NEW YORK (Reuters) - From pitching powerhouses in Los Angeles and New York to booming bats in Toronto, from upstarts in Chicago and Houston to aging warhorses in the Bronx, an eclectic cast of clubs gear up for MLB’s playoff extravaganza.
Leading 10 teams into the October spotlight are top seeds St. Louis Cardinals (100-62) and Kansas City Royals (95-67), Midwest neighbors on the east and west edges of Missouri, who bring well balanced teams to their pursuit of the World Series.
Headliners poised to perform the include NL West champion Dodgers’ one-two pitching punch of Clayton Kershaw and Zack Greinke, and big-hitting Josh Donaldson, Jose Bautista and Edwin Encarnacion of an AL East champion Toronto team in the playoffs for the first time since winning a second consecutive World Series title in 1993.
The playoffs also offer long-suffering fans of the Chicago Cubs the hope of ending a 107-year wait for a World Series title.
Launching the postseason are Wild Card showdowns between the American League New York Yankees and Houston Astros, and the National League’s Pittsburgh Pirates and Cubs in do-or-die games to reach a best-of-five Division Series.
Last year’s Wild Card winners, the Giants and Royals, gave hope to the longshots by winning their Division Series and best-of-seven League Championship Series to reach the Fall Classic.
The curtain goes up in New York on Tuesday when the Yankees host the Astros, sending Masahiro Tanaka (12-7, 3.51 ERA) to the mound against Cy Young candidate Dallas Keuchel (20-8, 2.48), pitching on three days’ rest.
Houston (86-76), in the postseason for the first time in a decade, blend power and speed in a lineup with emerging young players such as shortstop Carlos Correa, second baseman Jose Altuve and outfielder George Springer.
New York (87-75), winners of 27 World Series, counter with a veteran roster including 40-year-old slugger Alex Rodriguez. They must deal with the shock of Monday’s news that pitcher CC Sabathia had checked himself into alcohol rehabilitation.
A high-powered Wild Card battle on Wednesday pits Pittsburgh against Chicago, rivals from the ultra-competitive NL Central Division who hold the second and third-best records in the majors behind division-winning St. Louis.
The Pirates (98-64) are appearing in their third successive postseason after a 21-year absence and going against a visiting Cubs team (97-65) that last won the MLB crown in 1908.
A dazzling pitchers’ duel could be coming. The Pirates will start Gerrit Cole (19-8, 2.60 ERA), whose stellar numbers pale in comparison to Chicago’s Jake Arrieta.
Arrieta was 22-6 with a 1.77 ERA and red-hot in the second half of the season. Since the All-Star break he has posted a 0.75 ERA - the lowest ever registered after the break.
St. Louis plays the winner of the Cubs-Pirates tilt.
The consistent Cardinals, winners of 11 Fall Classics, have reached the World Series in two of the last four years and made it to the League Championship Series the other two seasons.
Relying on strong pitching depth and standout closer Trevor Rosenthal, the Cards led the majors with a team ERA of 2.94.
The Mets travel to Los Angeles to open their Division Series on Friday.
New York counter the Dodgers’ top pitchers with a vaunted group of young starters in Jacob deGrom, rookie Noah Syndergaard, Matt Harvey and Steven Matz, and an offense invigorated by the addition of slugger Yoenis Cespedes.
Kansas City will meet the AL Wild Card winner.
The Royals, who used a shutdown bullpen to thrive last year, are without injured closer Greg Holland, though Wade Davis has filled in admirably. The development of power-hitting Mike Moustakas and addition of Ben Zobrist have lifted their offense.
The other AL Division Series has the Blue Jays going against NL West champions Texas.
Toronto surged after trade deadline deals brought them ace lefty David Price and shortstop Troy Tulowitzki, now coming back from a late-season injury.
The hard-hitting Blue Jays scored an MLB-leading 891 runs, 127 more than next-best Yankees.
The Rangers also picked up steam after adding starter Cole Hamels as they seek a return to postseason success that led to trips to the World Series in 2010 and 2011.
Editing by Frank Pingue