the fourth NLDS defeat in six years — they just seem to tighten up when put under pressure, and you have to think that the history is starting to wear on them.

6. The Yankees won without their biggest stars stepping up

If you had been told that the Yankees were going to take this series, you’d have probably guessed that the likes of Aaron Judge and Gary Sanchez had big games. That was not the case. Judge had just one hit in the series and struck out 16 times in 20 at-bats, a postseason record for strikeouts in a single series. Sanchez homered twice but hit just .174. The Yankees as a whole hit .201 in the series, gutting out wins with timely hitting and taking advantage of a slew of Cleveland errors.

If they can improve — and there is room for it — Houston is in for quite the tough series.

7. Astros should be taken as seriously as anyone else in the American League

For much of the first half of the season, the Astros were considered the American League’s premier team. However, a midseason swoon — coupled with Cleveland’s historic run in the second half — meant that it was the Indians who got most of the headlines while the Astros fell back into the rearview mirror a bit. Houston, however, went 21-8 after the calendar turned from August, then beat Boston convincingly in four. Their accomplishment is magnified even further with the Cleveland Indians falling to the New York Yankees, opening the door for Houston.

The Astros have a strong lineup from top to bottom and are the best team left in the American League. They were dismissed too easily before.

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