The AL West champion Texas Rangers will have home-field advantage throughout the 2016 MLB playoffs as the Rangers had the American League's best record at 95-67. Because the AL won the All-Star Game, the Rangers know they won't have to play a Game 7 anywhere but Arlington. Texas should have won its first World Series title in 2011 but blew Games 6 and 7 in St. Louis and hasn't been back since. The Rangers are +215 favorites on 5Dimes to win the pennant. The AL Central-winning Cleveland Indians finished with the same amount of losses as Texas but lost a head-to-head tiebreaker and are the second seed. But the Tribe are +355 long shots to win the pennant, with AL East king Boston at +220. Wild-card winner Toronto is +350. Here's a look at the two opening games in the ALDS on Thursday. All ALDS games are on TBS.
Blue Jays at Rangers (TBA)
First pitch at 4:30 p.m. ET. It's a rematch of last year's ALDS, which Toronto won in five games despite dropping the first two at home. I'm sure you remember the epic seventh inning of Game 5 in Canada. The top of the inning defied all explanation. In the bottom, Jose Bautista hit the go-ahead three-run homer and had the greatest bat flip in MLB playoff history. It's legend north of the border. The Jays won four of seven meetings vs. Texas this season, all played in May. In the final game, May 15, and presumably Bautista's final at-bat vs. the Rangers this year in the eighth inning in Arlington, he was hit in the back on the first pitch he saw. Clear payback for the bat flip. That obviously put Bautista on first base, and shortly after he slid hard into Rangers second baseman Rougned Odor trying to break up a double play. Things got heated quickly and Odor landed a huge punch to Bautista's jaw. A bench-clearing melee ensued. The Jays of course responded in the bottom of the eighth by hitting a Texas batter. I doubt you see anything in this series as it's too important and you don't want suspensions into the next round.
Texas will be favored Thursday, and the total should be 8.5-9. It's TBA as of this writing because Toronto, which beat Baltimore 5-2 on an Edwin Encarnacion walk-off three-run homer in the bottom of the 11th inning in Tuesday's wild-card game, hasn't announced its starting pitcher. It should be lefty J.A. Happ (20-4, 3.18), who will get some Cy Young votes as he was second in the AL in wins and sixth in ERA. His final regular-season start was Saturday in Boston and Happ allowed two runs and four hits over 6.1 innings in a no-decision. He hasn't allowed more than three earned in seven straight outings. Happ faced Texas once this year, May 5 in Toronto, and allowed one run and six hits over seven innings in a victory. Carlos Beltran is 10-for-32 career off him with three homers and six RBIs. Jonathan Lucroy is 7-for-19 with four doubles and five RBIs. Elvis Andrus is 0-for-10.
Texas will go with lefty Cole Hamels (15-5, 3.32). He will be very well-rested, last pitching Sept. 28 vs. Milwaukee and taking a no-decision with a line of five runs allowed (three earned), eight hits and six strikeouts over seven innings. Hamels was 1-1 with a 5.86 ERA in September as he might have worn down. He didn't face Toronto this year but faced the Jays twice in last year's ALDS and was 0-1 with a 2.70 ERA. Encarnacion is 5-for-14 off him career in the regular season with a homer. Bautista is 3-for-9 with a double. Troy Tulowitzki is 5-for-15 with two homers.
Key trends: The Jays are 4-1 in their past five vs. a lefty. Texas is 13-3 in its past 16 in Game 1 of a series. The Rangers are 18-3 in Hamels' past 21 at home. The "over/under" has gone under in Toronto's past nine after scoring at least five runs in its previous game. The under is 5-2 in Texas' past seven in Game 1 of a series.
Early lean: Blue Jays (if it's indeed Happ) and under.
Red Sox at Indians (+129, 8.5)
Start time for 8 p.m. ET. The big story line in this series is Indians manager Terry Francona going against the franchise he led to World Series titles in 2004 & '07. He left after the 2011 season and spent a year in TV before being hired by the Indians. Current Boston manager John Farrell was Francona's pitching coach from 2007-10. This is the best possible matchup for Boston, my pick to win the AL pennant, considering the Indians' three best pitchers are hurting. Nos. 2 and 3 Carlos Carrasco and Danny Salazar are out. Ace Corey Kluber would usually start the opener but is going Friday because he's recovering from a quad injury. So it's Trevor Bauer for the Tribe. Bauer (12-8, 4.26) closed the regular season with a no-decision on Saturday in Kansas City, allowing three runs and six hits while striking out nine in six innings. Bauer started in Boston on May 21 and lost, giving up four runs and eight hits over five innings without a single K. He also pitched an inning of relief at home vs. the Sox on Opening Day and was tagged for two runs. David Ortiz is 4-for-5 off him with two doubles, a homer and three RBIs. Mookie Betts is 3-for-5 with two doubles, a homer and four RBIs. Hanley Ramirez is 2-for-5 with two RBIs.
I was moderately surprised that Farrell named likely AL Cy Young winner Rick Porcello to start the opener over David Price even though Porcello has had a tremendous season. Porcello (22-4, 3.15) led the majors in wins and with a 5.91 strikeout-to-walk ratio while finishing second in the AL in WHIP (1.01) and fifth in ERA. He closed the regular season on Friday in a no-decision vs. the Rays (6 IP, 8 H, 3 ER). Porcello got one start vs. Cleveland this year, winning May 22 at Fenway. He allowed two runs and five hits over 5.2 innings well before he was thought of as a Cy Young candidate. Jason Kipnis is 10-for-31 career off him with a homer and eight RBIs. Carlos Santana hits .293 with three homers and 10 strikeouts in 41 at-bats. Mike Napoli is 6-for-18 with two doubles and eight strikeouts. Francisco Lindor is 1-for-7.
Key trends: The Red Sox are 4-0 in Porcello's past four on the road. The Indians are 6-1 in Bauer's past seven at home. The over is 10-4 in Porcello's past 14 on the road. The over is 6-1 in Bauer's past seven at home vs. teams with a winning record.
Early lean: Red Sox and over.
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