We're here. The World Series. The best sporting event in the country. If we're lucky, we'll have seven games of intense drama over nine days. It will be hard to match last year's World Series or the Chicago Cubs' historic win in 2016 or even the Kansas City Royals' little-engine-that-could title in 2015, but the Boston Red Sox and Los Angeles Dodgers are loaded with talent, big stars and big names, and I think we're going to see a classic.
Here's a viewer's guide to the 2018 World Series:
What the Red Sox have on the line: A chance to be recognized as one of the greatest teams of the expansion era. Only five teams since 1961 have won at least 108 games and won the World Series:
1998 New York Yankees: 114-48
1961 New York Yankees: 109-53
1970 Baltimore Orioles: 108-54
1975 Cincinnati Reds: 108-54
1986 New York Mets: 108-54
The Red Sox, arguably, will have had the toughest trek through the postseason of any of these teams. Only the '98 Yankees had to go through three rounds, but the Red Sox had to knock off the 100-win Yankees and 103-win Astros just to reach the World Series -- and did so by winning seven of nine games. The Dodgers won just 92 games in the regular season, but they had the run differential associated with a 100-win team. If the Red Sox can win the World Series, it will go down as one of the most impressive playoff runs of the wild-card era.
Note: It won't be easy. Of the 23 World Series winners in the wild-card era, only five had the best regular-season record (although two of those were the 2007 and 2013 Red Sox).
What the Dodgers have on the line: It has been 30 years since the Dodgers won a World Series. This is their 12th postseason trip since then, including the past six seasons in a row. Last season's 104-win club fell one painful game short, so it's up to this team to finally put the crowning achievement on this run of excellence and the Clayton Kershaw era.
Player with the most on the line: Kershaw. Yes, we're here again. The greatest pitcher of this generation is still seeking that ultimate October moment. He has had two sterling performances this postseason and one stinker, but for the most part he finally has erased the idea that he can't pitch well in October. The Dodgers, in fact, have won 10 of the past 13 games he has started in the playoffs. One of those losses, however, was Game 5 of last year's World Series, when he couldn't hold a 4-0 lead.
With Walker Buehler making the leap to stardom in the second half, you can even argue that Kershaw is no longer the team's best starter. Maybe that's a good thing for Kershaw and the Dodgers; he doesn't have to carry the rotation like he has in the past. Adding even more drama is the possibility that Kershaw could opt out of his contract after the season and do the unthinkable -- sign with a different team.
Most exciting player: Mookie Betts is flashy only in his results. He's not going to flip his bat or post home run videos on Instagram or raise his arms in the air and point to the dugout in the midst of an RBI base hit. He's simply an amazing ballplayer who does everything well. His throw in Game 4 of the American League Championship Series to nail Tony Kemp trying to stretch a single was a key play in the series, a showcase of his all-around game. He obviously puts pressure on pitchers from the leadoff spot as he hit .346/.438/.640 with 32 home runs, but he also puts pressure on the defense when he gets on base. He might be the unanimous AL MVP in a loaded field of candidates.
Most controversial player: Manny Machado was the center of attention in the National League Championship Series for all the wrong reasons -- admitting he doesn't always hustle on ground balls, making two hard slides at second in Game 3 that may have crossed the line, and intentionally stepping on Jesus Aguilar on a play at first base (which led Christian Yelich, among others, to call him a dirty player). Then he appeared to grab his crotch in the direction of Milwaukee fans in Game 7. Oh, and he has a bad history with the Red Sox, including spiking Dustin Pedroia in 2017, which led to the Sox throwing at him -- including Chris Sale throwing one pitch behind him. He has hit .250/.313/.500 in 11 postseason games with three home runs -- but also 13 strikeouts and four double plays. The Dodgers hope for a controversy-free World Series and plenty of big hits before he marches off into free agency.
The feel-good journeyman storyline to watch: Max Muncy versus Steve Pearce. Few players in recent years -- decades? -- can match Muncy's unexpected season. He spent all of 2017 in Triple-A after the Oakland Athletics let him go and got called up this year only after a series of Dodgers injuries in April. He proceeded to lead L.A. with 35 home runs in just 379 at-bats -- his rate of one home run every 11.3 at-bats led the majors (minimum 400 plate appearances). Muncy didn't homer in the NLCS after hitting two against the Braves in the division series, and Dave Roberts may sit him when Chris Sale and David Price start, but he'll be a key guy against righties Nathan Eovaldi and Rick Porcello and off the bench.
Pearce's vagabond career also is remarkable. The 35-year-old has played for seven teams (not including three stints with the Orioles). The Red Sox acquired him from the Blue Jays in late June because he can mash lefties: .300/.400/.559 in 2018. With lefties Kershaw, Hyun-Jin Ryu and Rich Hill in the rotation, Pearce will be a key guy in the fifth hole in the lineup after J.D. Martinez and Xander Bogaerts.
Speaking of lineups: Both teams led their league in runs scored. The Dodgers ranked second to the Yankees in home runs, hitting a franchise-record 235 (tied for the third-highest total in NL history). The Red Sox led the majors in batting average, on-base percentage and slugging percentage, with Betts and Martinez (.330/.402/.629, 43 home runs) leading the way. The Dodgers had seven players reach 20-plus home runs. The Red Sox had some great at-bats against the Astros, battling with two strikes and putting balls in play rather than always swinging for the fences. Against the Brewers, the Dodgers kept swinging for the fences -- and it finally paid off with two big home runs from Cody Bellinger and Yasiel Puig in Game 7.
Back to more conventional baseball: Dave Roberts' head was spinning through the NLCS as the Milwaukee Brewers went with their bullpen-heavy approach to pitching, removing their starter early in the game several times -- in part as a counterattack to the Dodgers' series of platoons in their lineup.
Roberts won't have to worry about that in this series as the Red Sox rely on their starters, as Alex Cora has put it throughout the season. That was true in the regular season, but Cora has displayed an adept hand at not relying too much on his starters and pulling them before they get into too much trouble in the postseason. In their nine postseason games, the Red Sox starters have gone more than six innings just once (Eovaldi in the 16-1 blowout over the Yankees) and less than six innings six times. No starter has thrown 100 pitches.
Indeed, some of the more interesting matchup scenarios will come when Cora removes his starter and goes to his bullpen and we see how Roberts responds. The Red Sox matched up well with the Houston Astros in part because the right-handed relievers in Boston's pen matched up well with Houston's righty-heavy lineup. Ryan Brasier, Matt Barnes and Joe Kelly have combined to allowed three runs (two earned) in 18⅔ innings in the postseason on just nine hits. Including the postseason, here are the splits for Boston's top four relievers:
Joe Kelly: .691 OPS vs. RHB, .581 vs. LHB
Ryan Brasier: .377 OPS vs. RHB, .618 vs. LHB
Matt Barnes: .577 OPS vs. RHB, .656 vs. LHB
Craig Kimbrel: .573 OPS vs. RHB, .639 vs. LHB
(Knuckleballer Steven Wright could factor into the mix if he's activated from the disabled list.)
The point: While Kimbrel has struggled in the postseason (he has allowed runs in four of his five outings), the other three have done their job. Brasier, in particular, has a large platoon split that could help the Dodgers' left-handed weapons make an impact. All that isn't to shortchange the Dodgers' bullpen, not exactly a picture of reliability throughout the season. It has been lockdown throughout the playoffs, however: 41⅔ IP, 27 H, 6 R, 13 BB, 51 SO, 3 HR, 1.30 ERA.
While Kimbrel has had his issues, Kenley Jansen has rediscovered the movement on his cutter and has allowed just two hits in 6⅔ scoreless innings. Keep in mind that he's a big redemption story after blowing one save and losing another game in last year's World Series.
The biggest question mark: Aside from the stomach illness that sent him to the hospital in the middle of the ALCS, Sale seems to still be bothered by the shoulder issue that sidelined him much of August and limited his innings in September. At his peak over the summer, he was averaging 97 to 98 mph on his four-seam fastball. In his first playoff start against the Yankees, he averaged 94.6 and then he was down to 92.0 against the Astros, when he was all over the place with his pitches and lasted just four innings. There's a huge ripple effect in Sale going six or seven innings compared to four.
The favorite: The Red Sox won 16 more games than the Dodgers, which is tied for the third-biggest win differential in World Series history. They have home-field advantage (and the first two games could be cold and wet). The opening odds from the Westgate Las Vegas Superbook have the Red Sox at -135 and the Dodgers at +115.
Who to root for if you're neutral: Maybe you root for the team from your league. Maybe you're rooting for Kershaw to finally win it all or you have a completely rational love for Betts. Maybe you're rooting against Machado. Maybe you just want seven exciting games. If you're still confused, you can consider this list of Boston championship results since 2001:
The pick: I'm going with the Dodgers in six -- and Kershaw to win MVP honors. Red Sox fans will no doubt let me know I picked against them in the first two rounds.