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MLB postseason preview: Cubs not only team chasing history in 2016 playoffs

Clayton Kershaw's place in history? Big Papi's farewell? The Indians ending their long World Series drought? There's more to this year's playoffs than the Cubs.

I’m sure we agree that if the Cubs win the World Series, it will be one of the great sports stories of our lifetimes. But what if they don’t? Then we’ll be stuck with a horribly boring and disappointing postseason.

You know, unless Cleveland somehow wins its second sports championship of the year.

Or the Giants play the Dodgers.

Or Madison Bumgarner pitches another masterpiece in the wild-card game . . . and still loses to Noah Syndergaard and the Mets.

Or Clayton Kershaw reminds everybody he is better than both of those aces.

Or the most compelling postseason player of his era, David Ortiz, caps the best farewell season in memory with another championship.

Or Jose Bautista and the Blue Jays bring their highly flippable bats into another series against the Rangers. The Blue Jays-Rangers rivalry is not built on tradition or geography—just pure venom.

Or the Orioles play the Nationals in the World Series, prompting Baltimore owner Peter Angelos to remind us that, for TV revenue purposes, all of Maryland, Delaware and Virginia is Orioles territory.

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There are so many juicy possibilities that some of them have to come to fruition. Terry Francona will manage against the Red Sox in the first round. The Cubs will either face the Mets, who swept them in the ALCS last year, or the Giants, who have won three of the last six World Series. If you go down the line, you can imagine Dusty Baker’s Nationals facing either the Cubs or the Giants, both of whom he once managed; or Max Scherzer or Clayton Kershaw on the mound in Chicago, trying to end the Cubs’ dream; or Jon Lester pitching against the Red Sox in the World Series.

Just face it: If you like baseball, this postseason is going to be riveting. If you don’t like baseball, that’s fine. You can spend the next month following the presidential election.

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Ah, see? You do like baseball, don’t you?

The dream World Series, to neutral observers (and, I presume, television executives) would be the Indians and the Cubs in a drought-ending contest for the ages. Imagine: Francona in one dugout and his old Boston boss Theo Epstein in the other front office. Picture LeBron James completing his Cleveland homecoming by throwing out the first pitch at an Indians World Series game—forget his boyhood allegiance to the Yankees—and then taking a seat next to Chicago’s own Michael Jordan.

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And speaking of LeBron: Kershaw is the pitching version of LeBron, circa April 2012, minus the whole "Decision" silliness. Kershaw is the best of his era and may end up as the best of all-time, but we won’t really put him in that conversation until he performs like it in the postseason.

Consider: Scherzer will probably win this year’s National League Cy Young award with a 2.96 ERA. Kershaw’s career regular-season ERA is 2.37, which looks like a typo. Over the last six seasons, his ERA is 2.06. I know ERA is not everything, but no matter what metric you use, Kershaw's regular season statistics are staggering. (His FIP, over the last three years: 1.88.)

Yet Kershaw’s postseason ERA is 4.59. He has probably pitched better than that—he has 77 strikeouts in 64 2/3 postseason innings, and two rough starts have skewed the ERA—but this obviously gnaws at Kershaw. If he were fully healthy, he would be the human that scared the Cubs more than any other. The Nationals are about to find out how much Kershaw’s back is still troubling him.

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That’s one storyline out of, like, a million. If you take Mike Trout out of the discussion, as the Angels usually do at this time of year, so many of the best young players in baseball are in this tournament: Kris Bryant, Manny Machado, Bryce Harper. Harper did not have the season we expected after winning the NL MVP unanimously in 2015, but he is the kind of guy who could hit 10 home runs this month and surprise nobody.

What were the chances, in October 1986, that the Red Sox would someday play in the World Series with a star named Mookie? Could happen this month. Who imagined that the Indians would enter the playoffs with a chance to win their first World Series since 1948, and it wouldn’t be the biggest baseball-drought story or Cleveland drought story?

Then there is Buck Showalter. The Yankees won the World Series in 1996, the year after he got fired. The Diamondbacks won it in 2001, the year after he got fired. The Rangers made the World Series in 2010 and '11, four and five years after he got fired. What if he manages the Orioles to their first championship in 33 years from a wild-card spot?

If all of this doesn’t excite you, maybe this will: The Yankees aren’t here. Neither are the Cardinals. They are probably the two most disliked franchises in the majors, mostly because they have been so good. This is only the second time since 1996 that they both sat out the postseason. Something new and thrilling is about to happen—whether the Cubs win or not.