ALDS Preview: Orioles’ Rutschman, Twins’ Lewis among players to watch

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Carlos Correa and George Springer were playing this week for the right to return to the site of past glories or, depending on your view of the Houston Astros cheating scandal, a return to the scene of the crime.

It’s Correa who won. It’s Correa who is the former Astros star who will lead the Minnesota Twins into Minute Maid Park for a best-of-five American League Division Series, after doing in one year something Springer has been unable to do in three years with the Toronto Blue Jays: end a playoff drought.

Hobbled by plantar fasciitis just as he was all season long, Correa managed to write himself large in the Twins’ wild-card sweep of the Blue Jays, making the two biggest defensive plays in backing up at third base to cut down Bo Bichette at home plate in Game 1 and then orchestrating a back-pick of Vladimir Guerrero Jr. in Game 2. He went 3-for-7 with his 60th career post-season run batted in, raising his post-season OPS to .851 in 81 games.

Correa, whose three career post-season walk-offs are tied with David Ortiz for the most in MLB history, was named MVP of the 2017 World Series as a member of the Astros. He’s clutch, with seven go-ahead playoff RBIs hit in the seventh inning or later, tied for the Majors record.

“Those spots find me in the playoffs, and I feel like I’m ready mentally,” Correa said after the Twins series win. “It’s those key moments … I just try to visualize what I want to do.”

Almost providentially, this series will see him go head-to-head with Jeremy Pena, who replaced him as Astros shortstop before last season and was named MVP of the 2022 AL Championship Series and World Series. The winner will advance to the AL Championship Series against the Baltimore Orioles or Texas Rangers.

Correa vs. Pena is just one storyline that’s part of our ALDS Six To Watch …

Aroldis Chapman/Jose Leclerc, RPs, Rangers

Just when you thought the Rangers’ only chance of beating the Tampa Bay Rays lay in their ability to bludgeon teams with their bats … along came seven innings from Jordan Montgomery, 6 2/3 innings from Nathan Eovaldi and three relatively drama-free innings from Chapman and Leclerc, who have shared closers duties since mid-August. The Rangers came into Tampa with what was statistically the worst bullpen in the playoffs — Chapman had a 6.13 FIP in 13 innings after the mid-August job-sharing arrangement was instituted; Leclerc blew three saves in the eighth inning to complicate the strategy of manager Bruce Bochy.

A two-game series is a small sample size, but it sure seemed as if the Rangers used the end of the regular season to reset. Still, if it all comes apart? Few relievers can make catastrophe as spectacular as Chapman …

Cristian Javier, SP, Astros

I love Dusty Baker — who doesn’t? — but it’s no surprise he didn’t win a World Series until he found himself on a team loaded with what my friend Kevin Barker refers to as “no-brainers” when it comes to pitching decisions. At the core of that in 2022 was Javier, who faced 39 batters over 11 1/3 innings in two post-season starts, allowing one hit and no earned runs (with six of those innings coming in a World Series no-hitter).

As the No. 3 member of the Astros rotation, with that 0.918 post-season WHIP tucked in behind Justin Verlander and Framber Valdez, he is a strategic difference-maker. Javier’s year was a mess, with a 0.99 WHIP in his first 12 starts and then a summertime lull that raised concerns about workload (regular season, post-season and World Baseball Classic), but he regained his footing down the stretch, pitching to a 1.06 WHIP in his final four starts. Small sample size and all, but the Twins’ everyday players have yet to hit Javier in 15 career at-bats …

Adley Rutschman, C, Orioles

Someone better tell the Orioles’ young stars that it isn’t always this easy — especially in the AL East. Teams don’t go from losing 110 games to winning 101 in two years by relying almost solely on homegrown talent and waiver wire relievers. Rookies aren’t supposed to look around them the way Gunnar Henderson did the other day and intone: “This is what we’re going to expect for years to come.”

I have the feeling we’re going to be seeing Henderson win MVP awards at some point and, well, let’s not forget what Pena did last season for the Astros but in the meantime, we can all agree that the Orioles are Rutschman’s team, no? Rutschman is at the centre of everything this team does; they haven’t been swept in a series of two games or more since Rutschman made his Major League debut on May 21, 2022, and he reached base 257 times this season, the most by a primary catcher since on-base machine Joe Mauer (266) in 2012. Rutschman has had almost 80 at-bats more than any other primary catcher and was 26th in fWAR among all MLB players. He’s full value for his 5.1 WAR. Let’s see how he handles the combination of big stage/big expectations …

Josh Jung, 3B, Rangers

If it wasn’t for Henderson, you’d have to like Jung’s Rookie of the Year case — which included an All-Star Game selection and consecutive AL Rookie of the Month awards in April and May. Jung finished with 23 home runs, 25 doubles and 70 runs batted in, but after being on the IL with a left thumb fracture from Aug. 7-Sept. 18, he limped to the finish line with one HR, 16 strikeouts and two walks over 13 games.

Jung had a nice introduction to the post-season, going 3-for-8 with a triple, two doubles and two RBIs in the Rangers’ sweep of the Rays, so let’s see the follow-up act against Henderson, who led all MLB rookies with 28 homers, 66 extra-base hits, 82 RBIs and 100 runs scored and had 14 defensive runs saved and who will treat this as a chance to establish national TV bona fide. It’s a tailor-made storyline, but it will have to come against a lot of Orioles righty pitching, and Jung slashes much better against lefties (.327/.368/.627/.995) than righties (.247/.299/.418/.717).

Interesting tidbit from friend Jeff Passan: the Rangers hitters found themselves in high-leverage situations fewer times than any team in the AL … and had the third-lowest slugging percentage in those situations …

Royce Lewis, DH-3B, Twins

Oh … so that’s what all the fuss was about. There were myriad reasons for the Blue Jays losing their wild-card series to the Twins, but Lewis clubbing two home runs off ace Kevin Gausman sure seemed to put the Blue Jays in a position where every at-bat felt as if the punchless Blue Jays were staring at a 7-0 deficit.

Lewis’ late-season hamstring injury still hangs over this team — his absence in the field means the Twins start each game with the defensively inferior Jorge Polanco at third, and it was obvious he was nursing the injury when forced to run the bases — but buying into Alex Anthopoulos’ theory that power hitting carries the day in the post-season, it sure seems as if Lewis will need to be a factor if the Twins pull off an upset. Ten of his 15 homers were pulled. Fourteen came off righties. Crawford Boxes, here we come …

Grayson Rodriguez, SP, Orioles

Something happened to the Orioles in September: a starting rotation that supposedly lacked a front-of-the-line ace quietly came together at the exact moment their bullpen started to wobble after the loss of Felix Bautista. They were nails down the stretch, posting the third-best ERA in the Majors as Rodriguez — yep, another rookie — cobbled together a 2.58 ERA over 13 starts following a demotion to the minors. Despite that two-month stint, Rodriguez had the fourth-most pitches over 100 miles per hour among AL starters and went his final 12 starts without allowing more than three earned runs.

JEFF BLAIR’S PICKS

• Orioles def. Rangers 3-1.

• Astros def. Twins 3-1.

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