Checking out the postseason storylines

The Marlins finished in last place in the National League East in 2018 with 95 losses and 2019 with 105 losses. In the first week of this season, they were quarantined in a Philadelphia hotel for a week after 20 positive coronavirus tests that disrupted their schedule, as well as schedules for other teams, and they needed 17 new players to compete, including former Orioles reliever Richard Bleier helping their bullpen.

The Marlins, who tore down World Series title teams after championships in 1997 and 2003, are a rebuilding team that is trying to win trust from their fans. That hasn't been easy after trading Christian Yelich, J.T. Realmuto, Giancarlo Stanton and Marcell Ozuna.

But this week, the Marlins are back in the postseason, an accomplishment considering the hurdles they had to jump and that baseball had a 60-game season where 16 teams - more than half of Major League Baseball teams - qualified for the postseason.

They go to Chicago's Wrigley Field Wednesday to play the Cubs in the first round.

"I told our guys the other day, 'We went into spring training and there wasn't one expert out there that didn't pick us last in the East,' " Marlins manager Don Mattingly told reporters via Zoom. "And our guys didn't believe that, and that's the main thing: It doesn't matter what anybody else thinks. If you believe in something different, you can make that happen."

The Marlins are developing. Their three best starters are Sandy Alcantara (3.60 ERA), Sixto Sánchez (3.46 ERA) and Pablo López (3.61 ERA), likely the three that will start games in the wild-card round. Sanchez came from Philadelphia in the Realmuto trade last winter and is the prospect that has produced the most.

Brian Anderson, Jesús Aguilar and Garrett Cooper lead the lineup. Overall, the Marlins rank ninth in run production in the National League and 13th in OPS.

The Marlins are the most intriguing story of the pandemic postseason, the first since the 1918 World Series was played during the Spanish Flu outbreak.

The American League wild card games start Tuesday, the National League on Wednesday.

It's a crapshoot with storylines:

* The White Sox, another rebuilding team, weren't projected to be a contender until 2021. But they managed to compete with the AL Central favorites, the Indians and Twins, and make the playoffs for the first time since 2008. The White Sox (19-9 in August) have two AL MVP candidates in José Abreu and Tim Anderson. They have super prospects in Luis Robert, Eloy Jiménez and Yoán Moncada and the three pitching prospects - Lucas Giolito, Dane Dunning and Reynaldo López - the Nationals gave up in a trade to get Adam Eaton made contributions.

* The expectations are high for the Dodgers, who have won eight consecutive division titles, but no World Series during that time. In fact, their last World Series title was in 1988, the year they were underdogs to the Oakland A's. Since 2008, the Dodgers have lost four times in the National League Championship Series and twice in the World Series, 2017 and 2018.

* The Athletics won the AL West despite a .225 team average, ranking next-to-last in the AL. The Athletics obviously had clutch hits and strong pitching.

* The Astros, with a battered reputation for stealing signs, are back in the postseason with former Nationals manager Dusty Baker. If the Astros, who won't have injured starter Justin Verlander, make it to the World Series, how much does that help alleviate their cheating reputation? And, Baker is the first manager in history to manage five teams into the postseason, including the Nationals, Cubs, Reds and Giants. Does this punch his ticket to the Hall of Fame?

* Nationals fans remember Trent Grisham, the Brewers outfielder who botched a late-inning defensive play that helped the Nationals win a 2019 NL wild card game at Nationals Park. Well, Grisham is in San Diego and his bat and defense in center field are big reasons the Padres have become a postseason force. Also, every fan knows about Manny Machado and Fernando Tatis Jr. on the left side of the infield, but a big contributor has been rookie second baseman Jake Cronenworth, a throw-in player acquired from Tampa Bay when the Padres picked up Tommy Pham. Cronenworth is a leading candidate to be the NL's top rookie.

* The Reds are back in postseason play for the first time since 2013 and trying to win their first World Series since beating Oakland in 1990. Their strength is the rotation led by Trevor Bauer, Luis Castillo and Sonny Gray. Their weakness is they have a home run-happy lineup and power lineups usually short-circuit against October's strong pitching. And, it doesn't help that the Reds have the lowest team average in the league, .212.

The Reds are one of four teams from the NL Central to make the postseason. The Cubs won the division but the St. Louis Cardinals and Milwaukee Brewers are also in. The only NL Central team not in is the Pirates.

* The Rays won the AL East and are the top seed in the American League playoffs. They are in the postseason for the sixth time in 13 seasons. They've lost four times in the Division Series and to Philadelphia in the 2008 World Series and say they aren't over losing to Houston in Game 5 of their Division Series last season, a motivation that will help them this season. Their manager, Kevin Cash, is endless in managing his roster creatively.

* The Rays' first-round opponent will be the Blue Jays, a team that wasn't in Toronto when the season began. Canadian health officials wouldn't allow the team to play in Toronto so the Blue Jays played their home games at their Triple-A park in Buffalo.

* The Braves, champions in the NL East, have a potent offense led by NL MVP favorite Freddie Freeman, but how good would the Braves be if they had bypassed injuries in their rotation? The top three pitchers will be Max Fried, Ian Anderson and Kyle Wright in the wild card round with Mark Melancon and Shane Greene the bullpen strength. Fried is an established pitcher. Wright, 24, has 12 big-league starts, Anderson, 22, has six.

* The Twins have lost eight consecutive postseason series going back to their 2002 loss to the Angels in the AL Championship Series. They have lost 16 consecutive postseasons games, mostly to the Yankees. But this year, they start at home against Houston. Like the Reds, the Twins have a strong rotation led by Kenta Maeda and a power lineup that could short-circuit against top-notch October pitching.

* The best AL pitching matchup might be in Game 1 of the first round when the Yankees pitch Gerrit Cole in Cleveland against the Indians' Shane Bieber. The Indians' postseason manager will not be Terry Francona, who is sidelined with health issues. That job goes to former Cleveland catcher Sandy Alomar, who has led the team to a 28-18 record since filling for Francona earlier this season.

* The Nationals are the defending 2019 World Series, but won't be around with a chance to win a second consecutive title. The Nationals had injuries, a weak offense and a bullpen that crashed in the second month of the season. But Juan Soto did win the NL batting championship.

The Astros and Milwaukee Brewers each finished 29-31, meaning either could be the first team in history to make the World Series with a losing record.

Could that happen?

It's a weird season, so yes that could happen.

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