Only five contenders remain for the World Series entering Thursday's playoff baseball schedule.
The Cleveland Indians, Boston Red Sox and Arizona Diamondbacks have seen their respective seasons end in the last week, and one more team will join them on the golf course following Game 5 of the NLDS between the Chicago Cubs and Washington Nationals.
With five contenders for the championship left following the New York Yankees' 5-2 win in Game 5 of the ALDS over the Indians, the margin for error is slimmer, but the chances of adding hardware to the trophy case have increased.
Chicago Cubs at Washington Nationals (Game 5 on Thursday, series tied 2-2)
New York Yankees at Houston Astros (Best-of-7 series begins on Friday)
Cubs or Nationals at Los Angeles Dodgers (Best-of-7 series begins on Saturday)
While the Dodgers enjoy another off day out in California, the Cubs and Nationals will square off for the right to fly out west for Saturday's Game 1 of the NLCS.
The Nationals leveled the NLDS with a 5-0 victory at Wrigley Field on Wednesday that was powered by a late grand slam off the bat of Michael A. Taylor.
Kyle Hendricks will take the mound at Nationals Park for the Cubs, while the Nationals are still undecided on who will oppose him. Dusty Baker told reporters he'll call on either Tanner Roark or Gio Gonzalez, per Chelsea Janes of the Washington Post.
Gonzalez put together a solid five-inning outing in Game 2 before the game was won in the eighth inning. If the lefthander is sent to the bump by Baker, the Cubs will most likely shift toward a heavy right-handed lineup. If Roark is the Game 5 starter, expect more lefties in the Chicago lineup.
If Game 5 comes down to the bullpens, you could give a slight edge to the Nationals and their crew building up to closer Sean Doolittle. Not only are they in their home ballpark, but the Nats also roughed up Cubs closer Wade Davis in the eighth inning of Game 4. Confidence and momentum can certainly play a role in deciding a postseason contest and the Nationals have plenty of that.
Prediction: Nationals over Cubs
The Yankees pulled off a remarkable comeback in the ALDS to knock out the defending AL champion Indians, but an even tougher task awaits in the ALCS against the Astros.
Although there were plenty of impressive performances turned in by the players in pinstripes during the ALDS, one superstar struggled. Aaron Judge struck out a record 16 times in 19 at-bats against the Indians.
According to baseball statistician Ryan Spaeder on Twitter, Judge shattered the previous record of 13 strikeouts in a playoff series:
The good news for the Yankees entering the ALCS is their bullpen comes in with a ton of confidence. Although he had to wait close to 30 minutes to complete his two-inning save, Aroldis Chapman got the job done and showed manager Joe Girardi he's capable of achieving the feat again if called upon. David Robertson, Tommy Kahnle, Chad Green and Dellin Betances give Girardi plenty of options if his starters falter early in games.
Carlos Correa is the player to watch in the Astros lineup. The shortstop hit .500 in his seven regular-season meetings with the Yankees, per Brian McTaggart of MLB.com:
Correa was one of seven Astros to record four or more hits in the ALDS versus the Red Sox. Yulieski Gurriel was the most successful batter with nine hits.
Much like their ALCS counterpart, the Astros will rely heavily on their bullpen earlier than usual if they have to, but some of the arms in the pen have to improve. Chris Devenski struggled in his 2 1/3 innings of work by giving up three earned runs, while Ken Giles was tagged for two earned runs in three innings on the mound.
On paper, it is hard to figure out who will take the next step and advance to the World Series. Both teams have lineups capable of putting up crooked numbers in each frame, but both also have the capability of winning a pitcher's duel.
Prediction: Astros over Yankees in 7.
Follow Joe on Twitter, @JTansey90.
All statistics obtained from baseball-reference.com unless otherwise noted.
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