LOS ANGELES : The expanded Major League Baseball playoffs will for the first time feature 12 teams fighting for a World Series glory including the favored Los Angeles Dodgers, the defending champion Atlanta Braves and surprising Cleveland Guardians.
Here are five things to watch for when the postseason gets underway on Friday:
Can Judge cap historic season with championship?
Aaron Judge’s home run chase, where every at-bat was appointment viewing and which culminated with him breaking Roger Maris 61-year-old single-season AL record with his 62nd long ball on Tuesday, captivated fans everywhere.
Now he will look to cap it off by bringing a championship back to the Bronx for the first time since 2009.
Judge is all but certain to win the AL MVP award after posting a .311 batting average, .425 on-base percentage and knocking in 131 RBIs.
But the individual awards are unlikely to mean as much to the team-oriented Judge as a championship parade through New York.
The Yankees had a rollercoaster season. They started red hot, winning 44 of their first 60 games before cooling off dramatically in the second half and righting the ship in September to claim the AL East.
To win consistently in the playoffs, the Yankees will need Judge to continue being the dominant player he has been all season.
The Yankees await the winner of the Cleveland Guardians-Tampa Bay Rays best-of-three wild-card series.
The dominant Dodgers won a club-record 111 games behind a lineup that features many of the top players in the game including outfielder Mookie Betts, first baseman Freddie Freeman and shortstop Trea Turner.
But despite their spectacular regular season success over the past decade, the team has just one World Series title to show for it, which came at the end of the pandemic-shortened 2020 campaign.
Now they are looking to add another to silence the doubters and make the argument that they are, in fact, a dynasty.
“2020 was something incredible, but we get some criticism for the shortened season,” Dodgers left-hander Julio Urias told MLB.com.
“But winning another one in Los Angeles would be incredible. That’s what we’re trying to accomplish.”
The Dodgers will face the winner of the San Diego Padres-New York Mets wild card series.
Astros on collision course with Dodgers?
Extra security might be needed if the Dodgers face the Houston Astros in the World Series given the bad blood between the clubs.
Despite Judge’s heroics in New York, the Astros are the favorites to represent the AL in the Fall Classic after winning 106 games and running away with their division.
If the two best teams in baseball during the regular season meet in the World Series, expect passions to flare both on the field and in the stands.
The Astros won their lone title by beating the Dodgers in a seven-game dog fight in 2017.
That victory became controversial when an MLB investigation revealed that during the season the Astros had illegally used technology to steal signs and relay what pitch was coming next to their batters, sometimes by beating on a trash can.
MLB allowed the Astros to keep their title but Dodger fans have never forgotten, and every meeting between the teams since has been tense. The bright lights of the World Series will only magnify passions on both sides.
The Mets led the NL East nearly the entire season but were swept in a three-game series by their division rivals the Braves last weekend to be consigned to the wild-card round.
While it was a disappointing finish to the regular season, the Mets can handle the busy schedule as they boast one of the deepest rotations in baseball with the likes of Max Scherzer, Jacob deGrom and Chris Bassitt.
The Mets and Yankees both being in the postseason raises the prospect of a all-New York Subway Series. The teams faced off in an engrossing World Series in 2000, which was won by the Yankees in five games, and baseball fans from the Bronx to Queens will be hoping for an encore.
Happy ending to season that almost didn’t happen
The 2022 MLB season threatened to be severely shortened or possibly not happen at all when team owners locked out the players in early December amid a labor dispute.
Commissioner Robert Manfred went so far as to announce the cancellation of games he said would not be rescheduled before a deal was reached in March.
In the end, the 162-game season was held in its entirety much to the relief of fans, who have been treated to one of the most entertaining seasons in recent memory.
The expanded playoffs that kick off with the wild-card rounds on Friday promise to deliver a thrilling conclusion to the season that nearly wasn’t.