Thursday, the best in Major League Baseball begin their quest to reach the World Series as the divisional playoffs gets started. From 30 emerge the best 4 from each league, who face off knowing that with each win their team moves one step closer to the trophy. Who will come out on top?
The 2013 National League (NL) Division Series welcomes the Pittsburgh Pirates for the first time in 21 years, the cash-rich Los Angeles Dodgers look to make a return on their huge roster investments, while the Atlanta Braves and St. Louis Cardinals are business as usual.
The NL Central-winning Cardinals are no strangers to postseason baseball this millennium. Since 2000, the Cardinals have made 10 postseason appearances, three of them resulting in trips to the World Series.
This year, they will be expecting to make a deep run and come out with a title. As the National League’s most balanced lineup, with five players racking up at least 78 RBIs in the regular season, veteran Cardinal leaders Matt Holiday, Carlos Beltran, and MVP candidate Yadier Molina have plenty of playoff experience between them. Young stars Matt Carpenter and Allen Craig look to follow their lead.
After playoff-proven ace Adam Wainwright, the Cardinals don’t have much in the way of playoff-tested pitching following him.
Wainwright spoke about the potential of this team and its legacy, telling MLB.com “I think we could make this one of the golden eras of Cardinal baseball if we go out there and execute the way we can, play the way we should."
The Atlanta Braves enter the postseason after dominating the normally-competitive NL East for the entirety of the 2013 season. However, the team finished the season poorly, going 13-14 in September while playing no playoff teams in the process.
The strong suit of the Braves this season has been their stellar pitching. Young studs Kris Medlen, Mike Minor, and Julio Tehran headline a staff that led the National League in earned run average (ERA), walks plus hits per innings pitched (WHIP) and quality starts.
The bullpen starts where the starters stop and is headlined by All-Star Craig Kimbrel, who has been lights out this season converting 50 of 54 save opportunities.
If the inexperienced Cardinals’ pitching staff worries you, the Braves will be downright terrifying. Between Medlen, Minor and Tehran there is only one playoff start, and while each was very solid this season, an ace never emerged from the staff.
When asked about his starters, Atlanta manager Fredi Gonzalez told the Associated Press, “Hey, they’re young, but they’re going to have to grow up sooner or later. I don’t think there’s a No. 1 ace and I’m OK with it. Maybe we have five No. 3's.”
Look for the Braves to turn early to their bullpen if they sense their young starters cannot handle the moment.
Spending big bucks paid off for one of the two Los Angeles clubs as the Dodgers took the NL West pennant for the first time since 2009. Ironically, it was the insertion of dirt-cheap Cuban phenom Yasiel Puig in June that jump-started the Dodgers offense and saw them go on an amazing 63-23 (.733%) run to close out the season.
While the Dodgers offense boasts its share of star offensive players, it’s the pitching that will catch the eye of fans this postseason. Clayton Kershaw leads the Dodgers into the playoffs having just finished his third straight year leading the National League in ERA, a feat that only Greg Maddux and former Dodger Sandy Koufax can claim. Kershaw posted a mind-numbingly low 1.83 ERA and struck out 232 batters in 236 innings pitched.
Respite will not come for the Braves following Kershaw’s Game 1 start, as the Dodgers are set to pitch Zach Greinke, who finished top 5 in all of baseball in ERA in Game 2 and rookie sensation Hyun-Jin Ryu in Game 3.
Dodgers manager Don Mattingly reflected on the quality and depth of his staff telling ESPNLosAngeles.com, “When those guys take the ball, you feel like you’re going to win, it’s pretty much quality start after quality start.”
With all the talk surrounding Kershaw and the endless narrative that follows Puig, fans would be remiss to forget Dodger shortstop Hanley Ramirez and his impact on the series. Ramirez was the best player in baseball when he returned to the lineup in July, and if he remains hot, could be the deciding factor in the series.
In front of a raucous crowd dressed in all black Tuesday night, the NL team with the best story of the regular season decided they were not done yet. The Pittsburgh Pirates handily defeated the Cincinnati Reds to advance to the divisional round to face the Cardinals.
A balanced offense with speed and power and a young pitching staff anchored by seasoned veterans, the Pirates do not jump out in any statistical categories, but have enough offensive weapons and strong pitching to outlast the remaining National League teams in a long series.
This season has also put the spotlight on young star Andrew McCutchen, who blends speed, power and athleticism like no other player in the league. McCutchen lead the Pirates in batting average, on-base percentage, and stolen bases while also hitting 21 home runs and playing Gold Glove-caliber defense.
While the deciding factor for the Pirates may be McCutchen, veteran pitchers Francisco Liriano and AJ Burnett, or the performances of their young aces Jeff Locke and Gerrit Cole, it will all probably come down to how far the Pirates can ride the sheer excitement and momentum of their magical season.
After the wild card win, Pirates manager Clint Hurdle told USA Today, “When we took the field for the opening announcements, they let it rip. The park showed up tonight. Our fan base showed up tonight. That rotunda (in left field) was jammed. And they kept it going all night long.”
If Tuesday's atmosphere in Pittsburgh is maintained throughout the playoffs and the Pirates steal a few games away, they might just turn a fun story into to a legendary one.