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All of the Exciting Baseball Is Happening in the National League—at Least for Now

While the Astros and Yankees have dominated their opponents, the other side of the bracket has been anything but predictable

Divisional Series - Atlanta Braves v St Louis Cardinals - Game Three Photo by Jamie Squire/Getty Images

Through six days, the MLB playoffs might as well be taking place in two separate worlds. On one side of the bracket, the Astros and Yankees are steamrolling their opponents en route to an anticipated ALCS clash. On the other, the thematic through line isn’t inevitability, but chaos.

That separation isn’t just because of each series’ results, as the top two seeds in the AL won both home games, while each NLDS developed with a split of the first two games. It’s also because of the in-game differences between the AL and NL thus far, which even in a small sample stand out as glaringly distinct. (And part of the entertainment value of playoff analysis is making hay out of small samples.) Nearly every AL game, wild-card play-in included, has been decided by the halfway point; nearly every NL game has remained tense through the final out.

The gulf appeared as early as possible, in the two wild-card games, which began similarly but diverged before the end—to equally divergent entertainment value. In the NL wild-card game, Milwaukee took the lead in the top of the first inning with a Yasmani Grandal home run, but the game stayed close and Washington eventually wrested control in a dramatic eighth inning, when Juan Soto delivered a three-run, error-aided single off All-Star closer Josh Hader.

The AL game the next night started the same way, when Tampa Bay took the lead with a Yandy Díaz homer in the top of the first inning. This time, though, the A’s didn’t make it closer, and Tampa Bay coasted to a 5-1 win. Oakland didn’t advance a single base runner to scoring position after the fourth inning.

That interleague gap persisted through the weekend, and any statistical measure of excitement in baseball confirms this impression. For instance, in five AL playoff games thus far, there has been just one total tie and one total lead change. Or: Five of the seven NL games have seen the potential tying run come to the plate in the ninth inning. Just one of five AL games can say the same.

More granular calculations offer an even stronger indication. Win probability added, or WPA, measures how every play in a game changes each team’s odds of winning. The most important play of the postseason is Soto’s wild-card single. Before that play, Washington had a 24 percent chance to win the game and advance; after that play, their win expectancy had shot all the way up to 82 percent. The difference between those numbers means that Soto’s single added 58 percentage points of win probability to his team’s ledger.

Looking beyond Soto’s leaderboard-topping hit to the 2019 postseason as a whole, the six swingiest plays of the playoffs, and 14 of the top 16, have come in the National League. And the AL’s two most crucial plays—José Altuve’s Game 1 homer and Gleyber Torres’s Game 1 double—both came in the fifth inning of their respective games. They were momentous, sure, but not quite as dramatic as they would have been a few frames later.

Moreover, by leverage index—which is similar to WPA but calculated before a play happens; it measures the importance of every plate appearance in a game based on the score, inning, and base/out state—the most important plate appearance of the postseason was National Daniel Hudson’s Game 2–ending strikeout of Corey Seager with the bases loaded. Overall, 16 of the 20 most important plate appearances in the postseason have come in the NL, spread across five different games. All four of the AL’s moments in the top 20 came in the ninth inning of Astros-Rays Game 2, when Roberto Osuna nearly let Gerrit Cole’s dazzling start slip away.

The latest example of NL thrills came on Sunday, in a glorious seven-plus-hour marathon of competitive playoff baseball. In the afternoon matinee in St. Louis, Atlanta scored three runs with two outs in the ninth inning to beat the Cardinals, 3-1. Dansby Swanson provided the game-tying hit off Cardinals closer Carlos Martínez, Adam Duvall the game-winner, and Atlanta took the 2-1 series lead.

Even before the ninth inning, however, this game oozed with excitement. With the bases loaded in the eighth inning, Andrew Miller retired Freddie Freeman on a fly ball to preserve a 1-0 lead. And even before that left-on-left showdown, the game carved out an unlikely pitcher’s duel between Adam Wainwright and Mike Soroka.

In his postseason career, Wainwright’s defining moment came as a reliever, when the then-rookie froze Mets outfielder Carlos Beltrán to clinch the final out of the 2006 NLCS and send the Cardinals to the World Series; eight days later, he’d close out Game 5 against the Tigers to give St. Louis its first championship in 24 years.

As a starter, though, he’s lost his share of heartbreakers, through no fault of his own. He threw eight innings of one-run ball against the Dodgers in 2009; the Cardinals lost in the ninth, thanks to a memorable Matt Holliday error. In 2012, he won Game 4 of the NLCS against the Giants, to give St. Louis a 3-1 series lead—only to watch his teammates lose three consecutive contests. In his most recent postseason start before Sunday, back in 2014, he left after seven innings with the lead, having outdueled Madison Bumgarner, only to watch his teammates lose the game and then the series on Travis Ishikawa’s walk-off blast. Sunday was more of the same, as Wainwright went 7 2/3 shutout innings, allowing just six baserunners, before his closer collected the loss in the ninth.

Opposite Wainwright, Atlanta’s Soroka was just as impressive. St. Louis’s only run came in the second inning, when a Marcell Ozuna flare down the first-base line found grass for a cheap double, and a groundout and sacrifice fly brought the outfielder home. Otherwise, Soroka was untouchable, and his final line—seven innings, seven strikeouts, two hits, no walks—meant he had the best playoff debut for a starter, by game score, since Jacob deGrom in 2015.

Soroka began his playoff career with a gem, albeit in a no-decision; Wainwright added a throwback performance. The two poles were fitting for two players at opposite ends of their careers: Soroka, a 22-year-old rookie, and Wainwright, a 38-year-old veteran set to hit free agency after these playoffs end. At a press conference Saturday, Wainwright was asked whether this is the first time he’s pitched against someone almost young enough to be his son. “Yeah, I guess I could be,” he responded with a laugh. “It does happen. I haven’t thought about it before now. But probably is. Thank you.”

Wainwright could have used himself to close, ironically, given how his playoff career began. As it was, Sunday’s game continued the series’s trend of ninth-inning tension. Each team has now won a road game with runs in the top of the ninth inning, and the other game in the series brought late entertainment of its own: Down 3-0, St. Louis put two men on base in the ninth inning, only for closer Mark Melancon to redeem himself for a blown Game 1 save by striking out consecutive batters to end it.

Following the Braves’ victory on Sunday afternoon, the Dodgers found a comeback of their own in the nightcap. Trailing 2-1 entering the sixth inning, Russell Martin and a fleet of platoon pinch-hitters jumped on Patrick Corbin, a starter pitching in relief because of the Nationals’ woeful bullpen options, and scored seven runs in the frame. The Dodgers ended up winning 10-4 to take a 2-1 series lead.

The key takeaway from this game was the volatility of a poor reliever corps. (On the Dodgers’ side, Joe Kelly allowed four runners to reach base without recording an out, giving the Nationals some hope even after blowing their own lead.) That’s a main reason for the broader NL spectacle in these playoffs, as all the worst playoff bullpens live in the senior circuit. Indeed, the questionable bullpens for Atlanta, St. Louis, and Washington have now all blown leads—as has Josh Hader for Milwaukee, which nobody would have expected. Postseason history demonstrates that shaky relievers are the best ingredient for late-inning excitement, and just the first few games of these playoffs already affirm that theory.

If the bullpens continue to struggle, then the NL postseason could remain just as intense throughout the rest of this round and the next. But—and this is a self-serving wish, for baseball watchers—the AL will almost certainly boost its dramatic quotient, too. Even if the Astros and Yankees complete quotidian sweeps on Monday, they have been on an apparent collision course all season, and that matchup is just a few days from manifesting. Given all the star power that would be involved, with elite starting pitching, the majors’ two best lineups, and actually reliable bullpens, and given their memorable seven-game ALCS meeting in 2017, expectations are astronomical—pun definitely intended—for that 2019 potentiality.

That series had better deliver, anyway. Or the Rays and Twins had better generate some excitement before then. The leagues should be more even, but thus far, the National League has had all the competitive fun.