Author: Joe Siegal
With the regular season ending today, the newly expanded Major League Baseball playoffs are set to begin. This year, the top two second-place finishers will join the winners of the East, Central and West divisions from the National and American leagues, expanding the playoffs to include an extra Wild Card play-in game in each league.
In the National League (NL), the Washington Nationals have won the Eastern division. The Nationals have languished as basement-dwellers since their move to Washington in 2005. However, with a young pitching staff, they have jelled into a contender this season. Twenty four year old ace Stephen Strasburg, a 15-game winner this season, will not be pitching in the postseason due to a team-imposed shutdown after reaching a 160-inning limit. For the Nationals to continue their success deep into October, they will need pitchers like 21-game winner Gio Gonzalez and Jordan Zimmermann to fill the void.
Washington will face the winner of the NL’s Wild Card playoff game in the Division Series. The Atlanta Braves have clinched one spot, and they will play last year’s World Series winners, the St. Louis Cardinals. While the Braves have a stronger regular season record, the one-game playoff could be to the Cardinals’ advantage, as they could start either Adam Wainwright or Chris Carpenter, two hurlers boasting extensive playoff success. The Cardinals’ experience will pay off, sending them to face Washington where the emerging Nationals should be able to move past St. Louis.
The other NL matchup will pit the Western division champion San Francisco Giants against the Central’s Cincinnati Reds. The 2010 World Series champion Giants will need improved performance from pitcher Tim Lincecum, whose formerly dominant numbers have slipped in 2012 to a 5.15 earned run average (ERA), the worst on the Giants’ starting staff. If Lincecum continues his erratic form, the Giants will face a quick exit.
The return of Reds first baseman Joey Votto from the disabled list bolsters Cincinnati’s playoff lineup. With a strong, young starting staff and dominant closer Aroldis Chapman in the fold, the Reds will be too difficult for the Giants, and will move on to face Washington.
In a Reds-Nationals matchup, the depth of both teams’ pitching would be tested. Cincinnati’s formidable bullpen will be key late in games, delivering the Reds their first spot in the World Series since 1990.
In the American League (AL) East, the New York Yankees are trying to fend off a late season collapse at the hands of the surprising Baltimore Orioles. Should the Yankees hold off Baltimore, they will face the AL Central champion Detroit Tigers.
The Yankees have looked vulnerable in recent weeks, with injuries to several key players like Mark Teixeira, Alex Rodriguez, CC Sabathia and Andy Pettite hampering their chase for the Division title, though all will play in October.
Detroit, with a lineup containing sluggers Miguel Cabrera and Prince Fielder, could send the Yankees home for a second consecutive year. Then again, the Yankees always seem to be at their best in October. Expect the Yankees to avenge last year’s playoff defeat in the first round, with their eye on a 28th World Series title.
The AL West’s Texas Rangers then face the winner of the Wild Card play-in game between the Oakland Athletics and the Baltimore Orioles. Both these teams have unexpectedly played their way into the playoff picture, but the Rangers will show why they’ve been to the last two World Series, as the winning Wild Card team should not pose a significant challenge.
Nor should the ailing Yankees, as the Rangers should be able to reach the Fall Classic with what is arguably baseball’s best lineup. The third World Series in a row should be the charm for Texas, whose combination of power and pitching would give the franchise its first championship.
With more teams than ever before in the playoff mix, this October promises to be unpredictable, leading up to the start of the World Series on Oct. 24. The playoffs begin with the Wild Card games on Friday, Oct. 5.
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