It was a Major League Baseball season like no other, with a shortened schedule, limited travel and no fans — save a few cardboard cut-outs. For some players, competing during a pandemic meant frequent COVID-19 testing and a couple scary team-wide outbreaks. Other players opted out of the season altogether. At the end of it, two Chicago teams are headed to the playoffs for the first time since 2008.
They’ll be joined by more than half the league. This year, MLB introduced an expanded postseason that will pit sixteen teams (as opposed to the usual ten) against each other in a wild card round. The Cubs are the National League’s number three seed and are slated to face the Miami Marlins at Wrigley Field starting Wednesday. The White Sox, seeded seventh in the American League, will play the A’s in Oakland starting Tuesday. If either team wins the best-of-three series, they’ll advance to playoff bubbles in Texas and California, designed to minimize exposure to the coronavirus.
If you missed the shortened sixty-game regular season, WBEZ has you covered. Together with our sports contributor Cheryl Raye-Stout, we’ve assembled this list of five things to watch for, as the North and South Side teams try to make it all the way.
1. Is this the last hurrah for the core Cubs crew?
After missing the playoffs last year, the Cubs are back to being National League Central champions. The team is in win-now mode as they near the end of their contracts with some of the stars of the 2016 World Series winning team.
Players like Kris Bryant, Javier Báez and Kyle Schwarber are heading into the postseason with batting averages hovering around .200, and will look to improve their numbers at the plate.
2. Is this the first of many hurrahs for a young and promising Sox team?
Eleven players made their Major League debuts for the White Sox this year. They’re joined by a manager making his first ever trip to the playoffs, plus other young headliners like Yoán Moncada and MVP candidate Tim Anderson.
But it’s a veteran player who’s had the other MVP-caliber season for the Sox: José Abreu. The first baseman leads the majors in runs batted in.
3. Will Yu Darvish get his revenge?
During the 2019-2020 offseason, baseball was rocked by a cheating scandal involving the Houston Astros. MLB determined that the team used a video camera to steal signs during their 2017 championship season.
2017 was also the last time Cubs’ right-hander Yu Darvish pitched in a postseason; he lost two World Series games to Houston with the Dodgers. But the ace pitcher is poised to rewrite the narrative this year. He leads the National League with eight wins and has a second-best, 2.01 earned run average.
4. Can the White Sox pitching shine as bright as the offense?
At times this season, the impressive Sox hitters stole the show, but they’ll also rely on a one-two punch of dominant pitchers to lead them through the wild card series. Left-hander Dallas Keuchel, who was picked up as a free agent this year, has just a 1.99 earned run average. And right-hander Lucas Giolito has the second-most strikeouts in the American League.
5. What’s home field advantage with no fans?
A playoff series at Wrigley Field won’t be the same with no spectators screaming in the bleachers. Still, the Cubs at least get to stay at home, unlike the White Sox, who are headed to Oakland after not leaving the central region all season.
Another team with a long trip ahead is the Cubs’ opponent, the Marlins, who are playing playoff baseball in Chicago for the first time since 2003. Speaking of fans in the stands, remember when this happened?
Lauren is an audio producer for WBEZ. Follow her @frostlaur. Cheryl Raye-Stout is a sports contributor for WBEZ.