After MLB’s field of 16 playoff teams was quickly narrowed to eight in the new wild-card series, the postseason is back to normal — sort of.
The Division Series begins Monday, with the AL playing at neutral sites in Southern California. The NL will play at neutral sites in Texas starting Tuesday. Every series, oddly enough, features actual divisional matchups, so these teams are familiar with each other — even after a shortened, travel-limited 2020 season.
First up, we preview the ALDS matchup of AL West powers. With the tables turned and Oakland entering as the favorite, who has the upper hand in A’s-Astros?
Game 1: Monday, Oct. 5, (4:07 p.m. ET) (TBS)
Game 2: Tuesday, Oct. 6, (4:37 p.m. ET) (TBS)
Game 3: Wednesday, Oct. 7, (3:35 p.m. ET) (TBS)
Game 4*: Thursday, Oct. 8, (3:35 p.m. ET) (TBS)
Game 5*: Friday, Oct. 9, (3:35 p.m. ET) (TBS)
The entire series will be played at Dodger Stadium in Los Angeles. Oakland will be the “home team” and bat last in Games 1, 2 and 5.
Oakland owned the season series, winning seven of 10 games. The A’s swept a three-game home series from Aug. 7-9 before losing both ends of a doubleheader in Houston on Aug. 29. The opener of that series was postponed when both teams walked out to protest racial injustice. The finale was postponed due to a positive COVID-19 test on Oakland’s staff. The A’s won four of five when the teams met again Sept. 7-10.
This will be the first postseason meeting between the Astros and A’s.
Of course, the specter of the Astros sign-stealing scandal hangs over this series. A’s pitcher Mike Fiers blew the whistle on his former team and ignited the scandal. He is likely to pitch against them for the first time since the story broke.
Why the Astros will win
Rotation is strong: Despite Justin Verlander's injury and Gerrit Cole's departure in free agency, the Astros still have a deep rotation. It's certainly deep enough to handle a five-game series. Manager Dusty Baker can roll with Zack Greinke, Lance McCullers Jr., Framber Valdez, Jose Urquidy and Cristian Javier and feel very good about it. The bullpen is a much bigger concern, but if the starters limit the outs needed from the bullpen, then Houston will be dangerous in this series.
They’ve been here before: The Astros were clear underdogs in the wild-card series, but still rolled over Minnesota in two games. It was a reminder that postseason experience and, perhaps even more importantly, postseason success matters to some degree in October. Like Minnesota, the A’s had not won a postseason series in some time — 14 years to be exact. While they technically remedied that in the wild-card round, the pressure is still on Oakland to overcome playoff struggles.
Why the A’s will win
The bullpen: Houston has a clear depth advantage in the rotation. Oakland has a clearer depth advantage in the bullpen. That was highlighted in the series against the White Sox. Bob Melvin relied on his relievers to chew up multiple innings in each game and they were able to rally because of the success of Joakim Soria, Jake Diekman and others. As for Houston, they lost four games this season that they led at the beginning the ninth inning. Stay close and good things should happen for Oakland.
Patience and precision: Oakland batters drew 238 walks this season, the seventh-most in MLB. Meanwhile, Houston pitchers issued 217 free passes, which were the 10th-most in MLB. On the flip side, Astros batters drew 192 walks (12th-fewest) and Oakland's staff walked 165 (third-fewest). If those trends continue, Oakland could have an edge.
More from Yahoo Sports: